We set off from Cusco on Sunday 17th January 2016 to cross the Andes southwards to Peru’s second city of Arequipa. Given we were in the midst of the wet season in the mountains, we expected to simply drive north up the coast of Peru from there, but that wasn’t quite how things developed. This blog describes the first of two exciting mountain drives to and fro across the Andes, taking in two of the deepest canyons in the world, Colca and Cotahuasi. This drive, the first of the two, took us to the historic city of Arequipa and its famous convent of Santa Catalina, via the picturesque Colca canyon and its condors.
(Throughout this blog there are little “galleries” of pictures. To enlarge the smaller images, click on them to open them in gallery view.)
A detour to Tres Cruces in the Manu Biosphere Reserve
The first “detour” from the route across the Andes happened immediately, when we decided to go peer at the cloud forests of eastern face of the Andes before heading south to cross to the dry western side.
The Tres Cruces viewpoint sits at the entrance to Peru’s Manu Biosphere Reserve, on the last ridge before the eastern edge of the Amazon rainforest. Although the park wasn’t on the cards for us during the wet season, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at the view.
It was best part of a day’s drive to cover the 160km or so to get there, northeast out of Cusco. The empty narrow roads cling to the sides of valleys taking a circuitous route through the steep, complex hill system, finding their way this way then back the other way, gradually weaving in the right direction.
North of the last small town of Paucartambo, we came across graphic evidence of why driving much further towards the forest would be unadvisable in the rainy season, when we hit two bridges that were washed out by floods. The detour around the largest of them involved an interesting river crossing that required a dramatic turn back on ourselves to climb out the otherside.
The turning circle of the Yellow Van is not that great, but we just got round and out without having to stop mid-stream, which is what we wanted to avoid. On the return journey, we managed it by sticking the nose into the river, reversing back up out of it again (with two wheels still on dry land at the back) to change angle sufficiently to make the turn. We had seen enough other traffic around to figure that someone would help pull us out if we had got stuck!
The view at Tres Cruces is described in the guidebook as a “marvel at anytime”. Sometimes, when conditions are right (best around the winter solstice in June), at sunrise, there is a light effect that gives the appearance of multiple, multicoloured suns rising. We didn’t expect to see that at this time of year, but we thought the view would be good to see… Unfortunately, we found ourselves in fog as we drove along what must have been a spectacular “final” ridge of the Andes.
We parked up for the night at the viewpoint at the end of the road and set the alarm for dawn anyway. You never know, it might clear up overnight…
It didn’t… And there was no hope of seeing the sun as it came up, but at dawn, the cloud a least lifted a little, just enough to give us a glimpse of what an incredible view there must be out there on better days!
We crawled back into the van and the warmth of our sleeping bags and woke up again a little later to find ourselves deep in thick cloud again, with rain beating down around us. Once we had given up on it pausing, we decided to drive carefully out along the narrow ridge road (which, thankfully, had a gravel surface laid on it – it apparently gets busy at other times of year).
Halfway into the drive back the next day, we came up against one of the obstacles we least wanted to meet, but had read about there being a risk of: a closed road. This one was closed for major roadworks and was going to be closed until 5pm. We arrived at the barrier at 1pm. Waiting until 5pm would not give us time to get through to somewhere where we knew we could park for the night safely before dark (we try to avoid driving at night, given the road conditions and, in some places, safety concerns). Looking at the map, we didn’t feel confident we would find an alternative overnight stop on route. So that left turning around, going back and going around another way back towards Cusco – a detour of at least 50km of slow driving. Further close examination of the map suggested an alternative – a few kms further up the closed road there was another road that would take us over to the other road meaning a much, much shorter detour.
We took it as a sign that our still very limited Spanish must be coming along when Bruce was able to discuss this option with the guys manning the barrier, verify that this other road was good (and open) and persuade them to let us though, as long as we were only going as far as the next junction… Hurrah! We could get to our target camping spot back on the main Cusco road before dark! On route passing through yet more spectacular countryside, complete with interesting stone tombs built on the hill-tops of the style as we had seen in northern Bolivia.
After a delightful detour to find the Incan rope bridge crossing the Ipurimac river (described in our Top 10 Incan things blog), the route from there south towards Arequipa was a rather bleak drive over the mountains, with a few cute alapacas along the way to cheer us up!
