As good and beautiful as it gets.
Coast to Arequipa.
On the Panamericana 800 and more kilometers south of Lima is Camaná, a resort town, ghostly deserted; here is winter in summer and the beaches devastated, the skies overcast and the sea frosty, all is shut; not even ceviche can be had this time of the year. Late afternoon we leave the ocean and climb the desert mountains, and dense fog travels with us to an elevation of 1,000m, the desert hangs on all the way until nightfall and us entering Arequipa. While we roll into town, the back wheels suddenly give a screeching noise, 'not again the wheel bearing', I think, after all the repairs the van has been through recently.
It's a new town at night with traffic and the usual struggle, Daniel and David in the back are hungry and complain, with no expectations I turn the last corner into the plaza de armas, and a welcome surprise reveals itself. A huge fiesta takes place; a classical concert with grand choir, TV cameras, bright lights, projections on big screens, and an impressive cathedral that thrones behind stage. Parking takes another hour, but then we take a first row seat on one of the many first floor balcony restaurants, that line the whole of the huge colonial plaza. The new beer is Arequipeña, and I enjoy the view and the new setting, just my boys after a long day dislike and refuse their food, how will I make them eat something else than pizza?
Next day is repairs, and thanks God it is not the wheel bearing that I repaired 4 times on this Americas trip, just minor break problems, and in a stride I get new shock absorbers too. Arequipa feels nice and the sun is out hot all day, and you better wear a hat; yes where is mine? Last time back in Huaraz I put it on the head of one of the boys, I have never seen it since. Evenings are cold; Arequipa is on 2,400m, behind town the perfect cone of Volcano Misti carries snow on his top, I feel a cold coming up, Daniel has tooth ache, we get a hotel.
Between more repairs on the 7th of August we eat in the fine gourmet picanteria Nueva Polipino, I have a shrimp special; a huge bowl of soup, thinking 'why not celebrate', as this is 4 months into the South America journey with Daniel and David, and I feel privileged to have them so long. My boys obviously dislike their chicken, but more important I better make a good plan for the remaining month and a half and the return to Quito. But first we need to see what is around here and then go a lot further south, and that is worrisome as the return north will be a very long, 3,000kms plus struggle.
On another Arequipa morning we see the Santa Catalina convent, the 3 hours tour on the huge terrain, where not much has changed in centuries, gives us an insight of what colonial monastical life was like. The many cross walks/cloisters shine in many bright colors, the arches are decorated with old fresco paintings, behind the walls, gardens and orange groves, are the apartments of the nuns that lived here until recently, smoked kitchens, but also the huge art collection of unthinkable value.
Thursday, Daniel's all night tooth ache sends us to the dentist, and we all get our cavities sorted, and guess who had the most? Then we go back to the restaurant Qaraku's Comida Tipica, that has become our everyday lunch place and it astounds me again how delicious typical Peruvian 'homemade' food is, we eat so well and cheap here, and the boys have to eat soup and a different dish every day too, otherwise they don't get ice cream after.
More from Arequipa.
Over the altiplano to Chivay.
After the said ice cream we leave Arequipa, direction Yura where we head right/north, climb the mountains higher and higher. At 3700m we see the train track and the train that serves the mines north of Arequipa.
Higher at 4,400m we get to a plateau, this is the altiplano, the high plains and the road is dead straight in some parts, thousands of vicunas, llamas and alpacas roam close to the road to as far as the eyes can see, a sign says Pampas de Toccra.
The road does some turns higher, 4730m, sun is right in front, vegetation is now much scarcer, ice and snow is near, a sign says Salinas y Aguada Blanca National Reserve.
And then just when sun sets, we reach the top and it is bitter cold at 4,850m. The beauty before the yellow sun is a desert stone field, a monument of boulders and pebbles, built by the elements. Yes, one questions who sculptured these, put one and one on top of each other, but humans have not been involved, a sign says Mirador de Volcanes, if it just can remain so good, I shudder.
We descend down to Chivay and the mount on the other side is up in flames, the whole valley is filled with smoke, later TV in the restaurant points the finger at scrupulous indigenous who have set the fire, who else would you blame. Our pizza isn't really good, Daniel's tooth is still sensitive, my poor baby suffers, the next morning I wake with headache, altitude sickness, we are still at 3,600m.
