Breathless in Arequipa

It took another 16 and a half sleep deprived hours to get here on the bus. I passed time by staring out the window until Jeff made me swap at our first stop four hours later.

We were on the Pan-American Highway and the scenery was immense. Outside of Lima we passed several suburbia, or slums, huge clusters of one-room hovels smaller than our shed at home. I wondered what the people there do, just survive I guess. I saw some more further away from the city right on the coast, the Pacific Ocean literally feet away from their homes.

The landscape changed noticeably as we delved further inland into the Andes. Apparently, the locals say about the surroundings that ´when the moon separated from the earth, it forgot to take Arequipa with it´.

The weather was baking hot in Arequipa. It was such a dry heat; we hoped that we would tan so that we’d stop looking so conspicuously blanco. We hadn’t really done much worth mentioning since arriving other than organise a trek into the nearby Cañón del Colca‎ and go to the Museo Santuarios Andinos to see Juanita, a frozen Inca mummy. The freezing, dry climate meant that she was almost perfectly naturally preserved. She still has her skin, her hair, and her fingernails. Remains of coca leaves and rice were even found inside her stomach.

It surprises me how well-preserved all the Inca relics are, but I guess they´re quite young historically. I didn’t know that the Incas were only around for 100 years. I remember reading a Horrible Histories book about the Aztecs and Incas, and in my head I had formed this idea that they existed for hundreds of years, maybe a thousand. Shows how much attention I paid it.

I decided to buy a little wooden carving of a Llama as a souvenir of my visit to Peru, like the ones found with Juanita.

We also bumped into Yasmine again from Lima and went out for a couple of drinks. But a combination of Jeff´s runny nose and my runny bowels meant that the night was cut short.

The same night, we managed to get locked outside of our hostel and probably annoy everybody inside by ringing the doorbell over and over. Stray dogs foraged through bins in the alleyway next to us. Eventually, I caught the attention of a bloke working in a hostel down the road by flicking a light switch on and off and he called our hostel to let us in. Phew.

Irritating the locals

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We were to be picked up from our hostel anywhere between 2.30-3.30am to begin our trek. I woke up at two thinking that half hour would be plenty of time to get ready. They came at 3.30. One thing travellers need to learn about South America is that buses are never on time, but I just know the one time we´re running late the bus will be on time.

We drove about Arequipa picking up the rest of the group until the bus was filled. At 8ish we stopped for breakfast in Chivay, a little tourist trap of a town that you have to pay £10 to enter which I wasn´t pleased about. Over breakfast I chatted to a Danish couple and a Russian girl, and Jeff became ´new best friends´ (NBF) with a Norwegian guy to who he remained anonymous.

After breakfast we stopped at ´Cruz del Condor´, a spot where you can often see Condors flying through the canyon. Although all of the pictures we were shown of this place back in Arequipa had at least three Condors in them, we didn´t see one. Well, everybody else did. Jeff and I didn´t as we were busy talking about the merits of good photography.

P1000468We continued our journey towards Cabanconde, the starting point for the trek. The road was like a rollercoaster. Tim, an Aussie guy on another bus said that he had to pull over to be sick it was so bad. When we finally got there we were excited to see what the groups would be. We figured there were two groups worth on the bus; would Jeff be with his NBF? Me the Russian girl? And what about all the other girls!?

Turns out it would be just the three of us. Our guide Remy came onto the bus to collect us. We made our way over to another group where we said ´hey´ only to be ushered on again. The group chuckled at our ´Oh, not this one either?’s’. I´m sure I detected disappointment on the faces of the girls we were leaving on the bus, but it could have been relief.

P1000507Jeff was upset at leaving his NBF, and I the Russian girl. Box hadn’t made any friends so he wasn’t too bothered. We started walking and got chatting to Remy. He´d been a guide for 15 years and trekked twice a week, which meant anywhere between four and six days walking. Within five minutes, Box had walked through some cacti which attached themselves to his legs. Remy had to remove them carefully otherwise Box might have been in trouble. The danger is snapping them off so that they remain in the skin instead of pulling them out.

In between laughs I managed to take a picture before composing myself because I didn´t want to dehydrate myself so early in the trek (I was crying). Remy told us about the canyon and the people who live in it. They live as the Incas did, and most still speak Quechua and not Spanish. The populace of the canyon was maybe a few thousand living in three or four towns. Inca-like terraces are still cultivated along the canyon walls and are fed with water from the glaciers above. The people here don´t use money but instead trade goods and services with eachother and Cabanconde. On the opposite side of the canyon were the Andes, we stood on volcanic rock.

