Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Cotahuasi Canyon

This weekend we did a trip to the deepest canyon in the world. It is located in the Atacama desert which extends all the way to the middle of Chile. We were picked up by two gentlemen-Sergio, our fearless driver, and Elias, our guide. There were 4 others on the trek, 2 sisters from Ireland (Carolann and Sinead, a german girl named Annmarie and a danish boy named Morten). Everyone was incredibly friendly and funny, it didn´t hurt that english turned out to be the common language we spoke for the trip but we didn´t learn much new spanish.

The 1st two hours were over landscape that must resemble the surface of the moon. It hasn´t rained there in 85-90 years. Irrigation has begun to pull water from the Colca River in hopes that it will create enough moisture to bring rain for this barren landscape. Its incredibly hot and sunny!

The lowest part of the canyon is 600 meters and the highest is 4,920 meters (we´ll just call it 5000). We didn´t stay at the highest altitude for long and our guide was packing O2 so all went well and no one needed to use it..... although I was close. We were offered coca tea and one of the Irish girls gave me some coca leaves to chew on which really helps with the headache. Around 4000 meters we saw a tree that only grows at high elevation, the name escapes me now but it only grows 1 meter per 100 years. We also saw a green plant that grows over rocks and resembles green coral, it only grows an inch a year. From this altitude it was apparent that there are very few glaciers left in this region. They have lost 87% of South America´s glaciers in the last 3 years from global warning. I hate to see what happens when they all melt, this region alone is ultra dependent on the water sent down the river from glacier melt.

The road to the canyon from Arequipa is about 40% paved but very bumpy with many steep and crazy turns. Not for anyone who is prone to motion sickness. The last 60% was not paved and made a dirt road in the states look like silk. These roads are not wide enough for more than one vehicle except in random parts, combined with hair raising turns and oncoming traffic of big buses or construction vehicles.... lets just say it wasn´t a good time to sleep.

Once we reached the small town of Cotahuasi, we had dinner and crashed for the night at a local hostel. After leaving the hostel in the morning we headed down the road in our van to our drop site for the trek. We didn´t get more than a mile down the road before we saw some workers flagging us to stop. *A little history - until last year this road didn´t even exist. They have taken a shear cliffside, not unlike the side of the grand canyon, cut it with a hand held jackhammer and built a road down to the river. The road was originally scheduled to meet up with the ocean but there is a giant cactus forest along the way. This area was recently protected due to the rare species so the road now stops just short of the forest. (see pics for cactus forest) Back to the story, as we got out of the van to see what the hold up was about we saw that the road abrubtly dropped down by a good six feet. For the bargain price of 1 liter of Inka Cola (a local coke product that resembles a mix of Mt. dew and cream soda) we got them to bring around another plow to fill in the drop and smooth over the road. About 25 minutes later we were on our way. About 30 minutes more we met the river and our porters/mules. This is where our journey on foot began. The trail wasn´t too steep except for an occasional bit. We wondered through the giant cactus forest, there were three different types but I can only remember the nicknames of a couple. ¨Sanki¨ is unique to this forest, it doesn´t grow anywhere else in the world. ¨Julio Sanki¨is unique to western Peru and eastern Bolivia and the third type which is more common. Most all of them are 15-20 feet tall and some are as old as 800 years. By 6pm we were at the camp site, down by the river and off to soak in the hot spring while the locals unloaded the mules, set up our tents and made dinner. We slept with the sound of the river under the stars at the bottom of the canyon next to lime and orange trees.

Our dinner was an amazing bean soup and beef stirfry with a bottle of wine. So far in Peru, I´ve had some of the most amazing soups I´ve ever tasted and this one was the best. We awoke at 4:30am and started packing up. The porters and donkeys showed up as breakfast was served. We had yogurt, quinoa pancakes with jam and coffe or tea. By 6am we were off and heading back up the canyon. After about 5 hours we took a detour to get an upclose view of the waterfalls we´d seen the previous day from above. They were spectacular, we laid on the rocks just above and could feel the refreshing mist on our faces. It was a welcomed retreat after being blasted by sand and dust for the last couple of days. Afterwards we climbed the rest of the way out of the canyon. The van picked us up and took us to another hot spring location to soak our tired muscles. For 5 soles each ($1.50) we could spend as much time as we wanted in the three different pools. We stayed back in Cotahuasi for our last night.

