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Three days in Colca Canyon

Here I am, back in Arequipa, after three days of hiking in Colca Canyon! I hadn't thought to spend more time here, but I met such nice people the trek that I wanted to spend some more time with them, plus it was a good idea to take a small rest before taking off again. I got to see Juanita, the Ice Maiden, a 12 year-old Inka girl who had been sacrificed around 1450 and whose body was found in 1995 or so and is now exposed to us curious people, in a glass freezer. We get to see her clothes, the objects that were buried with her, her hands, her hair, her skeletal face. All in a chiaroscuro lighting. Very emotional, impressive, strange. And then I went to have lunch and ran into my two French friends from the hike, having lunch with a Peruvian colleague of theirs! And later we were joined by their two French room mates. We spent hours talking IN SPANISH and laughing, and eating very well. The Peruvian colleague invited us all to lunch at her house with her whole family tomorrow. I considered staying yet another day but... "yolcu yolunda gerek", as we say in Turkish: the traveler must travel. As I was walking around the city, I ran into an English member of our hiking group. It was funny to suddenly have friends to run into in this city.

Soooo let's get to Colca Canyon, three days qui m'a donné des frissons... it made me shiver with excitement, especially when I was on top of a mule, going up an Andean mountain, shouting "mula! mula!" so they'd keep going. It was crazy to find myself at 4000 metres, going up and down mountains, crossing a river on a waggly bridge, sleeping in half-finished lodges made from dirt, with a bamboo roof and windows, air coming in from all sides (we slept fully dressed, and even with our snow coats and hats on).

The bus arrived around 50 minutes late to pick me up from in front of my hotel. I was very optimistic that they would arrive on time (why??) so I waited in front of the hotel, at 3AM. Even at that time the taxis wouldn't leave me alone and each and every one honked as they went by and even stopped next to me to say "taxi?", as if I weren't smart enough to stop one had I wanted one. What on earth is the logic behind such absurd behavior? Either the receptionist got tired of all the honking, or he was worried for my comfort or safety, but he asked me to wait inside after a while. The bus finally arrived at around 3.50 ( I could have SLEPT!!) and I went in, saying "well, that was a shitty start," then thinking, oops now they've all branded me as the bitch of the group... But I was so pissed off... I was still pissed off when we arrived! And our guide seemed like an idiot. I asked him for his advice about which back pack I should take, my 45-litre professional trekking back pack, whşch I had prepared for the hike, or my 10-litre Decathlon backpack. I said the big one was designed for such treks, but the smaller one was...smaller. He advised to me to take the smaller one. OK... There was only one place left, way in the back, next to a sleeping Peruvian woman and a mountain of suitcases.

The sun began to rise and I watched the eerie landscape, a desert full of rocks which had been carefully and manually piled one on top of the other (as offerings to the Earth Mother, Pachamama, I learned after) and man-size mannequins made from straw sitting in the midst of this wilderness (also offerings). We went up higher and higher then stopped for breakfast. There were 8 elderly French people and they looked at me and asked, so, are you going to hike alone? What?? Err, no, I guess I'm going to hike with you, I replied, may I? They said, very uncertainly, OK. I met a young woman who was also French and she didn't understand what was going on, either. We asked the guide, but could get no straight answers. He just laughed nervously. Very bad start!!!

Our first stop was the Condor's Cross, where there were many, many people watching the eight condors show off in front of us all. We all took photos. Most were totally useless and ridiculous but we nonetheless persisted in taking photos. But yes, it is incredible to see these 3-metre birds fly from one end of the valley (as far as the eye can see) to the other without ever batting a wing. And some flew right over us. I felt a big shadow fly over me and then thought to raise my eyes and BEHOLD THE CONDOR. Back in the bus, the few of us who knew the Song of the Condor hummed it (our guide knew the words, too). Of course, I only know the Simon&Garfunkel version and wouldn't even know that was actually the Song of the Condor if it weren't for Serge! "I 'd rather be a sparrow than a snaaaaaiil... Yes, I would, if I only coouuuld, I surely wooouuuld..." (great, now you're all going to sing that all day hahahaha).

