04/26/2010 75 °F
Megan and I are off to Peru! It is my first trip to South America, and neither one of us speaks Spanish, so what could go wrong?
Peru is home to the Amazon rainforest and flat coastal plains of the Pacific, but we would be spending most of our time among the peaks of the Andes mountains. Our trip started in Lima, the capital of Peru. After negotiating the "random" screenings to enter the country (every sketchy person got stopped while all women and children passed right through, I got strip searched while Megan got the green light), we made our first attempt to read Spanish signs to find the domestic terminal. On the way through the airport I found the ATM machine and decided to get some local cash. After entering the correct sequence of numbers, i was given S/. 400 (about $135), and then made my way to the change station for some smaller bills. About that time, a man came running up to me frantically screaming in Spanish. I had no clue what he was telling me, but he kept pointing at the ATM machine (which was loudly emitting a series of obnoxious tones). It was then I realized that I had left my ATM card in the machine. I ran over to the ATM, and just as I arrived, the machine turned quiet. I think I even heard it gulp as it swallowed my card. My adventure in Peru just got amped up a notch. I knew no Spanish, I stood out like a sore thumb, and now I had to survive for a week on $135.
Well, we didn't have time to dwell on losing the ATM card as we had to catch our next flight to Arequipa. Arequipa is the second largest city in Peru with about a million residents, but the airport had a single gate and was about the size of a high school gymnasium. We met up with our guide (Roy from Colca Tours), boarded a van, and we started our journey to the deepest canyon in the world, the Colca Canyon.
Not long after we got out of Arequipa, the road became unpaved, and then turned to gravel, and then turned to a glorified dirt path. I had wondered how a journey of 160 miles would end up taking 6 hours, and now I knew. I was taken back by how simple the "houses" on the side of the road looked. They were square, single room structures made of white brick. The roofs were flat pieces of tin held on by stacking rocks on top. Obviously no electricity or running water.
After a couple hours, we pulled off and stopped at a rest stop (really the first inhabited structure we had seen since we left Arequipa). The driver needed a potty break, and the guide suggested we drink some coca tea to get acclimated to the altitude. Coca tea is made with cocaine leaves, and helps your body process oxygen and gives you energy. I couldn't really tell a difference after drinking it. I'm guessing it does something, because I can't imagine people drinking it for the taste (put some grass in your next glass of hot water, you'll get a feeling for the flavor). The guide was a big fan of coca leaves. He said it "gave him energy for driving" and packed a lip full of leaves. Here is us enjoying our tea, and mine was served in a Winnie the Pooh mug.
The area between Arequipa and the Colca Canyon is full of active and dormant volcanoes. You go over 16,000 feet in the air, and the dusty land is sparsely populated with light weeds. The occasional llama or alpaca or vicuña can be spotted, especially as we drove through the national park (llamas are the biggest, alpacas have shorter necks, and vicuñas are skinny versions that can run super fast). Our guide, Roy, told us how people used to capture the local llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas to shear them and sell their wool (which can fetch a pretty penny, $500 a kilo for vicuña hair). The government set up a protected area for the animals, and now the government comes in regularly to shear the animals (and presumably keep the money). The volcanoes are visible in every direction and are a mighty backdrop.
Eventually we came down out of the mountains and the town of Chivay popped out. It is not a large town, but it is the largest town in the area. We stopped for lunch (we ate alpaca) and a quick break. The women in the Colca Canyon dress very distinctively, adorned in very bright colors and layered wraps. Donkeys are really the only thing on the road (I don't think we passed another vehicle the entire time we drove from Arequipa to Chivay other than at the rest stop).
After lunch we left Chivay and headed along the beginning of the canyon rim to Cabanaconde. It was another couple hours worth of driving, but the scenery kept me captivated (Megan opted to take a nap). Terraced slopes made the canyon walls farmable. Green plants and vegetation abounded here (in stark contrast to the tops of the mountains we drove through). People walked the road, often riding or leading donkey trains. And with each mile, the canyon got deeper, and deeper, and deeper...
It was a little unnerving riding in the van. The road was not very wide, and it was extremely close to the edge of the canyon (I swear our wheels were riding on the edge). However, it was really the only place for the road to be as the canyon wall occasionally rose sharply on our side. The crème de la crème was when we had to go through a tunnel. This tunnel was a glorified hole in the ground, and was pitch black. Definitely not for the faint hearted.
We came out safely, and shortly thereafter reached our destination. The driver, Roberto, dropped us off in the middle of nowhere, and Roy led us over the edge of the canyon wall. Our 3 day hike of the deepest canyon in the world was just beginning.