Annmarie and I walked the town a bit in search of the infamous Chicha (to Peruvians what moonshine is to Americans). We couldn´t buy it anywhere but we were looking for a local who would let us in on a secret of where to find it. No luck, instead we settled on some local wine made right there in town. The first hint that we went astray might have been the fact that they were selling it out of plastic water bottles. The second might have been that you could tell the liquid didn´t have much color for a red wine. The third would have been the smell if we had bothered to smell/taste it before buying. Oh well, it was only 12 soles per bottle ($4) so we did it. At dinner we opened it to find an alcohol that more closely resembled red wine vinegar than wine. In the end we gave it to the hostel owner, maybe she can use it to cook with. Lesson learned.

In the morning we got up for a 5am breakfast and 5:30 departure. I awoke feeling incredibly quesy and knew a day of riding in a van on unpaved roads was going to be entertaining in the least. After downing some pepto in a desperate attempt to hold down my little breakfast we set off. We made a couple of stops along the way and I managed to make it all the way home without puking which was quite a feat. What a trip! Check out my new pics on flickr.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


This week we have been living with a family in Arequipa while learning spanish. We have classes for 4 hours a day, 2 learning vocabulary and 2 for conversation but the reality is that all four hours are a combination of both. I feel I´ve made leeps and bounds of improvement and it´s only Wed. The week is going fast. I believe it helps to live with a family where spanish is spoken from the time we get up until bed. The family has 4 boys so its a busy household but very nice. They have been very good to us. Monday night we went to see the club they belong to, it was amazing. Most of the space is outside and they have courts for volleyball, archery, a new track, basketball, 2 pools, 4 bocce lanes, you name it. I´ve never seen anything like it. We played a few games of boccee and will load photos once I get them.

In Peru the most common coctail is a Pisco Sour, made with Picso which is derived from grapes, lime juice, sugar and egg white. Its very similar to a margarita in flavor when its all said and done. I´ve had my fair share since we arrived so I felt I needed to learn how to make one. Unfortunately I got my first taste of stomach trouble yesterday, it was rather minor compared to my experience in Mexico but still no fun. As such, I slept off my little fever yesterday while Morgan went to market to get the ingredients for the coctails. From what Morgan told me, it´s larger than a costco full of anything you could imagine (sheap heads, shoes, frog juice). Last night our host family showed us how to make a Pisco Sour, now I just need to buy a few things and ship them home, my sister will love them!

Today we are headed down to the center of town to view the monestary that Arequipa is know for. More to follow afterwards!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Arrived in Arequipa

Morgan and I took a bus into Nazca where they have the famous Nazca lines on Friday, Saturday morning we took a flight up on a very small plane with 6 others (7 in total) to view the pictures from the air. The flight went well and no one got sick so I´m considering it a success. The town itself is in the desert so while the car fumes aren´t as toxic as they were in Lima it was very dirty and dusty and hot! We were excited to get to Arequipa and get some fresh air and the dinner they served on the bus was quite good (pinapple chicken and rice with steamed veggies and rice pudding). We were expecting to arrive in Arequipa around 10:30 but the trip took a little longer than expected. Along a short stetch (4 miles or so) where the PanAmerican HWY flows next to the ocean, we noticed that the sand had blown and caused drifts covering 1/2 of the HWY. We had to pull over again and again to play leap frog with on coming traffic considering we were all sharing the same lane. In the end we didn´t arrive until 1am so we picked a hostel we had heard about that was know for is muy grande breakfast. The room was less than desirable and there were no towels, toilet paper or soap. Too exhausted to put up the effort to find another place we just went with it and passed out..... until we laid on our beds. Mine had some wierd lumps and was what I would consider horrible but at least I couldn´t feel all the springs like the last one. Morgan didn´t complain much about his but neither of us slept well. When breakfast rolled around we were also let down but the woman we ate with who had traveled to Peru 5 times commented it was the largest she had ever seen. My wheat allergy has made breakfast interesting, I couldn´t eat the crepes or rolls but they did scramble up an egg and I had a tangerine and avocado left over from the day before so it all worked out. What I would really love is a cup of Lighthouse Roasters coffee!

We packed our bags and headed to a different hostel recommended in the Lonley Planet, Casa del Melgar. It it so beautiful. A spanish cathedral style place with high stone cielings, an amazing courtyard enclosed in the middle where we spent the afternoon lounging in the sun and listening to song birds. It was very relaxing to be in clean warm air with some greenery surroundig us. I´ll be posting pics soon of this establishment, I´d love to spend the entire week here but it´s about 48 US dollars a night so it´s just not gonna happen, we just needed one night in a clean comfortable bed with hot water!

