Streetlights But No Streets

A semi-comfortable overnight bus ride got us to Arequipa at about 7am. Our first stop in Arequipa was the famous Santa Catalina Monastery. Despite our aversion to museums we paid to get in, but it smelled funny and we quickly grew bored. To entertain ourselves we made up ridiculous stories about what each of the rooms was used for. Our favorite room was the large bath where the nuns kept their pet hippos, we were creeped out by the torture room which was full of weird devices that we think they used on children, and intrigued by the little fairy houses. In the future we’ll remember that we don’t enjoy looking at old stuff that much.
Arequipa has a lot of good food and it was cheaper than Cuzco. We ate at two Moroccan/Middle Eastern restaurants, and at cheap delicious empanada place, among others.

Our 3-day trek to the Colca Canyon had us up at 2:30am on Monday, picked up by a van/bus and a Peruvian skater dude who was still in party mode from the night before. He blasted hip-hop and rap songs and danced energetically at the front of the bus as we went from hotel to hotel picking up sleepy trekkers.

We drove for a long, long time sometimes moving up and down more than forwards on the washed out roads of the rainy season. Our first stop was at “Cruz del Condor” where we actually got to see a few condors and some tiny bright green birds that also wanted attention.

Finally our van/bus dropped us off at the beginning of the trek, and we anxiously waited to see who our group was. We both secretly hoped we got the skater dude as our guide, he seemed like a kindred spirit, and we weren’t disappointed. Miguel turned out to be the perfect fit; silly, energetic, and most importantly laid back (as we trekked we were thankful for his encouragement and humor, while we heard other guides yelling at their groups to keep up).
The 3.5-hour hike down the canyon on steep crumbly switchback paths had breathtaking views, and we took our time stopping often to let mules pass, take pictures, and soak in the vistas. On the way down we got to know our group of chicas and the one guy who was put in our group at the last minute: Fleur, Rose, and Karen from Holland, Christine from Puerto Rico, and Manfred from Germany.

Despite his short stay in our group, Manfred helped us bond when we all realized we weren’t big fans of his. At over 6 feet tall, lanky and awkward, Manfred walked faster than all of us and made rude comments about us being slow.

We finally reached the bottom and crossed the river to a small town of 21 families, San Juan de Chuccho. Immediately upon arriving we were served delicious hot soup and lomo de alpaca saltado, a classic Peruvian dish that is like stir fry. As we ate the rain started to pour down and we were all thankful to be on the slower 3-day hike rather than the 2-day which had to continue through the canyon another 4 hours in the rain. We didn’t feel bad for Manfred though, who was switched to the 2-day group, we were happy to be rid of him.

After settling in to our little thatched-roof huts Mindy realized there was a leak on her bed, so we switched to a different little hut. While the rain poured down we played cards with out Australian and British friends who were guiding their own trek in the Canyon.

Harriet napped, and Mindy played cards with our chicas after a delicious dinner. It poured even more after the girls went to bed and we stayed up a bit learning more silly phrases and laughing with Miguel.

Over the course of the night we heard some really crazy rock slides, and one in particular scared the crap out of Harriet as it was louder than thunder and sounded like it was happening right above us. Mindy and Miguel reassured Harriet that it was happening on the other side of the canyon, pointing out the sparks the rock slide was creating as it lasted for what seemed like forever. Miguel ensured us we were safe on the terraced farmland where we were staying, but Harriet’s heart kept beating real fast even as we went to bed. Mindy was kind enough to sing a Bob Marley lullaby, then read out loud from the Golden Compass until Harriet was calmed down and sound asleep, but not before Mindy thought she heard a puma purring (which was really just a frog).

Mindy lay awake staring out the window watching bats fly by in the streetlights… despite there being no streets.
The 21 families that live in this town grow fruit trees like pears, peaches, and oranges. Everything that doesn’t grow down there must be brought down by mules. We were left with a lot of questions, like how did they get the mattresses down here? Ride them like sleds down the rocky cliffs?

Despite the inconveniences we were well taken care of and ate some of the best meals so far. We were served crepes for breakfast filled with bananas and drizzled with chocolate.

Our 2nd day of hiking had some ups ad downs and flat parts. We stopped at a little overlook vista place with some baby bunnies and guinea pigs (the latter were pets, the former were for eating). A tiny chico was shy at first but quickly warmed up to us and showed off his Senor Conejo driving a little car.
We continued our trek through a 50-family town then over a washed out road that was a rocky drop-off on one side. We finally descended into the oasis which had pools that were empty when we arrived because the storm deposited debris in the delicate yet complicated water system. The family was working hard to unclog the system and before long fresh water from a nearby mountain stream was filling up the pool.