People watching the condors

Finally, it turned out that the 8 people (all high school friends who travel throughout the world together) had used our minibus but would travel separately, while the rest of our group would join us somewhere else, where I could leave my big bag, which would be sent on to me on the 3rd day. All this did indeed come to happen :)) We were 11 people in the group and started to talk and joke immediately, losing no time with pretending to be shy or indifferent. Our guide slowly began to transform himself into a competent, funny person. He explained out itinerary to us ("We'll go down this mountain to the river, cross the bridge, then go up that mountain, where we'll have lunch and stay overnight") and off we went!

Down, down, down, it was a long way down... I talked with Marie, a 23 year-old Bretonne who had come to work in an orphanage up north, then in a nursery in Arequipa, Marie-Sophie and Maylis, medical students from Rouen who were doing an internship at a hospital in Arequipa. We would share rooms for the next two days (and I'm still sharing my room with Marie here in Arequipa). There was also a 28 (?) year-old English guy at a crossroads in his life (and, it turned out, desperate to get laid), a 38 year-old Dutch girl who stayed away from us all, a boring Swiss couple, two fun, nice New-Zealanders who quickly formed a group with Matthew, a guy from Montréal. I was, as ever, the oldest person in the group.

Sometimes I had the feeling we talked too much, instead of trying to take in the scenery, but the scenery was just too immense to be taken in. It was hopeless. You look at it and you say wow, you say, how incredible, but you can't understand it.

When we arrived at our terminus, we were still feeling fresh and were disappointed that it was only 3 o’clock and that we’d do no more walking that day. Some of us considered walking on to the next stop and joining the 2-day group but fortunately we decided against it. I didn’t want to leave my lovely French friends and it turns out that I’d overestimated my strength, anyways, because when four of us decided to go up the mountain to reach a village, I and Maylis abandoned half-way. The altitude was a problem. My head thumped painfully each time I walked uphill. The three other continues and it seems they met some villagers and had a good time talking with them, but they had to come back down that treacherous, slippery path in the dark – yikes. During that time, Maylis, Marie-Sophie and I had a deep conversation in our room. Very girly-girly! Then it was finally time for dinner.

I wanted to use these 3 days also to get over my ridiculous phobia of being hungry. I had nothing to eat in-between meals, except a few almonds or a banana. The meals were tiny, a bowl of soup and a minuscule portion of alpaca meat with vegetables and lots of rice, or just pasta with a tomato sauce, followed by a tasty infusion of citronella (hierba luisa, they call it). But I survived! I was just fine! Let’s keep up the good work :)

The toilets were very rudimentary. Our most valuable possession in Peru is our own private roll of toilet paper and bar of soap, because only the most luxurious cafes etc. have these. Some have a roll of toilet paper outside and you take as much as you think you’ll need. It’s funny to see everyone at dinner with their roll of toilet paper next to them! The sink was outside, and when we all brushed our teeth at the same time, I had the feeling we were performing some religious ritual to Apu, the god of the mountains, since we were brushing our teeth and admiring the mountains at the same time: brush brush brush brush... Amen.

It was fun having a sleepover with friends, except that we were too exhausted to talk any more, especially poor Marie-Sophie, who had been ill all week then had felt well enough to come to the trek but was having a relapse. She had to hire a mule the next day, since she could neither eat, nor sleep.

I had to go to the toilet in the middle of the night. I have never seen stars like that in my life. The best word I can find to describe the sky is DENSE. Yoğun. It was a sky dense with stars. The Milky Way was so dense, so white, you suspected it might actually be a cloud. It was yet again so beautiful, so immense, that I felt frustrated that I couldn’t somehow eat it all, take it in, absorb it. Another source of frustration was the absolute exhaustion I felt and that I couldn’t stay up longer trying, even if I failed, to absorb the immensity. The same frustration would repeat itself, even worse, the next night. I hope to be in a place just as dark, but manage to be less tired and stay outside, lying on the ground and admire the sky for as long as I like.

The next morning we got up at 7 and were served a great breakfast of pancakes with bananas and a kind of caramel called dulce de leche! Since Marie-Sophie was sick, we always got to eat her food :)

Breakfast : Pancakes with bananas and dulce de lech!!!

