Peru Part 3: Arequipa, Altitude and the Colca Canyon

arequipa-01

Arequipa was our first foray into travelling at altitude. At 7740ft high (2380m), this is around the elevation the body can start experiencing altitude sickness and the day we arrived, it hit me. We’d spent 12 hours overnight on a bus to get here and I didn’t sleep much so was generally feeling acutely awful anyway and walking around the town I felt knackered, short of breath and I had zero appetite. In the evening I thought I’d have a juice to at least put something in my body, then I walked uphill and projectile vomited it everywhere. Not great, much like some of the days to come.

Arequipa Peru

Arequipa itself is a lovely city with it’s own unique feel. The centre is full of charming buildings made from white volcanic stone and the skyline is a little different to what I’m used to, with it’s prominent volcanos! We spent a day and a half exploring the town, a highlight being the Santa Catalina Monastery. This place was so colourful and felt like a town tucked away within the city. Arequipa was also home to our first taste of alpaca, cooked on a volcanic stone with two other meats. It wasn’t bad but the true star of the show is the sauce selection you get with meats in Peru. They do not mess about.

Santa Catalina Monastery
Santa Catalina Monastery
it me
it me

Me doing my best blogger pose in my sexy walking boots…the world is not ready for me to become a fashion blogger

arequipa-monastery-04
Santa Catalina Monastery Cactus

The next stop was a three-day trek in the Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world and what would be a tough, regrettable few days.

Colca Canyon
Colca Canyon

We woke up at 3am and were picked up by mini-bus and driven 4 hours to a town close to the canyon for what was the most miserable breakfast of a stale bread roll and jam. Things were not off to a great start. After a quick and unsuccessful stop at the viewpoint for the Andean Condors, we arrived to start our trek and the heat was already beating down. The trek starts at 3650m (12000ft) and the sun is STRONG. We were to descend 1000m into the canyon, then back up some on the other side to have a late lunch and finish for the day. It was hard fucking work. We were walking downhill on unsteady paths (lots of loose rocks) for around 2 hours which really took it’s toll on my thighs and knees. The sun was bearing down hard and both my hands swelled up in the heat, while I was just religiously trying to apply suncream to my sweaty skin as often as I could. We reached the river, had a rest then trooped on to go uphill to where we’d be staying for the afternoon and night.

colca-canyon-03

Going uphill…now that was truly horrific. It’s so hard to catch your breath at altitude because the air is just so thin which made me very panicky. I did finally make it to our stop. Lunch was terrible and I was also suffering from diarrhoea so things could definitely have been going better, but there were some highlights. We experienced a few tremors including a rock shooting out the side of the canyon from pressure and the scenery was pretty impressive – as places I have spent a night go, this was definitely memorable. You feel small looking up at the looming sides of the canyon. The sky went such a beautiful colour here when the sun set and if I forgot about the painful aspect, it felt quite peaceful to be tucked away from the outside world.

Colca Canyon

Day 2 was more of the same except with the growing dread that I’d have to somehow get myself out of this bloody canyon the next day. It was also another hot day with swollen hands. There was more pain this day, but some of the scenery was stunning. Crazy cactuses and views down the canyon. We also experienced something rare and very cool; we saw a new waterfall being born! A rock shot out the side of the canyon and was quickly followed by a surge of muddy water which eventually ran clear, down into the river below. I could really understand why many Peruvians believe in and worship Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) – this place was so alive and it kept reminding us it was volcanic and volatile. Another lunch and dinner consisting of awful vinegary vegetables awaited us at the ‘Oasis’ to keep morale low!

Colca Canyon
Colca Canyon
Colca Canyon
Pig and Dog

Our shack on the second night…and pig and dog friends!! You have to take the joy where you can find it

Day 3 started at 5 in the morning to beat the sun as we had to make it the 1000m straight up out of the canyon. I made an attempt, I couldn’t do it, I had to get a mule out. I can’t really complain as much as my boyfriend who trekked out, but it was absolutely terrifying! The mule liked to walk on the edge of these loose, rocky paths and I looked down to have visions of my own tumbling death. It also decided to run up certain bits of the path. There was nothing to hold onto except the edge of the saddle and I ended up with very blistered hands from gripping on for my life. Jonny said his experience of walking out was that it was painstaking, but rewarding. Maybe that’s hindsight though as I remember him being annoyed I made him go do it, ha! Our reward on arrival back in Arequipa was KFC. Sometimes you’ve just got to go with fried chicken.

colca-canyon-11
colca-canyon-12

When I started planning my blog series on my travels in South America, I considered just talking about the trip highlights but I’d be doing my own honesty an injustice. Travelling isn’t all sunsets and adventuring with a spring in your step and I want to let you know that travelling is hard work (especially when you have a time frame) and sometimes shit. Choosing to trek the Colca Canyon was a terrible idea but I just had no idea how much the altitude would effect me. Going downhill was tough on the knees but fine fitness-wise, going uphill was another story completely and never have I felt more trapped/stressed/like I was going to die as I did during those three days.

It was a lesson learned (and a good travel tip): always be brutally honest with yourself about what you are capable of, not just what you hope you’re capable of.

I didn’t want go too in depth on details as this isn’t a full-on travel blog, but if you’ve come across this and have any questions about any part of my trip feel free to leave a comment or email me!