Archive for October, 2011

Trekking Colca Canyon

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

One of the most popular tours available in Arequipa is a Colca Canyon trek. There are options for two, three or four day treks. The afternoon I arrived in Arequipa I didn’t fancy the thought of getting up at 3am next morning to do a three day trek. I chose instead to spend the day in Arequipa and do just a two day trek. It actually follows the same route as the three day trek but covers two thirds of the distance on the first day and the final third on the second day.

It still involved a 3am start on the first day. True to form the 03:00-03:30 minibus pick-up actually happened at 03:45. I could have had almost an extra hour in bed…

Colca Canyon is the deepest in the world and is several hours drive from Arequipa. Our first stop after about three hours was for breakfast. Roughly an hour later we reached Cruz del Condor on the canyon rim, often a good place to see condors. We joined many other bus loads of tourists, lined up along the edge of the canyon with cameras at the ready. On a good day there are fifteen to twenty birds seen. We only saw four. The guides said this was probably because a helicopter had entered the canyon the previous day and disturbed the birds. Helicopters don’t normally enter the canyon but this one had to recover the body of a boy who was lost there 200 days previously. We may have only seen four but they were magnificent. Once again a longer lens would have been very useful. The birds soared effortlessly along the canyon wall, riding the thermals. The thing that impressed me most was the size of the shadow they cast on the sloping canyon rim.

Some distance further along the road to Cabanaconde the bus dropped us off and we split into groups depending on whether we were doing the two or three day trek. There were four others in my group, Rick, Marika, Annie and Laetitia. Huber, our guide, explained the itinerary to us and we set off. We descended about 1200m vertically into the canyon and travelled about seven kilometres before reaching San Juan de Chuccho, the village where we stopped for lunch. The three day trekkers spent the afternoon and stayed the night there. Us more hardy, or foolish, two-day trekkers continued for another three and a half hours along the canyon to Sangalle for our dinner and overnight stop. Sangalle is also known as “the Oasis”.

During the wet season from December to March the terraces are full of crops and the dead looking scrub and cacti turn a wonderful green. At this time of year the canyon looks pretty barren.“The Oasis” is the exception. Water from a geothermal spring above the level of the river supplies a small oasis where there are trees, bushes and lush green grass all year round. We arrived hot and sweaty and caked in dust. There are a few “resorts” here. There is no electricity, the accommodation is extremely basic and the spring provides the running water for the showers and swimming pools. Unfortunately by the time the water reaches the resorts it has cooled from about 35 degrees to only 18-20 degrees. If not for this then “the Oasis” would be an idyllic spot and no-one would ever want to leave. The three-day trekkers get to spend the whole afternoon of their second day here.

We were up at 5am next morning for the eight kilometer trek out of the canyon to Cabanaconde. The trick is to do as much of the 1200m ascent before the sun comes over the canyon rim as possible. Most people took between two and two and a half hours to reach the canyon rim. The slowest struggled out in about three hours. The fastest took only an hour and a half; obviously younger and fitter than me. After breakfast in Cabanaconde the minibus drove us to hot baths a short distance from Chivay. There were five separate pools, four outdoors and one indoors which really were hot – between 35 and 42 degrees. We spent an hour there, two or three hours and a massage would have been really nice. After lunch in Chivay we drove back to Arequipa with a couple of photo stops.

Our guide, Huber, was very entertaining and informative and the whole tour was really good. The first day was very long and quite tiring. For anyone reading this and considering doing a Colca Canyon trek I’d recommend doing the three day one. There are dozens of agencies offering basically the same tours for almost identical prices. The differences are in the choice of operator and quality of services included. I booked through my hostel (Sol de Oro) and happily recommend them and the operator they used (I did email the hostel and ask which operator it was; they answered a different question. So much for my Spanish.)

Liking Peru

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

Lima wasn’t too special. I think it may be like Chiang Mai. Lots of people raved about how good Chiang Mai was and I found it rather ordinary. Perhaps I didn’t see the right bits. Perhaps I didn’t see the right bits of Lima either.

I stayed in Miraflores, supposedly one of the nicest neighbourhoods. Well it was nothing like Palermo in Buenos Aires. Other parts of the city on the bus ride to centro historico looked nicer. Certainly more alive, more interesting. The traffic was interesting too. Not in volume, but in intent. In various Asian cities there were as many, or more, vehicles but there you could step out into the road and the traffic would flow around you. In Lima I had the feeling they’d delight in running you over. There are a few photos in my Lima set at Flickr.

Two nights in Lima were enough. There are several intercity bus companies in Peru. I used Cruz del Sur for the journey to Nazca. Apart from the rubbish “meal” (three layer sandwich with foul tasting unidentifiable fillings) the journey was fine.

Nazca is a bit of a one trick pony. The thing everyone goes to see is the collection of geoglyphs referred to as the Nazca Lines. By the time I had dropped my luggage at the hostel it was too late to get a flight that day. Nazca follows the traditional Spanish town layout with a central Plaza Mayor and a neat rectangular grid of streets leading off it. Birds of a feather flock together and in Nazca, as in pretty much everywhere I’ve been, similar businesses set up shop next to each other. I needed a haircut so after I found the street with the peluquerias there were about a dozen to choose from. A quick buzz with clippers cost S/.4 (four Nuevo Soles – just under £1).

