13 June 2014

Peru: Day 4: Arequipa & Colca valley

Neither of us slept particularly well last night, so it was hard to get up and cleaned in time it make our 8am van out of Arequipa. Roberto swung by at 7.45 to say farewell, and by 8.10, we were on the road in a private van with our guide Omar and driver Rolan. As we drive out of town, O told us about the history of Arequipa, from its early pre-Inca days through the present. He talked about the main industries of Peru (mining and tourism) as we passed shantytowns of squatters who worked in the mines.

Arequipa sits on the edge of a mountain range. To the west is a plateau that leads to the ocean 80 km away. To the east are a series of major volcanos, none of which have erupted recently, but all of which could blow at any time.

The city faded away as we headed uphill into the high desert. Hills, mountains, clouds, and volcanic plumes dotted the landscape. We headed uphill via a series of switchbacks, and R proved his driving mastery again and again.

Shortly after getting back in R's van, we passed a couple in wedding garb, having their photos taken against the backdrop of the mountains. We waved and honked the horn.We reached a plateau and the road straightened out. This is cameloid territory, and the first ones we saw were vicuñas, the smallest and most consistent-looking of the cameloid group. Vicuñas all have cinnamon coats with white bellies, and their wool is said to be some of the most expensive around (I saw a vicuña sweater yesterday that cost $1000!). We stopped for photos.


A few miles later, we turned off the main road and stopped at a rest area, where alpacas and sheep were mingling.

Back in the car for the next leg of the journey. Now that we were at some serious altitude, O told us about the Coca leaf. Peruvians roll a small handful of leaves up, sometimes with a catalyst like Sodium Bicarbonate, and chew on it. The immediate (within 5 or 10 minutes) is a slight numbing of the face, lips, and throat. It also serves as a stimulant, helping your body adjust to the altitude more strongly. O also maintains that scientific study shows that chewing Coca leaves increases the amount of red blood cells, prevents osteoporosis, staves hunger, and cleans your teeth. If you're thinking 'hey, isn't the Coca leaf used to make cocaine?', you'd be right, but cocaine is an hyper-processed chemical extraction of only one of the chemicals from the Coca leaf. Kind of like comparing cold pills to meth.

We passed the bride and groom again. Guess they whizzed past us when we were at the rest area.

Another short while on the high Sierra before we started climbing again. We passed through the highest point on our journey, 16,000 feet, which was marked by a sign, a flag, and a woman selling trinkets. We didn't stop. Maybe tomorrow.

Then, a switchback descent into Chivay, a dusty town surrounded by terraces that serves as the capital of this region of Peru. They have a small soccer stadium, a small amphitheater, and a buffet where we had lunch. The buffet was full of a lot of things I hadn't gotten to try, and I was eager to try a bite of each of them. My favorites were alpaca sausage stuffed with spinach and a carrot fritter. The conversation with O was about the World Cup and food economics (with regards to quinoa).

Back in the van, we passed the wedding couple as they drove into town.

We left dusty Chivay and drove straight through Yanque, a dustier smaller town that has seen a significant amount of youth flight as they get an education and want more. R circumscribed the dilapidated central plaza, and we kept going. Shortly after leaving Yanque, we crossed the Colca river, turned onto a side road and started making our way down to the Colca Lodge, our home for the night.

After a short siesta, we walked the grounds. There's a small path past some hot springs, over a footbridge, to a small corral or llamas and alpacas. We walked there and back, stopping to check out the fancy spa, once again seeing the bride and groom (I think they're shooting fashion shots for a magazine), before having a snack at the hotel bar and watching the World Cup for a bit.

I'm going to stop now, before dinner, as the network is slow and takes a long time to upload images. More tomorrow!


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