From my little time in Peru (which was pretty much only in one town for about a month), I had a bit of an idea that Peru is a great place to travel. The nice people, the natural beauty, and the inexpensiveness of everything from housing to food gave me this idea. After my last trip to Arequipa, this idea was confirmed.
I started off by first heading to Cusco after my Spanish lesson. There I met up with a girl named Liz that I had talked to before on Couchsurfing but had never met. We met up at the Plaza de Armas in Cusco and walked around the city from there. She is trying to learn English and of course I’m trying to learn Spanish, so we’d speak 30 minutes in Spanish, then 30 in English, and so on. It works out pretty well for both of us. A bit later, my friend Zach met us in the Plaza and we went out to eat to try Chicharon, which is a typical meal here consisting of Pork, corn, and salad. This was the first time I had been to Cusco, and I was pleasantly surprised by its beauty. The main plaza isn’t the most impressive, but a lot of the side streets are very nice. I’ll definitely be going back several times since I can get there within a few hours.
Finally, we made our way to the bus station to catch our bus to Arequipa. We ended up getting bus cama seats for about $25 for the 10-hour ride. A bus cama seat is pretty much a huge leather chair that folds back almost 180 degrees. It’s the first class of bus tickets. You can get a normal bus ticket for about half the price, but paying $12 extra for a smooth overnight ride is worth it for me. This also includes a small dinner, so not a bad deal.
After arriving in Arequipa, a taxi driver was waiting for us. One of the directors of the non-profit I’m working for (a Peruvian guy) has a friend who is a taxi driver in Arequipa. Taxis in Arequipa are known for being a bit dangerous sometimes, so the taxi driver actually waited for us at the bus station. The bus came in an hour late, so he even waited for us the whole time there. Like most of the people I come into contact with, he is an extremely nice guy. He drove us around to a few different hostels until we found one that we liked. We ended up going with one for about $7.50 that included a nice, big breakfast. This was a pretty good price for being in the city.
So we arrived in Arequipa and got our hostel by about 9am, so we had the whole day to explore the city. There are two main museums in Arequipa, the Monastery and Princess Juanita. First we went to see Princess Juanita, which is absolutely fascinating. About 15 years ago, an archaeologist was climbing a mountain in the Andes and stumbled upon a frozen body. They found that this preserved body is that of a 12 year old (more or less) girl who was offered to the Incan gods about 450 years ago. It’s believed that Juanita was chosen when she was an infant, saying that everything about her was perfect and would be offered to the Gods. Before she was offered, they walked to Cusco for a huge festival for the offering and then walked to the mountain (hundreds of miles from Cusco, which probably took weeks total). After climbing the mountain of over 20,000 feet and after the offering celebration (dancing, chicha, and more), Juanita was given a brutal strike to the head and was buried there along with many gifts of offerings to the Gods. This included cloths, metal carvings of people, and more. All this was found only 15 years ago, and this is all in a museum in Arequipa. It’s a fascinating story and amazing that this was found so recently.
After this, we headed to the Monastary which is famous for how the nuns used to live here and for the huge size. At one time, 450 nuns lived here with servants and pretty much just lived the good life. The Monastary was built in the 1500s by the Spanish and was only for the wealthy. There were often big parties and they would even invite musicians for the fiestas. Some nuns still live here but most of it is open to the public.
After this, we went to the market and got some cheap lunch, less than a dollar for a salteno and a papa relleno, pretty much potato and meat filled empanadas. Then we walked up to a neighborhood with a nice lookout of the city and surrounding mountains/volcanoes. Arequipa is known as the Ciudad Blanca because a volcano eruption in the 1900s turned a lot of the buildings white. It is Peru’s second largest city but still doesn’t feel that big. It has a lot of hustle and bustle, though. The local public transportation vans made me laugh. The van door is always open with a person standing and leaning out the door yelling where they’re going. If you want to get in, you have to be quick since they rarely fully come to a stop. So you see all these vans with people hanging out and screaming. It’s hectic but funny.
The next morning, I got up and just walked around the city. As it always seems, I find huge groups of kids dancing in the streets with typical dresses. These happen so frequently in Peru that it’s not even surprising any more. There were probably 10 different groups all in a row dancing organized dances with various types of music. The festiveness of this country never disappoints.