Colca Valley, Maca, Condors, Cabanaconde.
Headache makes me numb, this altitude sickness can strike unexpectedly, sometimes not at all. After the euphoria of the last night I have an emotional downer, while we drive my mind is not in the Colca Valley and the nice setting of the Inca terraces, I ponder when we will return north, how far more will we go south, a certain unease is always present before the great turning point, from which you head home.
We reach Maca and its old white cathedral, in sight of buses and 200 tourists that push in and out of it, past the golden altars and dressed up saints, my expectations are lowered even more. All have their photos taken with a huge condor, and quiet obviously my boys too. Also the road is a disaster, a dirt track where should be a highway, a van, bus or car goes by every 30 seconds, dust never settles, fills my nostrils, this starts being a joke, the worst tourist experience. In Peru where there is no mine, is no road! 'The Chivay government receives so much money', a taxi driver complains, 'the road though has been the same ever since he has been driving, 16 years'.
As we drive further down the valley we always stay on the rim of what becomes more and more the great Colca Canyon, we stay at high elevation, but, - my headache goes away and with it my anger. All blue blue skies, on the very last 15kms even the road carries asphalt, tell me, why not the first 40? The Gods then this afternoon have a very special gift waiting for us.
Cruz del Condor on 3,800m is the famous viewing spot/el mirador over the canyon. When we come a bus load of 50 tourists prepare to leave, the last bus load of the day, would tell us German Frieda later and recount the morning horrors of 200 buses and 1,000 tourist,... as the condors, who live up to 75 years, and have the largest wingspan of any bird; of up to 4 meters, are said to fly only in the morning,... This early afternoon our most lucky hour is about to start with seven condores gliding and circling sometimes high, sometimes low, sometimes fly-by so close, sometimes farther away. Most important around us all is quiet, there is only Daniel, David, Frieda, Teresa and me, we are all privileged and aware of it.
As a side event also a giant hummingbird/colibrí/Kolibri finds interest in the blooms of an inconspicuous plant just a few meters away, and comes back again and again.
For the second day running I am thinking to my self 'if it just can remain so good', and shudder again. We settle in Cabanaconde and I drink Arequipeña beer and the boys eat spaghetti, not suspecting that it would get even better.
Down Colca Canyon to Oasis de Sangalle, up on mules.
At breakfast I am still hungover, thinking what to do, internet is not available, electricity neither, they are working on both. So we head 1.5kms for the canyon, the rim, for the view... and while we're there I speak with a guy, and I speak with a mule drover, and consult with the Daniel and David, there are pools at the bottom, an oasis, it is hot at the bottom, we can sleep at the bottom, come back up on mules, all exciting... all exited we take the decision to do it, but we have to go back first and get our stuff. I pack quickly, just the most necessary, hats, bathing suits, a jumper each, that's it! I park the van with the police, buy some chocolate, water and apples and we walk back to the edge of the great Colca Canyon, by now my two brave boys have already walked 5kms... and the hard bit is all still ahead, some 1,200m in elevation down, 5kms more, 2.5 hours, a dusty march, with sometimes huge steps for the boys over huge rocks, with only chocolate, apples, and water, keeping them hydrated is important... It is their own enthusiasm that drives them forward sometimes David leads, then Daniel, way ahead, they want to get to the pools, they really want down there, no complaining... I am so impressed.
Then we do the last steps and reach Oasis de Sangalle at the bottom of Colca Canyon, and there is no waiting for D&D to jump inside the blue wet, I get an Arquipeña, sit and ponder and am so happy that we did what we did, I watch my boys and think that they've grown up, and I watch the canyon walls, and they appear higher from down here. This Colca Canyon descent is as deep as the descent in the Grand Canyon which I did too and found so much harder. When down in the Grand Canyon almost Lutheran order holds sway with more rules than any boyscout group can handle, the Oasis de Sangalle camps are the complete opposite; the relaxed atmosphere is helped through the constant burble of all the water channels, fountains and cascades that run through everywhere.
And the boys are off and play and engage just about everybody, jump into the pool till they are very cold, and I send them to our room with just one large bed, to get changed by themselves, and they manage and come back, and late after dinner there is a bonfire and they love it, and burn their fingers putting more wood on, then cool their hands in the pool, and David loses his jacket, maybe burns it, it's not in the pool, it's nowhere, who cares... this was a great day, and I fathom again 'if this just can stay this good'.
