Colca Canyon Peru Oasis

Once again I was back in Cusco, this time my body absolutely battered after the Ausangate antics. I planned to rest up for a couple of days and finally move on, in the direction south to Arequipa. On this occasion in Cusco there was still time for one more wild excursion.

I was sat upon a curb and chatting, in my drunken state, to a homeless dog. Whilst on my phone and evidently distracted, a small Peruvian man walked right by me and snatched it out of my hand. The irony is I rarely tweet, and on Twitter that very day I’d written about being mugged more times in Newcastle than South America (that’s a whole different story), so as I watched this little thief run up the road, the prospect of being robbed hours after publicly making such a remark was highly embarrassing. Therefore, defiant, came the sort of pace that once saw me take third in an 80 metre sprint out of all the year 6 boys in Sheffield. This Peruvian had clearly underestimated I was capable of such a feat. I caught him up to reclaim what was mine, and nothing ever felt so manly. Letting out a roar of delight as the little thief ran off into the night, I perhaps woke half of Cusco in the process. It was a satisfying way to finish up in Cusco, and still yet to be the victim of a crime on my travels, I carried on towards the white city of Arequipa.

Arequipa is surrounded by three volcanoes, which looks rather cool when you first get there. I thought it would have been called the white city because of its building’s colours, which would be logical. That is partly correct, but it’s actually because of the influx of European immigrants with whiter skin during the 16th century. Arequipa is very easy on the eye and I really enjoyed wandering around here. It has a nice blend of the country’s heritage fused with a more modern impression, rather like a cross between Cusco and as I would soon discover, Lima. I was in Arequipa when the earthquake that devastated Ecuador occurred, two weeks before I was due there myself. After much deliberating about what sort of state the country would be in I decided to just miss it out. Exploring Ecuador will have to wait for now.

Close to Arequipa is the Colca Canyon. Twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, I thought I’d go and have a look. On the way there I met an American, Grant, who had recently moved to live in Santiago, and we had plenty of good conversation along the way. Santiago still remains one of my favourite cities I’ve visited on my travels. The scenery of the canyon added to the incredible surroundings I’ve come across during my time in Peru, so while Santiago is up there with my favourite cities from this trip, there’s no question my favourite country has been Peru. The hiking was exceptionally tame in comparison to the mammoth trek I’d taken on in the previous week as well, I could relax. I could relax even more when I came across quite possibly the most random thing I’ve ever seen. An oasis, beautifully green with swimming pools, lying at the bottom of the arid scenery around. It was just really weird. On my way back to Arequipa I thought about the way Peru has never failed to surprise me.

When I decided I wanted to travel around South America I already had a small fascination with Peru, but that was largely due to the places here and that mystery that sometimes still remains. I certainly wasn’t excited by the food, nor have I been throughout my travels. Though it’s no secret that here in Peru they like eating guinea pig, and if there was ever going to be one local dish I was going to try on this trip this was the one. So back in Arequipa I had my guinea pig experience.

Unlike many others, I have an excellent guinea pig story prior to eating one, and there has probably never been a more appropriate time to tell it. It involves myself, two of my oldest friends, a guinea pig by the name of Scuttles if I recall correctly, and a skateboard. It was a day in the early 2000s. Me, James and Oliver were no more than ten years old. It’s still a pretty vivid memory but I’ll spare the long version. It was at Oliver’s house, and I thought it would be funny to ram a skateboard in James’ direction, though as an adult I now realise that was a ridiculous idea given he was holding little Scuttles at the time. The skateboard slammed into the shin, James’s hands let go of said guinea pig to grab hold of said shin, and Oliver came running down the garden to question what had just happened. Thankfully we learned James’ shin was fine, but that’s nothing on what happened next. Remarkably, Scuttles, a guinea pig, had fallen on the skateboard and continued to skate down the drive, fully in control. The balance seemed inconceivable. I doubt there are many aware of the guinea pig’s ability to skateboard, so for myself I never thought that later in life a day would come where I felt like eating one.

So, I’m as unadventurous as you can be when it comes to food, but that fascination with Peru somehow led me to pluck up the courage to try the national delicacy. Grant was also keen to try some cuy, as the locals call it, so out we went to find us some guinea pig. I had no idea as to the difficulty of finding a place with guinea pig on the menu, but as it happened it was basically like our fish and chips. We had so many people outside various restaurants trying to tempt us into their cuy. We settled on a restaurant, ordered one between us, and then began a tense wait for the little guy to come out. I was actually a little nervous, I knew I was as I supped on my beer far too quickly. I think Grant felt the same.

