Arequipa, Peru
17° 19' S 70° 19' W
Jan 30, 2006 06:38
Distance 685km

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Text written in: English

The sand recedes

A week in Peru and all we've seen has been sand. Sand in many forms, mind you, from deserts to beaches to dunes and building sites, but sand nonetheless. I suppose you kind of have to expect that when you stick to the coast, and so we were looking forward to a nice change of scenery as we barrelled through the night on the winding mountain road to Arequipa, White City.

They'd told us this place was nice. They lied. It's gorgeous. By far the nicest town we've been in thus far, knocking Quito and even Cuenca into a cocked hat, almost the entire city has been lovingly carved from a scintillating white volcanic rock. Buildings rise and stretch proudly for entire blocks, matching one another beautifully to form one giant synergetic white monument to architectural genius. Despite its size, Peru's second largest city feels compact and welcoming, and as each street you walk down leads on to another more beautiful avenue or boulevard, you just want to keep on going. As much as Lima repels you at first sight, so Arequipa demands your attention.

We got in in the early afternoon, took a taxi to the centre and made our minds up on the fly as to where we might go. The taxi driver had his own suggestions, which we politely ignored (there's invariably a commission involved in every friendly hint), and so we stopped off at the Hostal Reyna, suggested by a friend as the best place in town to get a panoramic view over the whole volcanic shooting gallery, provided room 19 or 20 was free. Neither was, as it happens, but we liked the look of the place, and they weren't looking for too much cash for one of the lesser rooms. It's quite a labyrinthine place, whose bathrooms are ensconced behind archways and pillars in the middle of Escheresque staircases leading hither and yon, and it's almost impossible to gauge the real size of the hostel. A balcony runs around the rooftop, giving spectacular views in all directions, and in particular of the gargantuan cathedral a few streets down.
The staff ran the full gamut from sincere and welcoming (the old lady who I assume was the owner insisted on making me a cup of lemon tea when she heard me sniffling) to stubbornly clueless, with an unhealthy dose of in-your-face tour-pusher. The ink hadn't dried on our registration forms (apropos - has anyone any clue why every hotel in South America needs to know your occupation, age, marital status and cup-size?) than the red dragon at the tour desk was ramming her spiel down our throats, informing us just how 'very guuuuuuud' everything was, and how we had her 'garanteeeeeee' that we'd enjoy the two days in (the rough vicinity of) Colca Canyon, if we'd only sign up for a piffling twenty dollars, including transport and accommodation. Had it not been for the Ka-from-The-Jungle-Book stare, coupled with the hypnotic hiss of her voice, the trip might have sounded like a good idea, but you can't ignore your instincts when they tell you to run a mile as soon as someone comes on like Paul McKenna in a go-kart, and you just know that if someone feels the need to guarantee you anything, that you'll be needing it as soon as you've opened the box.

Got an e-mail from the Finnish lass telling us she was in a great hostel, with full amenities at a great price - the place the taxi driver wanted to bring us - and wanting to meet up at some stage. On our way down to her hostel, we met her coming up to ours, accompanied by German chick from Cuenca. That called for a drink, so we settled down in a cosy little Mexican bar to drink happy hour pisco sours. There was a Peruvian chap with us, who turned out to be the hospitality club host of our bargain-savvy Teutonic freundin, and whose brother was only too happy to accommodate the Finnish girl for a few days. I should maybe point out at this stage that Peruvians have an undeservedly terrible reputation amongst the LP 'independent traveller' crowd. Fair enough, if you want to base your opinions of a people solely on the pushy, contemptuous vendors that throng the streets to relieve you of your soles, you'll quickly come ot the conclusion that your in a land populated by nasty leeches, but that's a little like basing your opinion of the French on the snotty waiters who spit in your coffee on the Champs Elysee. If you get the opportunity to meet Peruvians who are just going about their business, or who have no interest in the contents of your wallet, you'll surely find that they're as generous and welcoming a people as you'll meet anywhere. This is also true for the French, but don't tell them that.

Having joined forces with our Arctic accomplice (german chick went Chiliwards on day two), we spent several hours devising the best possible strategy to visit the geological marvel that is Colca Canyon. We quickly realised that the organised tours involved driving you in a bus, stopping for photos at pre-ordained places, dumping you in a hostel and letting you walk to the hot springs, where you'd spend ten soles for a quick soak to overcome the exertions of carrying your rucksack from the bus to your room. The second day involved a further bus ride, to a panormaic viewpoint where, for 25 soles, you just might see a condor. As for the canyon itself, you could admire it from a safe distance, but setting foot inside it was a thing for crazy people who knew not the merits of a safe and comfy bus drive-by photo-shooting. On this particular day, another brother was chaperoning us around Arequipa, proudly and patiently showing us everything we wanted to see and so much more we'd never heard of. He had a friend who ran a small tour company and said friend ran us through the type of itinerary which would let us stretch our legs a bit, avoid the cattle-rounding bustle of the organised trip, and, saints preserve, actually let us visit the canyon itself. An early morning taxi-ride to the bus station to catch the three-thirty to Cobanaconde would be the start of the adventure, followed by three days hiking with a guide from village to hamlet. With a swift phonecall, he could arrange for a guide to meet us at the bus-stop and whisk us off into the gorge. That was that sorted, and, mindful of the difficulties in procuring comestibles in the canyon, we stocked up on food and drink for the trip, down 't market, not forgetting the all important coca leaves and ash. Coca leaves are utterly harmless and completely legal in Peru, and chewing them with a small piece of ash helps acclimatise to sudden changes in altitude, can stave off hunger and tiredness of limb, and offer comfort from the cold nights. They're also full of calcium, a speculated reason for why Inca skeletons' teeth appear so well-preserved, and a staple mastication of Andean peoples whose daily routine generally involves at least ten kilometres walking up and down mountains.

You can buy the following thing for a dollar in Peru:

a kilo of flour
a three course meal with drink
half a postage stamp
a taxi ride across town
four litres of coca cola
two litres of water
three hours internet access in a cybercafe

Small wonder when you go into a shop and try to buy something, they ask you how much.

Photos / videos of "The sand recedes":

Deregulation has had the desired effect Maybe the ugliest building in Arequipa Mad lads at a festival A cop, yesterday Stilt walker on the Plaza de Armas