Then we started out wonderful trek, uphill (all panting to death), straight (yaaayyy), following the water canals built centuries ago, continuously accompanied by the freshening gurgle of fresh water. It was very hot but the sound made us feel cooler. This side of the mountain was lush with mango, fig and avocado trees, other green things water everywhere, whereas the other side was just arid desert. There are bodegas (bakkal) and cafés from time to time where you can buy overpriced water and snacks and passion fruit and avocados freshly picked from a tree... And catch your breath! There are also villages without electricity, peopled with a few villagers who grow maize, barley and potatoes. Our guide came from a village at the zenith of one of the mountains and knew nothing but snow for the first years of his life. He had walked over every single stone in the Canyon, especially since he’d become a guide, but said he’d have to retire in 2 years or so because otherwise his knees would give up. He was studying English at Arequipa University. We all loved him.

The trek that second days was so varied. We suffered from walking uphill, then got to rest as we walked straight. Then we suffered tremendously from walking downhill. The pain in my knees was nearly unbearable. It’s great to vary your suffering!!! And when we thought we couldn’t take it anymore, we finally arrived at the oasis in between the two mountains, with turquoise pools filled with water coming from the glaciers, down the waterfalls.... Strangely, the water was a warm 20 degrees. We threw ourselves in the water, played and laughed and admired the view from the pool onto the mountain across, told ourselves we were in Peru and failed to believe it...

The pool was filled with water from the waterfalls! The view from the pool was spectacular.

Then had lunch, after which we wore our bathing suits again, ready to sunbathe and swim.. but guess what... We were in a deep valley and the sun set at 4. AT FOUR O’CLOCK. We had been swindled! The sun gone, it got cold really quickly so we went and wore our usual layers yet again. Happy hour started with the sunset, fortunately, so we each got our two drinks (many other, not caring we had to get up at 4 AM, drank much, much more) – I tried to get two waters for the price of one but the owner had no sense of humor and told me in no uncertain terms that water was NOT included in happy hour. Bastard.

Happy Hour on the 2nd day: mojitos

We played really, really fun games and had a great time, incurring the jealousy of the other groups, so much so that when we stopped playing and there was a slight lull, a girl at the next table was heard to say “oh, they’re not so fun, after all.” After dinner I again crawled to bed, looking up at the sky, saying “awww how beeaauutifullll hampıssssssssss....” This time I overdressed to sleep and felt too hot.

The next morning, my friends got up at 4 to walk up the mountain but neither Marie-Sophie (who had been ill), nor I felt up to it. It was a boring walk up an arid mountain, uphill for 2,5 hours. No thank you. Many other people felt the same way. Our mules were waiting for us. The muleteers got us on them and up we went. I was so happy not to have walked, because this was a whole new experience. It was terrifying to start with, feeling so high up on a mule, which insists on walking right BY the cliff – when there’s all that space on the path—I looked the other way. A few moments after starting, a girl fell off her mule!!! Her saddle had probably not been settled well enough. We all lost confidence for a while after that. Mules have a mind of their own, of course. Although they all knew the path by heart and had no need to be steered, they stopped when they wanted and sprinted when they liked. I learned to yell “mula” and dig my heels n the poor animal’s sides. Sometimes, though, it was panting so hard and sweating that I wanted to allow it to rest a bit, but I was in the front and couldn’t let everyone wait while my mule recuperated, so “mula!”. I was very happy to have an experienced rider right in front of me, a Mexican girl who was so relaxed on her mule that she was taking photos the whole time (I hope she sends mine to me). It was an incredible experience, one that truly made my hair stand on end, gave me frissons and I thought I am so lucky, to be in the Andes like this…

Of course my ass hurt, my right knee hurt even more, but when we saw the walkers climbing that mountain, bathing in the dust raised by our mules, we felt very humbled and didn’t dare complain about anything. We arrived in a village and ran into our guide’s arms when we saw him!! He led us to the others, who were enjoying breakfast. I would never have thought I’d eat scrambled eggs with such gusto.

I have to go and have dinner with my Frenchies. I leave Arequipa at 5AM tomorrow to got to Lake Titicaca. I hope to write again soon!

Some pictures:

The kitchen at our hotel on our first night





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