Tomorrow we check into the spanish school and will assess how much we want to commit to. I need it more than Morgan does so I may stay for the week while he does a river trip then we will meet back up to do a 3-4 treck in the Colca Canyon.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Today was our last day in Lima, looking forward to getting out of the crazy city. We visited the Plaza de Armas and the San Franciscan cathedral where we toured the catacombs where over 20,000 people were buried. Tomorrow morning we leave early to catch a 6-7 hr bus to Nazca where we can view the mysterious Nazca Lines drawn on the land and hopefully catch a quiet evening. From there we are off to Arequipa to spend a week learning spanish while staying with a local Peruvian family. Our overnight stay in Nazca will break up the trip but still allow us to arrive in Arequipa by Monday to start our studies. I´m having trouble uploading photos to this blog but I´ve added them to Flickr at the following address:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Landed in Lima

I arrived in Lima without a hitch, took a bit longer than expected to get through Immigration/customs but managed to meet up with Morgan moments before he was about to give up on waiting. Getting to the hostel proved to be a bit of a journey as the cab driver didn´t know the address. Long story short, I finally laid my head down on the pillow at 3am and woke today somewhere around 8-8:30am. Nothing like starting a trip on a total of 8 hours sleep in the past two days.

This morning I had a good cup of coffee and then we headed off on foot to explore the Miraflores region of Lima including the Park of Love, the beach and we managed to catch a few incredible close up views of a couple of guys parasailing off the cliff during our lunch. I think that might need to be on the agenda for tomorrow! Sounds like Morgan is game, I hope to report back with some photos to capture the moment. We did a tour of the Huaca Pucllana Temple De Adoradores Del Mar ruins here in Lima, it´s currently being renovated but something like 70-80% is the original structure made of adobe bricks. Interesting but I´m guessing it pales in comparison to what we will see in the next few weeks.

There are a few things I´ve learned about Peru thus far, 1: when crossing the street - do so at your own risk. Peruvians will honk and flash their lights before they ever think about applying the brake, in fact I´m pretty sure they speed up at the same time. Its all quite interesting when you consider that many intersections have no traffic lights or cross walks and its a big free for all with cars coming from every section at the same time. 2: they love love love to use the horn, you can hear a melody of car horns from the time you get up until almost 8pm when traffic finally starts to die down. They don´t seem to use them as a hostile notion as we see in America but more of a "hey I´m right here, hope you see me" kind of way. 3: most women walk around with a big frown, maybe this keeps unwanted male attention at bay???

Those of you who know me will understand that I can´t add a posting without discussing food! I´ve been playing it safe on the food front but Morgan is tempting fate. He had salad for lunch with a glass of water (which we think was filtered) and ceviche for dinner. So far so good but he´ll have to beg if we wants to steal some of my pepto tomorrow. I think I´ve figured out how to finally say that I´m "allergic to wheat" and be understood but I still get some interesting commentary I can´t understand in response to my disclosure. For lunch I had chicken stuffed with bacon and cheese with steamed asparagus and spinach which was wonderful. For dinner we went to a traditional Peruvian restaurant near the hostel where I had a steak with mashed potatoes with a mushroom sauce. We both had desert and the total cost for dinner including the tip was $29 US.

After dinner we went to an alley of restaurants to get drinks and were accosted by several employees per restaurant trying to lure us in, very aggressive sales and I can´t count how many free Pisco sours I was offered as a lure to try their establishment. For those of you who have not tasted a Pisco sour, it´s reminiscent of a potent margarita with more sugar and sour with egg white frothed on top. The prices for alcholo at some of the touristy spots are more like home but there are great deals everywhere. It also appears that you can get one free drink per establishment if you play your cards right! Earlier we hit a local grocery store and bought some goodies for breakfast for just over $11 Soles. Not bad considering we got a grapefruit, a bunch of bananas, soy milk, a box of kellogs corn flakes, and a large bottle of water for a grand total of $4 US dollars. Try that in the states, the box of cereal alone would be $4.

Pictures to follow later!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

One week to go

I can't believe the time has finally come, one week from today I'll be on an airplane to Lima. Morgan and I will be staying with a friend in Lima for a few days before heading to Arequipa, Peru's second largest city also commonly called "the White City", to live with a Peruvian family and study spanish for a week. It will be a wonderful spot where we can adjust to the altitude and visit El Misti and the Canon del Colca and Canon del Cotahuasi (both are more than 2x the depth of the Grand Canyon). I'll do my best to post updates along the way including photos so those of you who are interested can experience a bit of the trip from the comfort of your homes here in the US.