A bit later, we took a beautiful 3 hour bus ride through the desert to get to the Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world (the deepest is another canyon about 12 hours from Arequipa). After another 2 hour bus ride to get to Pinchollo, a small village along the top of the Canyon, we found our place for the night. The town had only one hospedaje (pretty much someone’s home that they also offer rooms), and looking at the check-in list, the last person had come about 2 weeks earlier. Not many people stop here, apparently.
We were talking to the owner, who was also very friendly, and we asked where we can have dinner in the town. He said all restaurants were closed at that time, but he then invited us to a wedding anniversary party for his cousins (who had been married 25 years). Obviously going to something like this is a unique opportunity, so of course we then got ready to go. We arrived to find probably 60 people there, eating, drinking, dancing. We arrived and paid the 10 soles ($3.50) which they requested from everyone there. Right after, they just started bringing us food and drinks. It was quite overwhelming. First they brought us vodka, then a soup, then beer, then the main course, then more beer. Then as soon as we were finished, they immediately pulled us up to dance. It was a unique experience, I had never felt so out of place but yet feel so welcome. We were the only gringos there and knew only the guy who invited us, so people were always coming up to us and asking where we were from and everything. And of course when we started dancing, everyone was laughing at us. Most of the women there wore very traditional dresses from the region (very colorful but with the base color usually being white) and the men looked very country; most wore cowboy hats, jeans, and a long sleeve shirt. The dancing was different too. Generally, they would be dancing in a circle and kind of dance around in a circular motion (if that makes sense). At one point, they started a line and started running around the whole party in the line with everyone holding hands. This wasn’t a slow speed either, I had trouble keeping up (and my friend even banged his leg on a beer crate and now has a bruise). This is all with a live band who sang mostly in Quechua.
Peru has a very macho culture. The men are known as very macho, and it’s easy to feel that. Almost everyone I meet asks me if I have a girlfriend, and specifically if I have a Peruvian girlfriend yet. When I say no, they say that I need to find one. At the party, I was asked probably 15 times if I have a girlfriend. And of course afterwards, they point out the single girls in the party. It’s funny for them to be so blunt.
At one point in the night, it started snowing (although it didn’t feel that cold). At that point, I had taken a step back to relax and take everything in. It was a very surreal moment. Here I am at a wedding anniversary in a small town on the top of the second deepest canyon in the world, eating drinking, dancing with the locals. I felt extremely welcome there although I didn’t know anyone before. Although people were laughing at the way we danced and the fact that we didn’t understand much of what they were saying because of the loud music, it was easy to see it was all in good fun. The friendliness of the people there is astounding, and I found it a little difficult to leave the next morning. I felt compelled to stay a bit longer, to get to know the people better. To be honest, I felt this way about 3 different places in my 10 day trip. However, the time always comes when it’s time to leave.
So the next morning, we set off for the Cruz del Condor, which is a lookout point into the canyon known for the condors who fly here each morning. Condors are birds known for their size, which usually have wingspans of 6 to 10 feet. Rather than taking the easy way of taking the bus, I decided to walk here from Pinchollo (about 2 hours). I’m glad I did. Along the way, I was walking next to farms where the people were herding their cattle for the day, the roads were lined with stone walls, and the views of the canyon were amazing. Eventually, I got out of the farms and into more of the desert. I was walking by cacti and other desert plants on my way. It was a beautiful 2 hour walked that turned into 3 hours because of my picture taking. After walking alone for this amount of time, it was a shock to see so many tourists at the Cruz del Condor, where tourist buses drop off the people for views of the condors. After stopping to see the condors, I continued my walk to the San Miguel lookout and then into the canyon. This is something I regretted. Rather than taking a 20 minute bus ride to the San Miguel lookout, I took the 2 hour walk. Although it was a nice walk, I was absolutely exhausted when I got to the lookout. It was a horrible feeling to be sitting atop this deep canyon, exhausted, and knowing that I need to make it down to the bottom to get to the hostel. It was 12:30 pm and I had 5 or 6 hours to do it. Luckily, I made it around 5 pm without problems. Got to the hostel, ate a little bit, and then went right to bed after the exhausting day of hiking. The hostel was in a place called San Juan de Chucho, placed in the bottom of the canyon.
