Arequipa and Colca Canyon

Travel fatigue is a thing. It’s the best problem to have – I mean, seriously, what kind of person gets tired of traveling? Ungrateful people like me, that’s who. All the feels got to me in Arequipa, my last stop in Peru.

This is going to be a “Woe is me, I get to travel” blog post. I recommend you skip it if you don’t want to listen to a privileged, lucky person whining. In fact, I dreaded writing this because I didn’t want to sound jaded or unappreciative. But, people say honesty is a virtue, yadda yadda. So, I’ll be real about some of the lows of long-term travel.

This post has three parts: my experience over Christmas and New Year’s (my most angsty moments in Arequipa), the sights in the city, and my trek through Colca Canyon.


THE HOLIDAYS…OR THAT TIME I WAS EMO IN A HOSTEL BUNK BED

After weighing a couple of options, I decided to spend Christmas and New Year’s in Arequipa in southern Peru. All of the travelers I had met in Peru – for real, all of them – planned to go to Cusco for the holidays, so I had some doubts about Arequipa. However, I had already visited Cusco and didn’t want to backtrack.

I arrived in Arequipa on Christmas Eve and saw the main plaza in full holiday splendor.

arequipa

My hostel hosted a Christmas Eve dinner with turkey and panettone, or “paneton” in Spanish. I was familiar with panettone since my dad loves it (I’m not nearly as enthusiastic about it as he is), but I didn’t know it was popular outside of Italy. Apparently, paneton is a common Christmas dessert in many parts of South America, including Peru.

Most of the guests at my hostel went to a rooftop bar after dinner. At midnight, fireworks went off across the city.

arequipa fireworks

My LOL-worthy attempt at a photo of the fireworks. I swear I didn’t drink any wine during Christmas Eve dinner. 😉

The fireworks were awesome, but I was feeling down since I wasn’t connecting with the guests from my hostel. It wasn’t anyone else’s fault; people were perfectly nice. If anything, I might not have been making enough of an effort to engage others. Regardless of the reason for my funk, I had traveled enough by this point to know that it was impossible to click with everyone I met.

If I were being rational, I would have been able to accept that it was just an off night. Being in a foreign country on Christmas Eve shouldn’t have been an issue since Christmas isn’t a huge deal for me at home – my family hasn’t decorated a tree in years. But, for some reason, homesickness hit me hard on that rooftop bar, and I was so over the scene. I was done with making blundering attempts to insert myself into other groups’ conversations. I ended up ducking out of the bar and returned to my bunk in my hostel to message my friends from home. Not my finest moment, that’s for sure.

Fortunately, New Year’s Eve was a much better night. I had an easier time connecting with other travelers at my hostel. We swapped yellow party favors (many Peruvians wear yellow on New Year’s), ate grapes (another Peruvian New Year’s tradition), watched fireworks from a rooftop bar (again, but without all the dramz and emo-ness), and danced (a New Year’s tradition everywhere, duh). By the end of the night, I was messaging friends again, but they weren’t as desperate as the ones I sent on Christmas Eve…or at least I hope they weren’t.


CITY SIGHTS

Museo Santuarios Andinos was one of my most memorable experiences in Arequipa. It housed Juanita, the preserved corpse of an Inca girl who was sacrificed about 600 years ago. Juanita is considered to be the best preserved body of several children who were found on Mount Ampato near Arequipa.

You can see Juanita by taking a tour, which is offered in Spanish and English. The tour started with an informative video that provided theories on who Juanita was and the cause of her death. After the video, a student guide led my group through exhibits of artifacts found with Juanita’s body. My guide was excellent in explaining Inca rituals and the significance of the artifacts.

Of course, the highlight was seeing Juanita herself. Photography wasn’t permitted, but the experience was unbelievable. Although Juanita’s face had been weathered due to sun exposure, her hair was still intact. Researchers had found blood, food, and fat still in her body.

Museo Santuarios Andinos is definitely worth the admission fee of 20 PEN (~$6). I guarantee you won’t be bored during your visit.


On another afternoon, I participated in a chocolate workshop at Chaqchao. Adrian, the instructor for our class of six, was adorably passionate about chocolate. It helped that he was a cutie as well (teehee). We learned about the history of chocolate making and how cacao beans are processed into chocolate.

Adrian told us that real – or artisan/gourmet – dark chocolate has just three ingredients: cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, and sugar. Real milk chocolate has the same three ingredients plus milk (mind blown). He taught us how to distinguish between artisan and mass-produced chocolate. Scent was key; artisan chocolate actually smelled like chocolate, while mass-produced chocolate didn’t smell like anything. We also had a taste test where we guessed which chocolates were gourmet. When we bit into a piece of commercial chocolate, my classmates pulled faces and nearly spit it out. I didn’t find it nearly as offensive and had no problem finishing the sample. Hey, if it says “chocolate” on the wrapper, I’ll eat it.