The 2 to 4 families who live in the oasis cater to trekking tourists, and channel the water into pools, showers, sinks, and a hydroelectric power system.

When the pool was finally filled up Harriet, Mindy, and Miguel jumped in and got clean(ish). We called it an early night because the 3rd day was to start at 5am with a 3-hour hike straight up the canyon.
Harriet considered waking up early so she could get a head start, worried she would slow down the group, but when our roommate Christine woke us up early we decided to stay in bed a little longer. As we started the ascent we joined a quiet line of trekkers in the dark, but soon enough we were above the clouds. Mindy kicked ass up the mountain and got to the top about 40 minutes before Harriet, who fared better than she expected.

After three days of trekking it was nice to spend the afternoon on a “Japanese tour,” sitting on a bus and getting off every once in a while to take pictures. We stopped a few times on the way back to Arequipa, jamming to throwbacks from the 90s in between stops. We stalked a herd of semi-wild alpaca, and sang along for the whole 3-hour ride back to Arequipa through intense fog and hairpin turns. Our last stop on the ride brought us to the hot springs which involved crossing an Indiana Jones style bridge two at a time. The hot water was welcome relaxation for our tired muscles.
Back in Arequipa our crew went out for Mexican food, but not until after Harriet and Mindy showered to the relief of our trek-mates.

After dinner we made plans to go to the beach the next day, and the girls went back to their respective hotels, but Mindy and Harriet and Miguel decided to go to the bar next door to hear a Bob Marley tribute band (which included a Peruvian pan flute).

We got a late start to our beach day with the gang, but enjoyed delicious fried fish, a kitten on a long board, rocks where mermaids probably live, and the ride of a lifetime on the way to and from (in a scary kind of way).
Harriet also met a man and his niece who explained the Tia Maria mine situation, and we bonded over the surprising similarities between that proposed copper mine and the one in northern Wisconsin. He explained how the government had pretty much given the company the green light, pursuant to a bullshit environmental impact statement that the company isn’t really waiting for to move forward. They are promising jobs and giving money over and under the table to the politicians involved, but the concerned citizens are desperate because they know the mine will destroy the water and the environment.

On getting back from the beach we decided to go out for a quick beer which, once again, turned into a long night of giggling, translating, and meeting up with friends (and later enemies) of Miguel’s.

As we were finishing our drinks some dude walked into the bar and hit Miguel in the face out of nowhere. Harriet, the tallest one in the room, instinctively kicked the guy (read: held back with her foot) before escaping with Mindy to the courtyard with beer in our hair, where we watched the fight get broken up.

Miguel and his friends, the good guys, walked us home, apologizing for the disturbance and trying to understand what had caused the seemingly unprovoked attack (testosterone and alcohol is our guess). We feel asleep quickly, Harriet reliving her triumphant first bar fight in her dreams.

Our final day in Arequipa was supposed to be short and sweet, all we had to do was pay for the hotel, and get on a bus to Puno, but both of these things are hard to do without your ATM card. This is how it went…

As we were preparing to check out of our hotel Mindy discovered that her ATM card was missing, quickly realizing that the ATM she had last used (2 days before) had eaten it. We went to the bank and the mean lady at the desk said that they cut up the cards that get eaten, so we went back to the ATM so Harriet could get out money to pay for the hotel, only to discover that her card was also missing. As we sat destitute on the steps of our hotel, knowing no other way to respond to the ridiculous predicament, we laughed hysterically. Wouldn’t you?

Harriet, who hadn’t used an ATM in five days, returned to the bank alone to find a nicer person to talk to. He kindly confirmed that her card was there, sitting on death row, which was relieving and seriously frustrating at the same time. She returned to the hotel thankful that she had been kind to Mindy about the situation that morning.

We sat in the hotel lobby and tried to coordinate with our respective banks, breaking out into random bouts of laughter, mostly at our own stupidity. We were reluctant to go back to the bank and ask about Mindy’s card because, oh, the embarrassment.

After paying, thanks to Harriet having more than one point of access to money, we strapped on our double backpacks and made the walk of shame back to the bank to make sure Mindy’s card was indeed there. We had trouble keeping a straight face but the man didn’t appear as amused as we were, but he confirmed they were both there keeping each other company on death row.

With the annoying reality settling in we headed to the bus station and got on our bus to Puno. Goodbye Arequipa, goodbye money, hello implementing an ATM vigilance plan.
Click here to see more pictures from Arequipa and the Colca Canyon.


  1. By Bonnie


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