Monday, October 16, 2006

Llamas, Alpacas, Vicuñas and the Andean Condor

The alpaca
Originally uploaded by Henrik & Barbara.
From Cusco we went via night bus to Arequipa – the second biggest city in Peru. We had chosen one of the safest companies to travel with which meant all passengers had to pass a metal detector and accept being video filmed twice, before they were allowed on the bus! Despite the nice environment on the bus: steward wearing local costume, dinner served, video film and even bingo plates was handed out, we didn’t really get a good nights sleep. People coughing and snoring the whole night are not really the lullabies that calm you down.

The biggest tourist attraction in the region of Arequipa is the Colca Canyon - the world’s deepest canyon. The main reason for wanting to see the Colca Canyon is not the depth though – but the opportunity to see the great Andean Condors who live in that area. The Andean Condor can get a wingspan up to 3 meters and is a meter tall when it stands on the ground, - bound to be impressive.

Arriving in Arequipa for us meant being really tired – and after lunch we booked a 2-day trip for the following day and went to bed, having not really seen anything in Arequipa yet.
Not to worry, next morning – after 15 hours of good sleep - we felt more or less rested and met with the group we were going to adventure with for the next couple of days, all European people, most Spanish but also a very nice couple from Hungary: Tama’s and Timea.

Heading east from Arequipa we passed a huge area of what looked like a white bumpy desert, - really special. More than 300 years ago, there was an eruptive volcano 70 kilometres from Arequipa. It is the footprints of that volcano we now passed, everything, hills, small mountains covered in the rage of the volcano. For more than 25 days the people living in that region could not see the sun because of the thick layer of ash in the air and all animals and vegetation were eradicated around the volcano, (up to 70 km from the volcano). Now 300 years later, there is hardly a cactus, less any other kind of vegetation in the region, - really strange to drive through. Fortunately, the locals have figured out how to benefit from it: They use the volcanic stone to make concrete. Arequipa is therefore also known as the white city: Many of the buildings in Arequipa are made of these special volcanic stones.

First stop on the road was the “Reserva Nacional de Agua Blanca y Salinas”. In this park you can find all different kinds of the South American camels: Llamas, alpacas, vicuñas and the guanacos.
The llamas and the alpacas are domestic, whereas the vicuñas and guanacos are wild. The only one we did not see was the guanaco – it is close to extinct and therefore really rare. The vicuñas are the most athletic ones. They can actually run 46 km./h – which is really fast 4000 meter above sea level.
It was nice to get a chance to see these animals, wandering around in herds. Seeing them all in one day gave us a better idea of which one is which. We have not been able to distinguish between them for the last 1,5 month. We can do that now. Yeah!
We also passed a few other animals: Migrate birds, mainly Ibis, in the swamp-areas and little rabbits hiding in the rocks.

And then we went to the highest point we have ever reached, 4910 meter above sea level! At this height coming from Arequipa in 2300 m. you only have to run 10 meters to loose your breath! We grasped a bit for air, stumbled over all the Indian women selling handicraft and enjoyed a great view to eight different volcanoes. Then we continued our trip though the dry alpaca/vicuña/llama land, who once in a while greeted us on the way.
We ended up in Chivay, the biggest city in that area. We skipped the group-tour to the thermal baths in the neighbourhood, thinking that we will get great opportunities in Japan for that kind of stuff. Afterwards we were told that the water in one of the pools was actually boiling! Could have been cool to see...
The group-dinner afterwards was a big nightmare. We were all seated in a ‘tourist restaurant’ as they brand their ‘good’ restaurants here (where you pay 3 times as much as you would do at the locals choice where the food is often much better).
At this place we were seated among 100 of other gringos, got expensive food not to mention the hilarious folkloric show…. Well in some way it is cool to see all the different dances and costumes, but that depends on how it is served. This show seemed so fake, showing the Incas dance with huge plastic crowns and the Amazonian Indians wearing clothes in neon green! Could this please have an end? We ate our pizza in a hurry and ditched the place in favour for the half finished cold hotel room which the tour agency kindly had chosen for us…
All in all it had actually been a good day – we just need to work through our phobia of being in tourist groups and not having the luxury of choose everything by our self. A habit we along the way have become really fond of.

Next morning around 6 a.m. the journey continued towards the Colca Canyon. The guide insisted in a couple of stops along the way in some of the smaller communities who clearly depended on tourism. We arrived at Colca Canyon starting out with a nice easy hike along the canyon. The view was splendid down the canyon and we even spotted a couple of eagles flying above us on the way. 45 minutes later we arrived at the Mirador del Condor - The most common place to spot the huge Andean Condors. Hundreds of people was already there spotting for the great bird.
We found a spot on a couple of rocks and started patiently to look for the Condor. Though the view was great, the waiting time was long. More than an hour should pass before the condor finally showed its magnificent self. Coming from the depth of the canyon it followed the curves of the canyon before it rose way up in the sky, spreading out its huge ’fingers’ as the tips of the big wings look like.
In many ways this was the highlight of the trip. Noticing that the condor is very important to the locals both in Ecuador and Peru, and knowing it is the national bird of Bolivia. This was a must see for us, the condor, - the symbol of freedom, independence and afterlife. Even Machu Picchu was built in the form of the condor (if you see the site from above).
Heading back to Arequipa we passed a few interesting sites, for example ancient graves in the form of holes made high up on a steep cliff where mummies used to be placed. How did they manage that?

Back in Arequipa we had one more thing on the list before heading to Puno: The Santa Catalina Monastery which is considered a masterpiece of colonial architecture, which several other travellers had highly recommended to us.
We were impressed! The place shows such beauty in its quietness, the maze of narrow cobblestone streets, large complex of rooms, picturesque plazas, and ornate fountains. The nuns living there were never allowed outside the huge walls surrounding the monastery. You could sense the simple life the nuns were living there in the simple decoration of their rooms. We could not figure out if the nuns have had an easy life or not. The place is so beautiful and the spirit and the religion for them must have been their great compassion, but living apart from the rest of the world – still being able to hear the sounds from the real life from the other side of the wall must have been difficult to deal with. The monastery opened for the public in 1970.
The women who entered as nuns were Creole, half-bred and even daughters of curacas (Indian chieftains). History tells of the intake of poor nuns and from ladies of the city, who without embracing the religious life entered into the Monastery to exert their virtues.
From there our journey began towards Puno – our last stop in Peru. This time we had taken the cheapest bus available, since we were travelling in day time. That meant five hours on a warm bus, where opening the windows meant clouds of dust entering the bus and of cause: No toilet. - But we saved at least 50 kroner…


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