Then out it came, still resembling quite strongly a guinea pig, just in an edible form. To our surprise the taste was pretty similar to chicken, only you have to chew repeatedly on it which very much reminds you that you are not eating a chicken. The meat was extremely difficult to get off. It was hard not to think about guinea pigs being much loved little creatures by many at home, and as I’ve explained this is an animal very capable when it comes to riding a skateboard. And here I was in Peru absolutely hacking one to bits. There weren’t too many dramas as we got through it, and the experience was a lot tamer than I’d anticipated. Still, we left the head. I could do without eating an eyeball. This wasn’t a bush tucker trial. We washed it down with some fancy ales from a very nice bar we found around the corner, the deed was done. For future dinner table conversations I can proudly tell people I’ve eaten a guinea pig in Peru.

After Arequipa and now with a little more time on my hands, I decided I’d break up my journey north to Lima by stopping off in Nazca. There I wanted to see for myself one of the biggest mysteries that remains in the world – the Nazca Lines. There are hundreds of different lines in the sand resembling giant shapes such as spiders, monkeys and fish, which isn’t that impressive, but given they have been there since before 500 A.D, the fact they are still there is unbelievable. Preserved by the dry climate, there’s been countless amounts of research over the years into their origins and purpose, and it’s amazing that we still know so little. I prefer it that way.

The best way to see them is by flying over in a tiny plane. You’d think googling such a thing would improve matters, but when I read there’s been numerous tourist deaths in these flyovers down the years I became a little hesitant. In 2008, a plane carrying five French travellers crashed, killing all on board. I decided to still go ahead with it though, when would I next be in Peru? I’d just be sensible in picking who would fly me over. Within seconds of stepping off the bus in Nazca I was bombarded with locals trying to sell me a flight over the lines. I was offered the ‘best deal’ by most of them, but figured the best deal was probably the most dangerous. I politely told them all to do one.

Nazca itself is hardly an exciting town. It relies on the tourism it’s famous nearby lines generate to get by, and there’s very little else to do there It’s best to just do the flyover and leave. I ended up booking a flight through the hostel I was staying at, rather than with the shady characters from the bus station. Looking back, I probably should have felt a little more nervous about climbing into this tiny block of metal with wings, especially after what I’d read in my research. I felt alarmingly normal, though once the plane was in the air I felt anything but normal. I was overcome with a horrible feeling of nausea, the bumpiness was too much. You’re told to look beneath the wing to avoid feeling sick, but that didn’t make much difference as I desperately tried my best to keep the vomit down.

While this was going on I’d forgotten I was supposed to be looking down on the great mystery that lied below. I’d anticipated to be blown away by these amazingly large and clearly preserved shapes in the sand. In reality, they weren’t massive, and they weren’t clear. You can just about make out the outlines in the moment but I was preoccupied with not throwing up, so I at least made sure to take plenty of photos. Though looking at my photos was like looking at a Where’s Wally book in searching for ages. I struggled to make out the shapes. The whole thing was a little underwhelming, and I was very relieved to land, knowing I’d avoided covering the old Brazilian man in the plane next to me in my sick. All pretty impressive from me. We were in the air for 30 minutes.

After Nazca I made my way to the capital. What struck me about Lima straight away was just how massive it is. By comparison Arequipa had seemed busy because around a million people live there, but in Lima, 10 million. My vision of Lima beforehand wasn’t good, I’d heard it wasn’t a nice city. Therefore, it was very pleasantly surprising when I got there. As I’ve mentioned it’s very modern, certainly in the places I stayed in the centre and in the suburb of Miraflores. I felt like I could have been in New York given the layout of the Miraflores streets, or Barcelona given the Spanish influence in the centre. I certainly had no idea Lima would please me as it did. I actually did very little there, just chilled. I was due a period of chilling after all the hikes I’ve taken on in Peru.

I spent the entire month of April in Peru, and despite everything I’ve seen there is still so much more I could get out of it. I feel like I might be back here one day, but for this time I’m approaching the final straight. Next up, Colombia.

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