The next day, we took the 3 hour hike from San Juan to Sangalle. The hike was along the middle part of the canyon through a few towns. We got to Sangalle around noon with the day to relax. It was a nice place to relax, too. This place is known for its hostels with bungalows and natural pools. We ended up paying about $4 for the night and had a beautiful natural pool and waterfall to relax in for the day. Perfect place to be after the hike the day before.
It’s also interesting how the hostels and hospedajes usually serve home cooked meals. They really are home cooked meals, too, since it’s in their own kitchens. Normally, they’ll charge about $3.50 for a soup, the main meal, and tea. At this particular hostel, I was loving the tea. It was just boiled water with parts of a local tree (pretty much looked like stems). All natural and absolutely delicious.
The next day, we made the trek up the mountain. I wanted to get the 9am bus from the town at the top, so I left pretty early. I left later than I should’ve, at 6:15, so I had to put on a good pace. At 8:15, I was at the top of the canyon and exhausted. I then made the 30 minute walk to the bus stop with 15 minutes to spare. After 2 hours, we arrived at Chivay, a local transport hub where we had lunch (Chinese food, called Chifa in Peru). I then headed to the natural hot baths to try to soak my sore legs. For $6, I had access to 3 different natural hot baths about the size of a decent sized swimming pool. The temperatures ranged from 90 degrees to 105 degrees. Definitely needed after 3 days of hiking, and a good end to the Colca Canyon part of the trip.
From here, I took a bus to Arequipa with plans to head to a town called Coririe which was another 3 hours from Arequipa. I got to the bus station in Arequipa at 6:45 and barely made the 7pm bus to Coririe. I was a bit nervous about arriving in a new place at 10pm or later, but everything worked out. I was surprised by how active this town was at 10:30 pm when I arrived. There were still street vendors in the plaza and a decent amount of people around. I found the hostel, and after went and had dinner at the street vendors. I just wanted some French fries, but she gave me noodles, rice, and French fries (easily enough for a big dinner). I liked this so much that I ended up going back the next night to get the same with Chicken. Here is when my love for street vendors has started. When traveling alone, it’s a great way to eat. First of all, it’s cheap. Second, there are always others eating there alone also, so it doesn’t feel as weird as sitting in a restaurant alone. And finally, it’s easy to start talking to people then. Asking about what to do, where to go, etc.
The next morning, I got up and had a coffee and pastries in a small café by the square, and then I set off on my hike to the local petroglyphs (carvings of drawings into rocks). These were done by the Wari culture (pre-Inca) in the year 1200 AD, and this is the reason why I came to this town. Coririe itself is a nice little town with a lot of greenery, but I found in my hike that the greenery is only because of very good irrigation from the river in the town. Outside of the town is complete desert. After a two hour walk (plus one hour in a tiny town where I met a girl and was talking to her for a while), I arrived at the petroglyphs. This was my first time being in what I would call intense desert. It felt like I was in the movie “In the Army Now”. It was pretty much just sand and rocks surrounded by mountains of sand and rocks. The petroglyphs were stunning. These rocks were carved 800 years ago and are still in the same condition. Drawings of condors, people, fiestas, snakes, and other animals. Some were small, some were huge drawings. Hundreds of them spread out across these rocks that I believe are there from volcanoes. The lack of people also made it an experience. I saw only 4 people in the three hours I was up there. So most of the time it felt like I was one of the few people to know about these petroglyphs in the middle of the desert. Needless to say, I am glad I made the stop here.
The next day, I jumped in a van and made the hour and a half journey to Camana, a small city near the coast. After arriving, I walked around looking for a hostel or hospedaje, and found a nice hospedaje close to the main plaza for about $6 a night. My private room even had a TV, too, which I definitely enjoyed the 2 nights I was there by watching the Cardinals against the Brewers, some movies, and other TV shows. Because every channel was either in Spanish or was in English with Spanish subtitles, I was actually able to learn some Spanish just by watching TV.
