Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Peru Pt. 1- Canyons to Capital

I am American again after crossing the border into Peru.

It was a long and very cold bus journey from Copa- cabana, Bolivia to Arequipa, Peru, traveling through Puno, but the scenery continued to be stunning.

I have seen a lot of people selling odd things on buses, but this may have been the best--- wheels of (stinky) cheese that people were actually buying. What are you supposed to do with a wheel of cheese on a bus??? 

I arrived late to La Casa de los Penguinos where I was greeted by the extremely helpful Dutch owner.

Arequipa, Peru's 2nd largest city known as Ciudad Blanca (White City), is really a lovely spot.  There is a lot to see, but I mostly enjoyed just walking around the grand, white colonial buildings and observing the goings on in the Plaza de Armas with its cathedral (that has been reconstructed many times due to earthquakes) and colonnaded balconies.

Before I did any sightseeing, I first wanted to book a 3-day tour to Colca Canyon with Land Adventures.

When booking the tour I met Raul who invited me to join friends for lunch.  It was nice to get a local's perspective and help ordering typical dishes of the area.  I even ended up meeting them for dinner, drinks and dancing (at the disco for locals, not tourists) before I had enough and wanted desperately to go home.  Not sure if it is true, but getting home is a little more challenging since you can't just hail one of the million cabs on the street since they have been known to kidnap.  Eventually one of Raul's "trusted cabs" showed up to whisk me away. Yay!

In between lunch and dinner I took a private guided tour of Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a large convent divided into three cloisters: Novice, Orange and the Great Cloister (you could easily get lost in here).

The convent was absolutely fascinating, mostly because the inhabitants didn't exactly seem so charitable.  Back in the days it was the place for the 2nd born of very wealthy families (you had to pay a dowry to enter).  Once they entered the convent they never saw their families again, but they did own and furnish their own apartments and came with servants, so it didn't seem so tough.  After some church reforms, the nuns had to give up their servants and live communally--- can't imagine they were too excited about that.

I had intended to head to Colca the following morning, but the Dutch couple (Yvette and Fette) had their luggage lost by the airline, so we had to wait a day.

Believe it or not, I was actually quite productive and spent the bulk of that day updating my resume in preparation for returning to the real world. 

Finally, a crazy early start to canyon country.

Colca Canyon is 100km long and up to 3,000m deep, the 2nd deepest canyon in the world (no the Grand Canyon is not #1, in fact Colca is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon; Cotahuasi in Peru is #1, 150m deeper than Colca).

Along the way we stopped at Cruz del Condor to see the graceful condors gliding through the sky-- an impressive site.  Afterwards we started the 1,100m hike down into the canyon (ouch, my knees!).  It started to rain a bit post lunch, but we made it to our host family relatively dry. 

Amazingly the bedroom made of mud bricks was also dry, as was the kitchen where Roy prepared all our meals (including pancakes) over an open fire (thankfully we didn't try any of the guinea pigs they had caged outside).

The next morning we had a short walk through a few villages, sampling different kinds of cactus fruits (neither was very good) on our way to the Oasis for a quick swim and lunch.  It was a pretty hike, passing waterfalls, animals and huge agave plants, and of course the beautiful vistas.

Unfortunately now we had a 6km hike all uphill just as the heavy rain started.  I must say 3 1/2 hours uphill in the rain is not as bad as it sounds, but I don't plan on doing it again.  Nor do I plan to eat egg soup (yuck)-- at least our host knew how to make a delicious hot chocolate as we huddled around the electric heater for warmth with the young Canadian bartender who mixed a cocktail every other day, maybe.

With all our clothes still damp we headed back to Arequipa with a stop at a small village and hot spring.  It was nice to finally be warm after shivering the last couple days. 

I was also pretty warm on Cruz del Sur's overnight bus to Ica, the town closest to Huacachina.

Huacachina is an oasis surrounded by huge sand dunes. Although I wasn't planning to swim in the green lagoon, I was happy to pass the super hot days sitting poolside at El Huacanicero Hotel (even if they did make me pay for the mayonnaisey sandwich I refused to eat). 

The real attraction here are the areneros (dune buggy) rides--- like a roller coaster minus the rails.  Imagine going at high speed up a sand dune and they dropping over the edge.  So fun (and scary)!

To make it even better, there were numerous occasions to sand board down the dunes, some of which were really huge and kinda scary.  Besides getting sand everywhere I had some bruises on my hip bone from when my board went over a few rocks on the way down.  It was really a good thrill!

While there I also visited some local vineyards for some wine and Pisco tastings with Lynette, an American I met on the bus from Arequipa.  Peru is not known for their wine (for good reason) and Pisco is better left mixed up with something sour than straight up (= lighter fluid).  The best part of the day was when the traditional vineyard let us stomp on grapes- a first for me (it was sticky and there were lots of bees to avoid).

It was only 3 1/2 hours from Ica to Lima, where I arrived with Lynette to HQ Villa, a really lovely spot owned by Misha and Michael.

People generally don't have much nice to say about Lima, but I thought it was okay.  The first day Lynette and I walked all over Miraflores to the ocean and the LarcoMar shopping mall that is interestingly built into a cliff (and felt just like a US mall, shockingly).  Actually Miraflores felt a lot like walking around LA.

We hopped a local bus to see a fountain show in the park, but for some reason the nice security guard told us it was closed and to come back tomorrow.

Despite everyone saying downtown Lima is dangerous, I cabbed it down there for a quick look and found it rather pretty.  I also didn't think it felt particularly unsafe, especially with the police presence in the main square.  The Plaza de Armas was the heart of Pizarro's 16th C. settlement and the center of the continent-wide Spanish empire.

We arrived just in time for the changing of the guard at the Palacio de Gobierno, residence of Peru's presi- dent. It was quite an elaborate affair with a band playing as the guards goose-stepped away. 

The Monasterio de San Francisco is also a top attraction for its bone-lined catacombs (I found it a little creepy). The library with 25,000 ancient volumes was also really interesting.  They claim the way the cathedral was built protects it from earthquakes, but I still think I would prefer to be elsewhere (I had actually slept through an earthquake while in Arequipa-- an aftershock from New Zealand!)

The Plaza San Martin was also lovely surrounded by beaux arts architecture.  Funny story- the statue of Madre Patria in the middle of the square portrays a llama on her head (it was meant to be a crown of flames, but apparently flames also means llama- oops!) 

Just a short walk from one square to the other (plus a McFlurry since I can't pass them up!) and it was time to head back to the safety of Miraflores for my hair appointment-- it was just like home, except I couldn't really explain what I wanted him to do (and it was WAY cheaper).

That night we did manage to get into the Parque De La Reserva's El Circuito Magico Del Agua to see the dozen fountains all lit up, one even had a laser light show to cheesy music.  It was nice, wholesome fun for the locals who played in the fountains.  We even ran into the security guard from the night before-- he was very happy to see us again (I can't believe we stand out SO much!)

However, I fit right in at Gaston's new restaurant (Gaston is Peru's celebrity chef)- it was just like being in NYC.

I also felt at home at the ceviche restaurant, La Red, where I dined with Lynette before hopping on yet another overnight bus to Talara, 17 hours north of Lima.

The traffic out of Lima was maybe the worst I have seen, but luckily, like Chile, they have street performers entertaining you while stopped at red lights.  In Santiago I was impressed by the juggler standing on someones shoulder, but juggling huge knives while on a unicycle trumps all!

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