Finally, Adrian instructed us on how to make our own dark chocolate. We were free to add ingredients such as salt flakes, almonds, coffee, chili powder, quinoa, and crushed coca leaves. At the end of the workshop, we each had a cute bag of chocolates to take with us.

chaqchao arequipa

If I were nice, I would have shared these with my hostel roommates. I’m not nice though.


On New Year’s Eve, I visited Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a convent that stretches over several blocks. The convent was like a small walled town, and the brightly colored walls were striking, even on a cloudy day.

santa catalina arequipa

santa catalina arequipa

Santa Catalina was charming, but it was crowded with visitors on New Year’s Eve. I should have visited the convent on another day, as I ended up getting annoyed with wannabe Instagram models and selfie sticks. (I know, I know…I’m a hypocrite since I’m also an Instagram user and selfie stick owner.)


COLCA CANYON

To kill time between Christmas and New Year’s, I did a three-day, two-night hike in Colca Canyon, about a four-hour drive from Arequipa. I booked a tour through my hostel, although many travelers hike through Colca Canyon on their own. The hike can be done in two days and one night, but I opted for the longer tour since I was in no rush.

If you don’t want to read through my full recap on Colca Canyon, here’s the “tl;dr” version:

  • The hiking is moderate. Colca Canyon should be doable as long as you can handle walking a few hours a day. The longest hiking day on the three-day tour was only four hours, a piece of cake compared to 12 hours on Mount Rinjani in Indonesia or even the two-hour high-altitude climb on Rainbow Mountain in Cusco. The Colca Canyon trail can be slippery, and the last day consists of a three-hour uphill climb, but you can take your time. It’s enough activity where you feel like you’re getting a workout, but it’s not an overly demanding hike that you need to seriously train for.
  • Colca Canyon offers good views, but I wouldn’t consider it a must if you have a limited amount of travel time. If you’ve visited other canyons or mountainous areas in South America (e.g., Torotoro in Bolivia or Machu Picchu in Peru), Colca Canyon might not be as impressive. If I could choose only one trek between Colca Canyon and Machu Picchu, I’d go for Machu Picchu. That said, I might just be a crotchety traveler. A couple of other people in my trekking group were wowed by the scenery.

Want to read more about Colca Canyon? Here’s the long version:

On the first day of the tour, I met my fellow group members (a Polish couple and a group of three university students from France) and guide Marco. After breakfast, we hiked for three hours, all of which were downhill. The path was slippery, so I fell a few times; this is pretty much my MO for hikes anyway. I was walking in sneakers, but people in proper hiking boots seemed to manage the trail better.

After a break, my group hiked for another 20 minutes on a slight uphill and were treated to this view:

colca canyon

After the brief hike, we reached Casa de Rivelino in San Juan de Chuccho. For a two-day itinerary, it’s common for travelers to eat lunch in San Juan de Chuccho and then continue hiking for another three hours. Since I was on a three-day hike, my group spent the night at Rivelino, which was basic but adequate for one night.

The next day started with a steep 50-minute uphill walk, but the remaining 2.5 hours were flat and downhill. We stayed at Tropical Lodge in Sangalle, also known as “The Oasis.” The rooms were basic, as expected, but interestingly, all the accommodations in Sangalle seemed to have a pool.

The last day consisted of an uphill climb to the rim of the canyon. Most travelers take about three hours to complete the climb, but one speed demon in my group finished it in less than two hours. I made slow and steady progress for the first couple of hours, but then lost patience and kept thinking, “I’m so ready for this to be over,” for the last 40 minutes.

Thank goodness the views at the top made the climb worthwhile.

colca canyon

After breakfast, we drove to a viewpoint of a valley near the canyon.

colca canyon

One of my favorite parts of the hike was a black dog who was a constant presence on the trail.

colca canyon dog

The dog divided her loyalty among multiple groups, including ours. Once our group was finished, my guide said that the dog would start all over again by following new groups for the whole trek.


FINAL THOUGHTS

I don’t regret going to Arequipa. If I had spent three nights there, I think I would have really loved it. It’s the kind of city that entraps travelers, and I met a number of people who extended their stays there. However, a week in Arequipa was too long for me. I kept walking through the same streets, thinking, “What else can I do?”

Arequipa’s size wasn’t the problem. I didn’t feel stifled when I visited other cities and towns that were smaller than Arequipa. My attitude was the problem. I viewed Arequipa as a place to kill time between Christmas and New Year’s and didn’t really treat it as a proper destination. I was too distracted thinking about my next stops. I knew I would be going to Chile afterward, so I was antsy and ready to move onto a new country.

Looking back on my visit, I do think that Arequipa was a better choice for the holidays than northern Chile would have been. Thanks a lot, hindsight. If I ever return to Arequipa, I’ll make sure to avoid visiting during Christmas.

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