For the first day, I headed to the nearby beach known as La Punta. Since it’s not summer yet, the weather wasn’t the warmest and there weren’t too many people on the beach. I still enjoyed the afternoon on the beach reading and studying Spanish. The town around the beach was pretty beat up, and I read after this that there was an earthquake several years ago that caused a tidal wave to destroy a lot of the town. And speaking of earthquakes, I experienced my first one in Camana while I was in the hospedaje. I was watching TV and the building just started shaking for 2 or 3 seconds. Afterwards, I confirmed with the owner that it was actually an earthquake. That same evening, from a recommendation from the owner of the hospedaje, I went to a local Chinese restaurant. I ordered Chicken with honey and fried rice, and it was the best Chinese food I’ve had so far. Not sure why Chinee food is so big here since there aren’t that many Chinese living here, but strangely enough it’s a great way to get some familiar food.
The next day, I woke up and caught a van for another hour and a half ride to a town called Quilca. I initially just wanted to go here because they had a few beaches close by, but the town offered much more than just this. After a few hours at a beach outside of town, I walked into town and was immediately greeted by a guy on the street. This guy’s name was Esteban, and, although he talked so fast that I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, he was one of the nicest guys I’ve met. Immediately he was showing me around the small town, showing me the harbor (since this is a small fishing village), where the fresh fish are prepared to take to the markets, etc. I then took a seat close to the harbor to just soak in the surroundings. Most people who saw me sitting there came and talked to me, asking where I’m from and where I’ve come from. Eventually there was a crowd of people near the harbor, and I realized that they were preparing a crew with 4 boats to go out on a fishing trip, and it would be 4 days before they returned. The women were putting together huge bags of ice (to keep the caught fish fresh) while the men loaded these and other supplies into the boats. Just watching this was extremely interesting, as you could see how important this was to the town. People would just come to watch, some would help, but it seemed like the whole town made their way to see the happenings. I sat around, took some photos, and took a walk around the town.
When I was about to leave, I saw another big group of people watching some guys put a boat into the water. I didn’t think anything of it until Esteban told me to come with him, and we went back over to the other side of the harbor. Eventually, the boat and the people came over there also. Well, eventually I found out that there is a tradition here for brand new boats. The owner, his family, and some others will get in the boat, and then the priest will say a prayer and bless the boat with holy water. After this, the people in the boat throw out candy to the people standing outside, and they open a few bottles of champagne to spray on the boat and the people. Finally, they take a boat load of people out into the Pacific Ocean, throw some flowers into the water, all while drinking beer. Well, of course I didn’t know any of this before. But when I was standing outside the boat, about 5 people started yelling at me “Sube! Sube!” which means “Get in!”. So here I am, in a boat with 15 other Peruvians in a celebration for this new boat. Nobody knew who I was, but everyone was so welcoming. It was a beautiful boat ride, being in the Pacific Ocean with nice views of these sandy hills on land. After getting back to land, I said my thanks to everyone and jumped in the van to head back to Camana. However, this little town has won me over and I hope to go back there in the summer.
I spent the evening by having dinner at a street vendor (chicken, rice, noodles, and French fries again) and then just hung out around the square. The next day, I woke up excited because I was about to try ceviche for the first time. I was not to be disappointed. Ceviche is raw fish covered in lemon juice with a little bit of salt and pepper, no more. It was served with sweet potatoes and corn. Being by the coast, the fish was extremely fresh, and the lemon juice was extremely potent. The combination of all of this made for my favorite meal in Peru so far. Looking forward to getting back to the coast, if only for this!
Soon after, I jumped on another bus and went back to Arequipa, hung out in the plaza there, and then caught my bus back Cusco. After having breakfast at the restaurant of a friend (whom I met through Couchsurfing), I headed back to Ollantaytambo and my 10 day trip was over. What was supposed to be 5 or 6 days turned into 10. The trip really shows the diversity in Peru and why it’s so great to travel. I started in the Incan capital of Cusco, spent a day in the White City of Arequipa exploring the frozen mummy of Juanita and the posh monastery. The next few days, I was dancing with the locals at a wedding anniversary, walking down (and up) the second deepest canyon in the world, and soaking my wounds in natural hot baths. Just the next day, I was in the middle of the desert looking at the petroglyphs of condors and snakes which were carved into volcanic rocks 800 years ago. The next few days, I found myself on the coast eating ceviche and laying on the beach. This is all in just 10 days, and I paid exactly $237 for everything (including buses, taxis, vans, food, drinks, hostels, museums, everything). If you can get any better value than this, tell me and I’ll be there in a second!