I wanna call this place Arequipe (‘e’ instead of ‘a’), the name of a dulce de leche (think caramel) delicioso we discovered on a sailboat in the San Blas Island — and then subsequently found everywhere in Colombia. Sweet nostalgia, I suppose.
Arequipa, with an ‘a’, is pretty sweet as well. Nestled in the foothills of the Andes and shadowed by massive volcanos se llama Misty, Pichu Pichu, and Chachani, the latter two being dormant, Arequipa was an important and prosperous trade stop in the Spanish empire. And it’s architecture reflects that. It’s the most colonial-looking city in Peru, that we saw, with perhaps the most impressive central plaza, Plaza De Las Armas, that we’ve yet seen. UNESCO declared Arequipa a World Heritage Site a couple decades ago.
Arequipa, Peru’s former capital and second most populated city, is seemingly the antithesis to Peru’s current capital and first most populated city, Lima. It’s slower. Prettier. Less crowded. Tree-lined, cobblestone walkways bisect well-preserved, colonial buildings, most of which are constructed with lava rock. Cafes line the streets. You’ll wanna just amble around here.
Monasterio de Santa Catalina
We spent a couple hours one afternoon in Arequipa getting lost in the labyrinth of the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a once hoity-toity monastery for upper crust Peruvians — cost 2,400 silver coins, about $150,000 US dollars, to join. It’s stunningly beautiful yet simple. Rows of clay red and chalk white and cobalt blue casas surround courtyards and churches and other compounds. A city within a city. If you were the second-born daughter during the Spanish reign, you’d wanna get holy here — if your parents could afford it of course.
As mentioned in a previous post, Andrea and I flew to Peru almost nine years ago for a vacation. Mainly to see Machu Pichu. The week before we arrived, torrential rain washed out the roads and railways. Tourists were evacuated by helicopters. Unfortunately for Andrea and me, we couldn’t change our flights, so we redirected our vacation to the Amazon instead.
(The week we arrived, Chile experienced the strongest earthquake in its history, echoing tsunami warmings up the Pacific Coast to Peru. No one was allowed to swim. Amazing timing by the Lingles.)
This time, while the rain gods were blessing Peru, closing many roads, we decided not to venture to Machu Pichu for other reasons. Mainly not wanting to fight the hoards. 5,000 tourists — 2,500 in the morning and 2,500 in the afternoon — visit this Incan site all day, erry day. And there’s no offseason. All the fellow overlanders we spoke with that had visited it said it wasn’t worth the time or money. Most rated it a 5 out of 10.
We vagabonded here instead.
The drive from Arequipa, around 7,000 ft. elevation, to the Colca Canyon, around 15,000 ft. elevation was top five. Top three perhaps. Within an hour, vicuñas, a sort of alpaca antelope hybrid, surrounded the van on both sides. As did volcanoes. Within another hour, we drove through snow. An hour after that, after winding down into the canyon from its peak, nearly getting vertigo in the process, we’d arrived.
It’s the most gorgeous canyon we’ve ever seen. Jagged, snow-capped peaks jut from verdant, precipitous mountains — at its max, Colca is three times deeper than the Grand Canyon. The lazy Majes River slithers below. Andean condors, the largest flying bird (by wingspan) in the world, roam the skies. Alpaca the grounds. It’s wild, crazy terrain. Yet somehow, remarkably, ingeniously, it’s been cultivated by man. Pre-Inca stepped terraces (andenes) are built from the base of the Majes to dizzying heights. Incan messengers ran the peaks.
We camped a couple nights in Yanque, one of several quaint pueblos peppered in the canyon, which had been forcefully moved to its current location by the Spanish. We also visited the former Yanque, now named Uyu Uyu after the sound of the collective sniffling of the Quechua people when forced to vacate. It’s a mini Machu Pichu of sorts. Stone skeletons of hundreds of structures remain erect. A waterfall caps the mountain overlooking the ruins, sending a stream babbling through the center of the pueblo. It’s pastoral. Fetching. And we were the only tourists there.
Final Peru Verdict
The Colca Canyon area of Peru rivals only Jardin, Colombia (and the surrounding region) for our favorite. While I can’t speak empirically about Machu Pichu — though I had its picture on my screen saver for like a decade — if I were you, and I were considering visiting Peru, I’d skip Machu and head to Colca. You’ll get all the scenery, the wildlife, the ruins, and perhaps more importantly, the tranquility for half the cost and hassle.