The journey to Arequipa is a long one: 24 hours worth of buses from Aguas Calientes to Cusco, Cusco to Puno and then Puno to Arequipa. We’re treated to sunrise over Lake Titicaca as the bus pulls into the freezing dawn bus station at Puno and the barren landscapes of volcanoes, packs of llamas and small rough road towns as we continue our journey onto Arequipa. It’s a marathon but it comes to the end and we’re very happy to arrive in the city, which is oddly quiet due to a census day which means all Peruvians have to spend the day inside. A good day to travel but not great for finding food when we arrive! We relax on the hostel rooftop, chatting with Imogen and Phil and Ali who we’ve met in other hostels and who happen to be here, enjoying the hazy pink of the mountains around and the hot sun after the rainy chill of Cusco. Ravenous, we head out later to find Mexican and 3 for 2 margueritas 🙂
We have a relaxed day exploring the city, its beautiful plaza and the elegant colonial streets. Venturing into the local market is fun, where vendors carefully and beautifully display fruit and vegetables, make fresh juices, line up huge bags of quinoa, potatoes and corn and sell all types of homeopathic remedies and superstitious items. There is a dried llama foetus staring out at me from a stall: it’s said that if you’re building a new house you should bury the foetus under a corner of your house as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth).
The next day we catch a local bus towards Colca Canyon, 200km north of the city. The road winds through volcanoes and high mountain desert, a landscape of rock and packs of wandering alpaca. We enter the canyon and the bus navigates along the mountain pass: there are plenty of stone memorials along the way and I shut my eyes on some of the hairier bends, the sheer drop falling away to the canyon bed below. That said, the journey is beautiful, with the miles and miles of terraces built into the hillside, the patchwork of stone rimmed plots like a bedspread, the dusty mountains filling the whole of the bus window.
The women are so beautiful here: hey wear embroidered waistcoats, full velvet skirts lined with gold, silver and blue thread, shirts embroidered with flowers, identical white hats stitched with intricate designs. They seem to be dressed like this to work in the fields and for market day and they all have worn, strong hands and carry massive bundles on their backs.
When we arrive in Cabanaconde, the small town that is the starting point for many treks to explore the canyon, it’s dusk the the white square is quiet. Mass is being piped from the nearby church and people nod to us as we walk to our hotel. I feel remote and far away and it feels good.
The next morning we wake to the sound of sheep outside our window; it’s hard to get out of the warm bed and thick blankets to the 6am chill but it has to be done. There’s a bright blue sky and the small town is already busy, we buy our ticket for the canyon and head off. It’s hot already at 7am and around us the landscape is dry and brittle. We walk along the edge of the canyon soaking in the warm weather and the amazing scenery around us, a dog joins us and we nickname him Tosé (Ted José). He trots alongside us for most of the walk and over the next three days he will be our companion. The path begins to zigzag down through the dry bush and cacti and the the canyon seems to grow up around us. We traverse down, meeting only a few others on their way upwards, but mainly it’s just us and Tosé – totally lush.
In the bottom of the canyon we meet the river, the first water we’ve seen all day, and stand for a bit on the bridge watching the steam coming off a geyser in the water. The road climbs on the other side and we pass a small collection of mud brick houses to reach Lluaha Lodge. We can see it down by the river, a splash of greenery in the brown and yellow mountains and as we draw near we see a wooden lodge built into the mountainside. It’s still early afternoon and we head down to one of the £10 a night sunshine-yellow wooden huts that will be our bed for the night. We drop our bags and head to the river to cool off and then sit and chat in the concrete thermal pools with Lettie and Grant who we met on our bus back from Machu Picchu and who arrived at the Lodge just after us. We talk about nights out and home and families and how much we miss those around us.
After a hot shower in the bamboo bathroom, I emerge to see the yellow and pink of dusk lighting the sky around us. It’s very peaceful, the only sound is the river and the distant clink of forks being laid out for the communal dinner up in the Lodge.
The next day we zigzag back up the rocky hill, walking with Lettie and Grant. Our pack of dogs has now expanded to three and they accompany us up the steep track and road. We look across the valley at the track running parallel to us carved into the mountain to see how far we’ve climbed, an encouraging sight.
Further on, after a couple of hours walking, we take a track down through the cactus fields – bright with yellow flowers – until we reach a plateau from where we can spot our next camp, Sangalle, a green jewel in the canyon bed. There is a collection of hostels and gardens, connected together by stone paths and channels of water. There are palm trees and fresh lawns to lie on, hammocks and bright flowers.
We’ve been walking for 4 hours but it’s still only 11am and we all jump in the pool and float around chatting and sharing beers. It’s heaven. We’re there and have the place to ourselves before the tour groups arrive later in the afternoon and we spend our time sunbathing and reading, not quite believing this oasis deep in the dust of the canyon.
The next morning is not quite so dreamy: the 4am alarm is a shock to the system and we get dressed in the dark, setting off in the grey of dawn. Ahead of us we have 1000m to climb and it’s best to do it early to escape the relentless sun. It’s a long hard couple of hours traversing back on ourselves up rock path and heaving ourselves up step-like stones. There is the slow rise of the sun touching the valley further along but I’m too puffed to spend much time revelling in the scenery. I plug in a podcast and trudge on, Moz my trusty companion in keeping me going with the promise of breakfast. Eventually, thankfully, we reach the top and then I take some time to soak in the views. It’s just gone 7am and the sun is fully up and hot already, the lines of the canyon etched clearly on the mountainside.
We go for the promised breakfast (pancakes! coffee! real bread!) then walk to the main square to catch our bus back to Arequipa. I sit in a patch of warm sunlight, the material of the seat already warm, and doze off with the rhythm of the bus as we head ball down the mountain roads.
Having some technical difficulties with slowwww wifi so a couple of the photos I wanted to include aren’t in this blog – I’ve posted them on Instagram (@clare_olivia_) if you’d like to take a look there 🙂 Thanks for reading!