We wake before 6, 'at 6 we walk' said the mule drover. But it takes a while and David has just a t-shirt and he bears the morning cold like a man, he knows that it was his fault to lose his jacket. Soon the mulemen with hats come and pack the twins in the carriage baskets, left and right of a mule, wrap the boys in blankets, and they are thrilled to no end; they begged for such a long time to go/ride by horse or mule. Then the caravan sets in motion, steady, at a good rate higher, and the mules sweat and puff. Soon sun goes up over the the edge of the canyon walls and we swing in and out of the shade, and Daniel takes his hat off, and loses it; never stop a caravan, is a rule in the Sahara, you cannot stop the caravan for just a hat, common sense in the Andes.
Colors of a Bull fiesta in Huambo.
So how much better can it get? Still better we would find out! Up from the canyon back in Cabanaconde, we keep going on the dirt road where the last tourists turn around, back to Chivay and Arequipa or elsewhere. Again not expecting anything and tired, I drive slowly, further along Colca Canyon first, then over the mountain, the boys exhausted sleep soon, and in Huambo (3,400m) all points to a special day. It is high noon, the town is decorated, men and women dressed up, we are already almost out of town, and it is on the road left, at the bull fighting arena, the great gathering of hundreds of festive people and all wear huge hats. I have a hard time waking the boys, but this is something not to be missed. We put our own hats on as sun is strong, then mingle as the only tourists with the indigenous, colorful, welcoming crowd, we get the front row seats. Here we don't pay a thing, the boys get ice cream, cola and sugary egg white foam and I Chicha de Jora, freshly fermented unfiltered corn beer.
It doesn't last long and the bull fighting starts, a non-lethal one, at least two of about 7 banda orchestras play all the time, as in a competition, in their back people dance. Most inspiring, and I am sure these Andinos are not inspired by Greek mythology, a lot of juice and beer and Chicha is spent on the Gods. An elder, widely honored woman who sits right behind us, and many come to pay respect, climbs several times to the front, and splashes a whole bottle of Arequipeña in the ring. Trying to splash the bull seems to bring special Godly goodwill, peace, health, luck and maybe even economic fortune, for oneself, one's kin, the village Huambo. Obviously I know not so much about the ritual, am super tired, we have not eaten much, it is hot, we sit so close together, my feet cramp, the mais cerveza numbs me. After 3 hours in the sun, on a Sunday noon, we let go, head out to where we wanted to go; no-where. This has gotten too good for us at the moment.
The volcanoes back roads, as beautiful as it gets.
There is a small road on the map around Ampato volcano, and we even find it already late and after trying so many times and wasting gaz; it's how little gasoline we have left that worries me. It is a difficult road, many times it goes deep down into a valley only to climb the other side after, absolute distances say nothing about travel times. At some point sun sets and lights the snow covered peaks, all the way to Chachani and Misti volcano, 50kms away, this cannot get more beautiful. Lluta (3,000m) for night, is a small, cannot-be-further-away place, with no cars, not much of a bus service either, certainly no gaz, and plaza de armas is dark. In a tienda we find some biscuits and chocolate, a coke, this is all we get to eat. While I shake out the dust, because the back window was left open, the boys run round town, but there is hardly anyone else, they speak to the guy in the shop, bother him in Spanish, yes they have picked up enough español. Between 7 and 8 when I close my eyes a bit, waiting for the boys, the priest starts putting on Christian songs to invite church goers, rocking the whole place at high volume, this is Sunday night and it won't last forever...
Morning is cold, with frozen water on the road, I wake at 6 and let the boys sleep on, make myself a coffee and drive. Two hours later with hardly any fuel left we get to Huanca, no gaz here, I lure the boys, talk of good food in Arequipa soon and drive on. The Inca terraces again fascinate, as they are built the same way as 1,000 years ago, Ampato volcano overlooks the place. After a bit more curving we get to some wide mining roads and drive more rapidly, into Yura there is no gaz station, out of Yura neither, on we go to Arequipa and at the edge of town the engine sputters, then stops. I manage to start it one more time and roll into the first gasolinera, so damn lucky I think, this is as good as it can get.
But wait, Arequipa Day is ahead, but first the boys kill a pigeon, run her over in the crowd and so much more...