Daisy and Ian on top of Colca

Arequipa y Colca: monjas y rutas de senderismo

Arequipa, Peru’s second most populous city, oozed with historical importance while also being an obvious hub for thrillseekers; look out of a window in any tall-ish building and you will be greeted by one of three surrounding mountains.  

Misti Mountain towering over Arequipa

The city had a bustling, verging on hectic feel. As we soaked in the atmosphere, it slowly began to remind both of us of Trujillo, only bigger and prettier. Spoiler alert, but outside of Cusco, the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa was the most beautiful that we’d experienced in Peru up to that point. The central grass, flowers and fountain were strafed by bars, restaurants and a convenient el Super – the freshly-baked bread reminded us of home and was available from 10:30am – which we visited most mornings to stock up on essentials, and never ice cream for 2 soles. 

Of the many cultural experiences available to visit in the city, and after a lot of discussion, we opted for two; the Santa Catalina Monastery for a window into a working nunnery, and the Alpaca Museum for a window into, arguably, the most cute of South America’s camelids.

Despite being 40 soles each, the Monastery offered an interesting look into how the Catholic Church maintains what can only be described as a patriarchal hold over the women that dedicate their lives to their God. From tiny rooms to underwear made of barbed wire, the beautiful architecture of the centuries old building retains a difficult past.

Fortunately, the residents in the Alpaca Museum did not have to suffer such abuses. While we were unsure of what to expect, on arrival, we were ushered away from the shop, which based on prior experience was odd, and sent towards our furry friends. There were six alpacas lounging in the sun, sadly not close enough for a cuddle. The museum told the history of alpaca farming in South America. Nevertheless, we saw how the shorn alpaca wool is graded by hand, and then walked through a collection of machines that cleaned and sorted the wool, then turned bunches into yarn. Personally, I never thought yarn would be so interesting. 

Post-museums we headed up to a rooftop bar that some friends had told us about; it was one of those “head to this corner, then go up some stairs into a restaurant and a woman will take you through a dilapidated bar onto the roof” type recommendations. Not only did this hidden gem serve amazing chocolate caliente, but the Andean sunsets were out of this world. 

Daisy looking at a sunset on a rooftop bar
Rooftop sunsets galore

Colca Canyon

Our bags at the top of Colca Canyon

Outside of the cultural significance, one of the mains draws to Arequipa is to use the city as a base while joining hundreds of other gringos in Colca Canyon. However, what we didn’t know before we got to Arequipa was that we would opt to self-guide the canyon; living by our own recommendations at last! Hours of research took us from a starting point of 3D/2N guided tour to 2D/1N self-guided hike; our chosen route was –

  • Day 0: Arequipa (6hr bus) > Cabanaconde (sleep)
  • Day 1: Colca 1200m decent (10.5km / 5hrs) > Llahuar (sleep)
  • Day 2: Colca 1200m accent (10.5km / 6hrs 15mins) > Cabanaconde (6hr bus) > Arequipa

Self-Guided Return Hike to Llahuar

We left Arequipa on the 11:25 Reyna bus scheduled to stop in Chivay before arriving in Cabanaconde. The Terminal Terrestre (travel tip: 7 soles taxi from Plaza de Armas, make sure to negotiate) was busy and we were delayed, which didn’t dampen spirits. 

On the journey, Daisy got through the majority of season one of Serial, and I some of season one of Quickly Kevin, will he score? The 90s Football Podcast, which passed the time before we arrived in Cabanaconde. The town is used as the main hub for hikers and adventurers of Colca Canyon; there isn’t much there, and expect to pay increased prices for snacks and water. Leg stretches, carb-loading at dinner and an early night.

Alarm at 6:15am: no snooze!

Before we left, we bought a Colca map from Pachamama Hostel (10 soles), which told us that the return hike to Llahuar was not recommended due to the accent – it’s much further than Sangalle, the oasis town also at the canyon’s bottom. Of course, we took the advice as a challenge and left for Llahuar at 8:15am.

The decent took us over agricultural land occupied by American Kestrels and Andean Condors; winding down rocky switchbacks; over rickety, old wooden bridges and along stretches of cliff edge that had unparalleled views of the canyon. The most difficult stretch of the hike was before the Geyser and bridge at the bottom of the canyon; 90 minutes of steep, blister-inducing gradient that got tiresome by the time we reached the bottom.

Daisy and Ian on top of Colca

An hour beyond the bridge, and post snack break, we arrived at Llahuar, a tiny place famous for hot springs. There were two places to sleep there – the bigger Llahuar Lodge and Casa de Virginia, which was smaller and our home for the night. Owned by a small family, Casa de Virginia was a little bit of escapism after a tiring day. We were made to feel incredibly welcome, with lunch and dinner made at our request; pasta, rice and more carbs please! We even got to pick fruit from their orange grove to eat fresh. Delicious!

Our room was a 7x7ft stone shack with no electricity, which needed candles to light at night. It was very rustic, and despite the barking dogs and crawling insects, we both slept well!

Breakfast at 5am
Banana pancakes, coffee and tea. A breakfast of champions!

After a 6:00 am departure, on our 1200m accent we were fueled for at least 3 hours by our banana pancakes, and until hour 5, it was “fairly easy going”. We powered up the sections that we thought would be tough, which allowed for strategic photo and water breaks. Clearly our memories of the previous day were hazy because after hour 5 we began to struggle; perhaps we should have listened to the map…

As we stopped for our final snack break, we bumped into some new friends – Huacachina Wild Rover buddies – who were heading down the canyon; they looked far more spritely than us, the pain fairly obvious on our faces. It took some mental strength, but the final hour was hiked and we arrived back at Cabanaconde after 6 hours and 15 minutes.

Selfie after the hike
Did it! Now, where is the bus…

With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps we would have stayed an extra night in the Canyon because it was so beautiful. Nevertheless, Cusco wasn’t going to see itself, and after a night in a complete dive hostel – Flying Dog Arequipa 1/5 – we hopped on our 5:15 am bus and headed to the Sacred Valley.

Cloudy Machu Picchu

Next up, Cusco, and that fairly unknown cultural site in the Sacred Valley. What’s it called? Machu something.

Until next time.

I/

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