Friday, June 24, 2016

Arequipa, Peru

When most people think of Peru they think of Machu Picchu. It turns out that Peru has much more to offer the traveler -- from many more Inca ruins to the deepest canyons in the world (over 4,000 meters deep) to a mountain range second only to the Himalayas.

I recently spent a week and a half in and around Arequipa, Peru. Arequipa is in southern Peru, just west of Lake Titicaca and south of Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu.

Highlights of the area include Colca Canyon, some 6,000 meter high volcanoes, and the city of Arequipa, which is built in a Spanish colonial style and many of the buildings are made out of petrified volcanic ash. There are many volcanoes here.

Here's a photo of the beautiful main plaza in the center of Arequipa.

Just north of Arequipa a couple volcanoes loom over the city. One has the iconic form that we think of when we picture a volcano in our head. The other is not as iconic looking, but is one of the easiest 6,000 meter (19,900') mountains to climb -- you can drive on a road up to 15,000'. The highest peak you see in the photo below is Chachani. It doesn't look like much but it is the 6,000 meter peak that I climbed in a two-day outing from Arequipa.

The first day we drove up a 4x4 road to 15,000'. When I put on my pack at this altitude it was already the highest I had ever been on earth. We had a group of 9 hikers and 3 guides and we hiked in for about two hours to reach our campsite.

After 6pm dinner we went to bed so we could get up at 12:30am and be on the trail a little after 1am.

Lit only by stars and headlamps, we began our ascent to the peak, expected to take about 6 hours. The trail was full of switchbacks almost all the way -- not technically challenging but steep and at this altitude it was difficult. Any time I tried to gaze up at the stars or to look back down the mountain at the trailing headlamps of other hikers, I got a little dizzy. I could definitely feel the lack of oxygen and was light-headed all the way up.

Just after sunset we arrived at the summit.

Of the 9 hikers who started in my group, only 6 of us made it to the summit. The others succumbed to either the cold or the altitude. The temperature ranged from 20-30 degrees fahrenheit. I was comfortable when hiking, but we often had to stop and wait for the rest of our group to catch up, and then I got cold. Because I'm backpacking through South America I have not been carrying my full complement of winter clothing, but the tour agency had some layers we could use.

6,000 meters. Almost 20,000 feet. It felt good to know that my body can be relatively comfortable at that altitude.

After getting back to Arequipa on Sunday evening, Monday morning at 3am I was picked up by a van to go on a 3-day backpacking trip in Colca Canyon.

This photo was taken at the end of the 3-day trek after we had climbed back out of the canyon. It is the crew that I hiked with (2 Brits, 2 Canucks, 2 Amerks, 2 Swiss, 1 Francais + Peruvian guide):

Since the time of the Incas this canyon has been used for agriculture. The rest of the region is mostly a desert, but there are glaciers in the mountains above the canyon that help keep it arable. However, at one place we saw a section that had been abandoned because the receding glacier was no longer feeding a stream that accessed its patch of land.

Our crew hiking down to the little pueblo where we spent the first night.

Second night was spent at this oasis, a lush spot down near the river. There was natural spring water that fed five gorgeous swimming pools. If this were in California it would go for $500/night. In Peru the rooms were spartan with no electricity and we paid about $10 for the night here. It was great.

After beers with new friends that night I ended up last man standing when they cut out all the power to the facility around 10pm. I noticed the amazing stars and laid down in the grass, face up, listening to Golden Smog's version of Bowie's "Starman" on repead in my earbuds. Heavenly.

Another shot of lodging at the oasis down in the bottom of the canyon. Note that this place where we were hiking was not the part of the canyon that is over 12,000' deep. That part is farther downstream and I did not actually see it. This part is about 4,000' deep and we climbed out the next day.

If you find yourself in Peru, be sure to explore beyond Machu Picchu. Peru is full of spectacular sights and I will share more with you in a couple weeks after I go backpacking in the Cordillera Huayhuash. Teaser photo of the Cordillera Huayhuah where I will be soon:

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