October 27 - 29, 2014


The hostel in La Paz recommended that we take two separate buses to the Peru-Bolivia border. Everything went smoothly. In fact, our taxi ride to the bus terminal was more expensive than the 3 hour bus ride. It cost us 10 Bs ($1.50) to get to the border and immigration was fast and easy unlike our prior experience. We had to catch a bus to Puno to stay the night and then to Arequipa the following day. Our bus ride was literally the worst experience. A group of old, rude women boarded the bus with over 5 bags full of their produce to try and sell in Puno. To bypass paying a fee for extra seats, they laid their bags in the walkways, making the whole bus claustrophobic. There was no leg room for anything and it's does not surprise me in the slightest that our bus broke down. Luckily we only had to wait 5-10 minutes for a small shuttle bus to pick us up and take us the rest of the journey. I cant stress how shitty that bus was we stayed yet another night at the Inka Rest Hostel.  


On the next afternoon, we found a bus for Arequipa for 20 soles ($6). We picked a more comfortable bus, but that did not seem to matter because it ALSO broke down on the way there. The bus apparently ran out of gas a few miles away from Arequipa. This added two more hours to our trip and once we arrived, it was dark and we had no hostel reservation. Our taxi driver stressed how “dangerous” Arequipa can be at night and set us up with a hostel 5-7 blocks away from the plaza. It was odd to see no sign or anything indicating it was a hostel. It was extremely private. However, the inside had a beautiful courtyard with a hammock and wonderful owners.

Arequipa is a city of intrigue, situated at the foot of the ice-capped volcano known as El Misti. Known as "la ciudad blanca", the "white city" is built of white volcanic stone with a beautiful colonial history. Arequipa is notorious for its beauty and pleasant climate of all of Peru. In my opinion, it is the Medellin or Sucre of Peru, a city that distinguishes itself separate from their capital city counterparts. The word "Arequipa" comes from the Quechua phrase "Ari quepay" meaning "let's stop here". Arequipa was discovered by the Pizarro in 1540 and the conquistador called it "Villa Hermosa" or "beautiful town" for its eternal springtime temperatures. After a crippling earthquake in 1687, many of the original churches and mansions made from white volcanic sillar was destroyed. Our hostel was close to the Plaza de Armas, a grand square with palm trees and beautiful flower beds. It is the center of all activity in Arequipa and the dominant La Catedral lights up at night.

Juanita, the Ice Maiden

Jesse and I went to the Museo Santuarios Andinos where more than a dozen Incan mummies and archeological discoveries are on display. As part of the Universidad Catolica de Santa Maria, the highlight of the exhibit is Juanita, a 13-year-old princess who died nearly 500 years ago. Juanita was believed to be sacrificed in 1495 AD as an important ritual to appease the mountain gods. The Inca believed that the mountains were a way to communicate to their gods and offer the necessary sacrifice in the form of a young child. Juanita was chosen and climbed the mountain peak of Ampato along with a party of Inca priests.

Cameras were prohibited once inside unfortunately. Photo Credit: Museo Santuarios Andinos

Cameras were prohibited once inside unfortunately. Photo Credit: Museo Santuarios Andinos

After more than 20,000 feet, Juanita could see everything from that altitude and could hear the cheers of her homeland below. Disorientated by the journey, Juanita was fasting and felt the effects of the coca sedatives quickly. She had to climb the mountain accepting that her reality was death and her divinity meant the sacrifice was honorable. The priests gave her coca leaves to continue the journey and placed a cloth over her head and hit her with a 5-point granite mace at her right eyebrow. Her body was at peace for over 500 years until Johan Reinhard found her in 1995. Her burial ground was exposed and the bundled mummy tumbled down the summit, landing in same path as Reinhard.

Her body was so high up that the ice kept her in tact but since her body fell down, her face was unraveled. Ice is still visible on the body with some exposed areas. Her hands looked "alive", with skin and veins visible. They found coca and chichi still in her stomach and scientists were able to learn about the viruses and bacteria in her frozen tissue. They also discovered the type of diet at the time and her state of health. Preserved mummies like Juanita give a glimpse of the life they lived during that time and act as time capsules. Archaeological discovery has brought forth a lot of information on Inca ideology and customs.