Next morning I took a taxi to the airport (S/.3) with one of my roommates from the hostel. All of the flight operators were charging the same price (US$90) for a 30 minute flight to see the lines. We found our other two roommates there so the four of us grouped together and picked a company at random. About an hour later we took off in a Cessna bimotor operated by Unistar. The promotional blurb for all the flights says something along the lines of “see the lines from several thousand feet”. Actually the manoeuvring height was only 400 feet above ground level. People with motion sickness are advised not to eat before taking a flight. The aircraft perform a series of tight left and right turns around each of the figures so passengers on both sides can see them clearly and have a chance to take photos. One of my roommates was looking a bit green by the end of our flight but managed not to throw up.  The first figure came up after just a couple of minutes, a whale. It was followed by the “astronaut”, monkey, dog, condor, humming bird, spider, tree, hands, parrot and heron. There are actually a whole bunch of lines all over the desert and some of the figures were harder to spot than others. See how many you can spot in my Nazca set at Flickr. About thirty five minutes after taking off we landed on runway 25 and found a taxi back to town.

While waiting for our flight I practised my Spanish on one of the ground crew, a Quechuan named Maximo. He was keen to teach me some Quechua too. When someone here says “hablas espanol?” it is dangerous to admit “hablo un pocito”. They seem to hear “yes, I’m completely fluent” and launch into a thousand word per minute spiel. If they respond to “mas despacio, por favor” at all, they’re likely to slow down for only a few seconds before resuming full speed operations. Maximo was one of the few people who actually maintained a slow enough pace that I was able to understand most of what he said first time for a full twenty minute conversation.

Late that night I caught an overnight bus for the ten hour journey to Arequipa. I like Arequipa; it reminds me of Salamanca. Unlike Nazca where many of the streets are unpaved and therefore the city is very dusty, in Arequipa all the roads are paved.  There is still a haze hanging over the city. I don’t know if it’s smog, trapped by the surrounding mountains. It doesn’t seem like there’s enough traffic for it to be smog. The city is at 2380m asl and is surrounded by three volcanoes – Misti (5822m asl), Chachani (6095m asl) and PichuPichu (5669m asl). Whereas much of Salamanca is made from yellow or grey sandstone, many of the buildings here are made from sillar, a white stone quarried from the volcanoes. It’s a photographically challenging city; white stone and the harsh sunlight is a bad combination, and many of the views are spoiled by telegraph poles, phone and power cables. There are some pictures at Flickr.

Gastronomically inquisitive friends will be disappointed to hear I haven’t tried the Peruvian specialty of guinea pig yet. Apparently it’s not as popular with the locals as is widely believed. On the drinks front I have tried Inka Kola (looks like piss, tastes like cream soda) and mate de coca (tastes less yuck than any of the other varieties of tea on offer).

Santiago de Chile

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

My Santiago story came in two installments. Like slices of bread around an Easter Island filling and with about as much substance. Both were flying visits.

The first slice after crossing the Pacific Ocean from Auckland lasted just under 24 hours. Santiago has an efficient airport bus service which got me to four blocks from my hostel in about 40 minutes. I joined a free walking city tour in the afternoon. Felippe our guide was a passionate guy full of interesting information about the history and current affairs of Santiago. He struck me at first as angry young man full of the socialist ideals of the students who protest regularly in the city. They protest about the cost of education and the vast inequalities between the rich and poor in Chilean society. The kind of things students all over the world protest about. It turned out he’s an actor as well as a tour guide. Was it passion or was it performance?

Santiago felt much more vibrant and alive than Auckland or anywhere else in New Zealand. That shouldn’t really be surprising; the population of the city is more than twice that of the whole of New Zealand. Next morning the bus whisked me back to the airport for the flight half way back across the Pacific to Easter Island. It seems a bit crazy to have to fly past the place and then back to it but that’s the way the airline routes work.

Five days later LAN plucked me out of one time zone and plonked me back down in another in Santiago. They wouldn’t let me check my rucksack all the way from Easter Island to Lima even though my stopover in Santiago was only twelve hours. Sleeping on a bench at Melbourne airport was pretty uncomfortable and Santiago airport had looked pretty hard and spartan on my first visit. So I repeated the bus ride into the city, stayed in the same hostel again and took the bus back to the airport the next morning. There was no time in this slice to do anything other than eat and sleep. The return ride took a different route than usual because of a student protest somewhere along one of the main routes through the city – the surprisingly named Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins. Felippe had explained how a city with otherwise standard Spanish street names had a main street named after an Irish guy.

Thirty six hours in Santiago is nowhere near enough time in the city, never mind Chile. As Arnie said, “I’ll be back”.

As always, there are some photos at Flickr, in my Santiago de Chile set.

There are millions of people who do a lot more flying and time zone hopping than me. After jumping backwards and forwards between five different zones in quick succession I feel a little like Sam in the TV show Quantum Leap. I’m going to enjoy being in only one zone for the next three weeks. Sam was always hoping his next leap would be the one to take him home. My next leap will take me back to Buenos Aires. I hope I won’t have entirely forgotten how to tango when I get there. Before then I will scratch the surface of another country – Peru.