One of my favorite parts about being in Peru is the time I got to spend in Arequipa, Peru. Arequipa is the second largest city in Peru and aptly named the White City for it’s bleach-white buildings. It’s about 2 hours away from Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world.
I last left off on my South American journey in Huacachina, the desert oasis that featured sand-boarding and dune-bugging. As I woke up that morning in Huacachina, I knew we’d have a long drive ahead of us for the day.
Huacachina is roughly 12 hours away from Arequipa. If you take a bus down south, you feel every hour of the long bus ride. By the time you get to Arequipa, you’re desperate to get a few hours of sleep. While on the bus, you’re constantly getting shifted back and forth in your seat as the bus climbs switch-back after switch-back.
We did pass the Nazca Lines on our way to Arequipa but for me, it was relatively uneventful. They didn’t impress me as much as some since I opted not to do an expensive airplane tour over them. From what I heard, the plane ride was incredibly nauseating since the pilot shifts the plane back-and-forth so you get a good view of the Nazca Lines.
When we finally reached our hostel, I passed out for most of the morning. Our hostel was built into an old, elaborate mansion that has existed since the 1800’s. I was very impressed with the architecture within the building, as well as the two stunning courtyards outside of the rooms that were meticulously maintained.
Since it was such an old structure, however, they had no built-in air conditioning system. A few fans hung from the ceiling but they didn’t help much with the heat. The novelty of staying in such a gorgeous establishment for so cheap far outweighed any small negative I could point out, though.
After my friend and I woke up from a nap, our stomach’s were grumbling. As we walked down the street that eventually ended up in the immense plaza de armas (city square), we passed a fantastic brasas (roast chicken restaurant). These brasas are everywhere in Peru but this particular one reminded me of an old love, Nando’s.
Our mouths were watering as we stared into the restaurant and decided to get a table. Awkwardly asking the waiter for a menu in my terrible Spanish, he kindly obliges my request despite my ineptitude at his home language. I think he acknowledged that I was trying so he was very patient and explained a lot of the menu in his broken English.
I ended up getting an especially delicious pitcher of iced lemonade, llama sausage, and an awesome chicken sandwich. On their menu, fries came separate from the main meal for some reason. It said one portion but the picture on the menu next to the fries clearly showed a heaping plate of fries. I thought it wasn’t possible they’d sell a huge plate of fries for $1.50 so my friend and I both ordered one.
What come out with our food was, in fact, two giant plates of fries that made my jaw drop when they were bringing them out. Peru loves it’s carbs but this was ridiculous. I think I stuffed myself for two days in my first meal in Arequipa.
We left the restaurant full and happy. I opted to take pictures of the city square and ended up in a free walking tour of the plaza de armas that taught me a lot about this city. The tour was roughly 2 1/2 hours and the local college student guiding us was incredibly knowledgable on the city’s history.
Throughout the tour, I got my first real glimpse of the Quechuan lifestyle before Christianity showed up. The architecture around the plaza de armas was indicative to the ancient Peruvian culture. There was also a culinary segment of the tour that explained the history of chicha de jora, a South American corn beer, local Peruvian chocolate shops, and many other local dishes.
We finally ended up on a balcony overlooking the square with a great view of El Misti, the volcano that overlooks much of the city. The balcony belonged to one of the best Pisco Sour bars in the city and we all got a free taste.
It ended up being a lovely day, as my friend and I wandered the streets at night and found an awesome cafeteria that reminded me of the US high school system. Though we didn’t know how to order all the delicious treats in their display case, we got treated to an amazing meal that surprised us both.
As we wandered back to the hostel, we got incredibly lost and walked around several blocks in the middle of the night. We found our way to the plaza de armas and was rewarded with a great view of the city square at night time.
The next morning, we had an early wake-up call for our bus to Colca Canyon. The bus ride was very relaxing, mostly because it was 3 AM and it was pretty chilly. The bus driver handed out wool blankets to everyone, which was a nice touch.
I fell asleep most of the way since it was still dark out and couldn’t look at much of the scenery. When we reached the main village inside Colca Canyon, we were treated to fresh bread, homemade jam, and an assortment of other breakfast items at a local restaurant.
Strangely enough, at that same restaurant we ended up at to have breakfast, our fellow travelers that made the long trip to Arequipa with us were all sitting at our same table. We all ended up being at the same attractions all day long.
The landscape of Colca Canyon is stunning. It’s a mix between vast farmlands built from tiered rows on the mountain side with villages dotting the landscape. Our first stop was a very small village that I bought some alpaca socks at. I also got to pet a llama!
Next, we ended up at the Andean Condor lookout. A sighting of the Andean Condor is relatively rare since there’s so few of them left in Colca Canyon but we got surprisingly lucky. A striking young Condor soared down the canyon to pose for some pictures for the scores of people staring at it.
It really was an amazing bird. I raced up and down several flights of make-shift stairs etched into the mountain-side of Colca Canyon to get good views of it, along with some pictures. Running up and down stairs at such a high altitude was exhausting, though. There were several times I saw black spots in my vision.
As the condor slowly drifted off the cliff it was perched, the masses congregated around their buses to get out of the heat. Our bus driver and guide ushered us to pile in and we were off to a few more vantage points before stopping for lunch in Chivay, the main village.
After lunch, I wandered around the alpaca shops to buy a new beanie and we all met up in the village center. As the afternoon wore on, we ended up driving the long way back to Arequipa through one of Peru’s national reserves, Salina y Aguada Blanca National Reservation. In between Arequipa and Colca Canyon is some pretty amazing country-side.
This was probably my favorite part of the trip, as it truly showed how the native farmers live. The national reserve employs a very small amount of caretakers to watch over the land and to protect the precious vicuña (wild alpaca) stock.
One sweater made out of vicuña fur is worth over $10,000 USD, though I’m sure you can find cheaper. It’s the most valuable fiber on earth. Especially since very few vicuñas are shorn of their fur every year. Personally, I’ll just stick to my merino wool or alpaca shirts, but that’s just me.
The views were breath-taking at this National Reserve. There were green pastures full of alpacas and llamas, panoramic views of Southern Peru’s 5 highest peaks, and several different species of birds that I thought I’d never see.
As we drove back into Arequipa, our guide thoroughly explained many of the city’s inner-workings while we were stuck in rush hour traffic. With all the chaos of South American traffic, I only saw car wrecks in Colombia which surprised me. A very astute taxi driver explained that most people don’t follow the traffic laws but they’re much more observant while driving.
Anyway, as I finally ended up back in my bed at the hostel, I was thrilled how great our day ended up being in Colca Canyon. This was the closest I got to seeing how native Peruvian’s live. I loved every minute of it.
As I fell asleep, I couldn’t help worrying about the foreboding 24 hour bus ride I was about to be on in the morning. That dread was overshadowed by excitement, however. The thought of ending up in what’s proclaimed as the mountainous Paris of South America had me staying awake far later than I wanted. I eventually dozed off, enthusiastic of the coming adventures.