The first day wasn´t too bad, just lots of painful downhill walking. Your toes get crushed at the front of your boots and the load on your joints is exacerbated. I soon developed tendonitis in my right knee and whenever we stopped my legs trembled. We eventually made it to the bottom where there was a bridge crossing the river.

Some donkeys passed us to go the way we came. I don´t know how they do it with huge loads on their backs.

P1000531We were at 2000ft, so any uphill walking really took it out of me. There wasn´t much of it to do …yet. In the morning we would have to trek back up the vertiginous canyon wall we´d just come down! We stopped for lunch, which Remy prepared, and I had a locally-produced Avocado. Very sustainable.

Our base for the night was an ´oasis´ at the bottom of the canyon where we hoped to meet up with the groups that we´d left earlier in the day. We were the first to arrive, but not long after the Danish couple and a French couple, also on our bus, made it too. It wasn´t until later that the others arrived, we must have been flying!

Unfortunately, we were cordoned off again for dinner (also prepared by Remy) and the extent of our contact with the other groups was a few longing waves as we didn´t want to disturb them while they ate. I spent the evening lying in a hammock staring at the night sky. There was no electricity or artificial light at the oasis, so the stars were really shining. It felt later than it was because of the darkness so nobody hung around too late. Besides, we had to be up at 4.30am…

We were woken up at four by Remy banging on the door of our little hut. I was already awake; I hadn´t slept well because I kept dreaming about falling off things, like the canyon. It was still pitch black so we had to trek using our torches, which was probably a good thing as I couldn´t see how high we had to climb. The reason for leaving so early was that Remy wanted to beat the sun; he said that we did NOT want to be trekking with the sun on our backs. I was soon glad of this as it didn´t take long for me start sweating in the cold night.

I was dreading this day´s walk, and rightly so. F*** ME! I was out of breath within two minutes and could not get it back. The altitude was killing me. Mr Motivator was loving every minute of it while Boxhead had problems of his own. He hadn´t bothered going to the toilet back at the oasis because he reckoned he could shut his body down and wait until we got back to the hostel 14 hours away; “Yeah, I can just shut it down. Stop it working. I lasted three days before when I was in scouts”. Two hours after leaving he had such bad stomach cramps that he had to disappear round a corner with some of Jeff´s Olbas oil tissues. If I wasn´t struggling to breathe I would have tried to sneak a picture for posterity (…). As it was, it took me the whole time he was gone to catch my breath which I subsequently lost again in no time at all.

After two hours I just wanted to throw myself off the edge, or a donkey to come carry me the rest of the way. I was a mess. Surely I´m not this unfit!? I was dehydrated and had run out of water because I had greedily drank it all, like one of those (always useless) characters stranded somewhere in a disaster film. We reached the top in three very long hours which Remy said was quick, and then said that his record was 25 minutes. My arse!

The guides are pretty much athletes. I guess you would be if you did this regularly enough. I remember the guide on my trek in Thailand, his calf muscles were like tree trunks! I also remember that he said that I was his NBF.

Remy said that the guide record for Machu Picchu (which I am now dreading) is six hours in four days, I think. After today, I´d be lucky to do it in six months.

I was even struggling on the flat bit back to Cabanconde where we ate breakfast in Remy’s house, but elated that it was over. We then had to wait around for a bus to pick us up. Once more, we were the first back followed by the French and Danish couples who were wearing jeans, looked as if they hadn´t broken a sweat and claimed to have done it in two hours. Again, my arse!! One by one we saw the other groups return, including our coveted friends, and get onto buses without us, until it was just us and the couples left.

After the trek

We were the first groups back and the last to leave. We stopped at another Condor viewpoint since we hadn´t seen any yesterday and actually saw one! It appeared just as we were about to leave and I had to sprint off the bus to catch it (which left me short of breath). Our next stop was the hot springs in Chivay which are supposed to ease away your aches and pains after trekking. They didn´t. It was like an uncomfortably hot bath. We had to pay £3 for this pleasure and didn´t even get to see the girls from our earlier bus in bikinis.

Had a can of evaporated milk and a bag of nuts for tea.

Condor!

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Great Photoshop opportunity…

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