Santa Catalina

Jesse and I took a tour of Monasterio de Santa Catalina, Arequipa's famous convent founded in 1579. It is one of Peru's most important religious monuments and feels like a fortress. The convent is truly a city within itself with narrow cobblestone streets named after Spanish cities and elegant gardens enclosed within. The village is a giant labyrinth with over 200 small cells where nuns once lived. The convent was secretive and was not exposed to the world until 1970 when the government opened it to tourism. Over a hundred tourists visit daily for s/35 ($10). Located 2 blocks north of Plaza de Armas, this prestigious religious building takes roughly an hour or 2 to explore. Over 30 nuns continue to live there today and can be heard in the morning singing. Shadows from the sun above blanket the city. At the time, nuns would join the convent swearing to a life of poverty despite their luxurious upbringing. They would never return to their homes or families and would serve the monastery their entire lives.  Their lives were isolated and protected by high walls sheltering them from the outside world.

For some people, the experience is overwhelmingly spiritual and calming, but I did not feel anything special about this place. They do offer night tours and felt that we would get a totally different experience exploring the dark cells. 

Colca Canyon

The city offers tours of one of the world's deepest canyons. With depths of 11,152 feet, Colca Canyon is twice the size of the Grand Canyon and has one of the deepest canyons in the world from the top to the river below. It was formed by a massive geological fault. The Rio Colca is part of a watershed that empties into the Pacific. It is one of the most remote valleys over 102 miles north of Arequipa. The gorges are narrow and vegetation thrives in this arid landscape. 

Tourism is a booming industry for Colca Canyon, but many Indian villages live somewhat traditional lives and tend to the terraced lands since the 16th century. Out of the 14 colonial villages, the Aymara-speaking Collaguas and the Quechua-speaking Cabanas both occupy these indigenous communities. Back in the day, a difference between the two ethnic groups could be found by the shape of their heads. The Collaguas were known for elongated their heads while the Cabanas flattened them to resemble the steep cliffs in honor the mountain god. Similar to the island people of Lake Titicaca, the ethnic groups can be distinguished by their hats.

Our tour was 3 days/2 nights. The bus picked us up along 10 other people at 3 in the morning. The hostel owner waited for the shuttle to pick us up. We were exhausted and slept during the 3 hour drive. We ate breakfast in the first town of Chivay. We then drove to Mirador Cruz del Condor and spent an hour gazing into the endless cliffs and watch the condors with their impressive wingspan of 12 feet from afar.  They circled around the rim of the canyon scouting the gorge below and are best viewed between 7 - 9 am.

We began our trek down to San Juan de Chuccho near the town of Cabanaconde. The hike downhill tested your knees and took 3 hours to reach the Colca River. We crossed a suspension bridge and spent the night at San Juan where we fell asleep shortly after supper. The emerald-green river was freezing and flowed through the valley. I got there pretty fast.

Jesse and I woke up to a stray cat nuzzling next to us. The tour guide showed us the native fruits that Colca Canyon has to offer. The most interesting was the cactus with white residue that is actually insects. When rubbed between fingers, the white powder turns blood red and was used as a natural dye for many years. The sun peaked over the cliffside for amazing pictures. We continued through the nature route toward "Paraiso Las Palmeras Lodge" better known as Oasis Sangalle, an oasis wedged between the mountains with palm trees and vegetation. The view of the Oasis Sangalle was unreal, situated in the deepest part of Colca Canyon. we spent the whole day swimming and relaxing our muscles and visiting a nearby waterfall. 

On our final day, we woke up at 4:30 in the morning hiking the ever demanding uphill climb. The stars were amazing and initially we needed flashlights. The view of the sunrise and the final stretch was all worth it in the end. The grulying hike took 4-5 hours to the top to Cabanaconde. The Sun was rising and orange streaks kissed the mountain ridges as we climbed the steep rocky paths. We ate breakfast in Cabanaconde and the bus stopped at a few more viewpoints.

The most magnificent is the Antahuilque viewpoint, a panorama of pre-Incan terraces and lush green valleys. We stopped in a small town of Maca with an old colonial church and touristy souvenirs. Our last stop was the hot springs at 28C on the shores of Colca River. Alleviate the pain in our worn legs and made our muscles feel so much better. They were heated by the volcano which was smoking a few miles away. We were so worn out that we crashed in Arequipa immediately.

After our experience with the past two bus trips, we vowed that Cruz del Sur (even though it's more expensive) will always be our operator of choice! We booked a bus to Lima with Cruz del Sur after our unlucky streak. It cost us s/85 ($25), but it was the best bus ride I have ever been on in South America. The timing and preparations worked out smoothly with no problems. Every seat had their own touchscreen TV tablet for movies, books, games, etc. The drive was flat and 15-16 hours went by like nothing. We even had a little bit of sleep. 

Casey FrenchComment