We made several route choices where we had no better method than to guess which roads would be better finished and most pleasant to drive, using the camping locations shared on iOverlander as an indicator. The challenge is that the lines all look the same on the map, but the roads themselves can vary from brand new smooth tarmac surface, even complete with painted lines, to rutted, pot-holed mud slicks (in the rain).
After two days of driving, we started to come down the other side of the Andes towards the head of the Colca canyon. Dramatic rock formations appeared in front of us, as we drove down into the valleys.
The Colca Canyon
The steep Pacific side of the Andes in Peru consists of 1000s of kms of dry, desert hill lines running down to the sea, divided by lush valleys and canyons. The Colca canyon is claimed by Peru to be the second deepest canyon in the world, second to its neighbour, the Cotahuasi canyon, which is a little deeper (read about that in the second of this pair of blogs here). However, it seems to have that title because the government asked a team of scientists to come out and measure it, when many, presumably deeper, canyons in the Himalaya are yet to be measured! More careful wording describes it as “one of the deepest”. The depth is taken as being from the top of the surrounding hills to be bottom of the valley at its deepest point and, in places, it feels more like a very deep valley than what comes to our minds when we think of a canyon, but that’s just semantics!
We entered the valley from the north, following the river all the way down the valley as it got deeper and deeper. This must have been the watershed of the Andes, as the river we were following flows south towards the Pacific, but just out of sight, over the hill to west, was Volcan Mismi, where the source of the Amazon river has been determined to be – a small, icy mountain trickle that is to become the largest river in the world.
We started our stay in the area by parking overnight at the hot springs near Chivay, at the mouth of the canyon. As we parked, we realised we had a gently deflating rear tyre, which we decided to change after we’d had a cleansing and refreshing dip!
Although cut off and left pretty much to itself for several centuries after the fall of the Inca, the Colca valley is now just a few hours drive from Arequipa and has become one of Peru’s most visited tourist destinations. It is complete with all the associated visitor infrastructure, such as entry fees, viewpoints, car parks and coach parties. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful, rich valley, with reputedly some of the best terracing in Peru.
With the blown tyre patched up in Chivay, we drove down the valley to explore. It was a miserable and overcast afternoon when we first got to the main viewpoint, the Mirador Cruz del Condores, but we tried to peer down and along the dramatic canyon anyway!
That afternoon and the following morning, we explored a little further down this side of the canyon, returning to the viewpoint carpark to spend the night.
We were woken next morning by the early arrival of the coach parties. The Colca Canyon is famous for its condors and the daily coach parties must leave Arequipa in the tiny wee hours in order to get to the canyon for the supposedly best hours to see condors, in the first hours after dawn. And indeed, I pulled back the curtain to peer out of the window from bed and was greeted by the sight of a condor sweeping up over the edge of the canyon in front of us.
So, despite our better instincts, we got up to join the crowds. The adult birds seemed to have disappeared, but there was a pair of juvenilles sitting on a prominent rock, almost as if they had been put there for the tourists:
Indeed, we were more than a little suspicious of this apparent show for the morning coach parties, but when, later in the morning, once the crowds had gone, we asked one of the park attendents whether they are fed, he was insistent that they are not – but why else would they sit there posing for the crowd? We’re still not sure what to think…
Feeling a little non-plussed, we retired back to the warmth of our bed for another couple of hours, then got up to enjoy a lazy breakfast on a beautiful morning with a lovely view and no crowds. It was mid-morning when we were treated to a visit by the full group of several adults and juvenilles.
They circled and swooped over us, settling on a group of rocks up the hillside on the other side of the road, the adults watching over the juvenilles as they ate.
Condors are huge, elegant creatures in the air, but rather ugly, carrion eaters on the ground. They have had religious significance as representatives of the air throughout human history in the Andes and it is easy to see why. We watched them, completely to ourselves, for quite some before they flew off again.
Back towards the northern end of the canyon, we treated ourselves to a night in a little hotel in the village of Coporaque on the other side of the canyon, at one of the prettiest sections of the valley and slightly off the standard tourist trail.
The inhabitants of the canyon and around were resettled by the Spanish into “reduccions”, which are still the main village settlements today. Each has a delightful old colonial church and square, which have all been recently restored. After independence, these settlements were albeit forgotten and left to do their own thing until relatively recently. Each village in the Colca valley developed its own slightly different style of dress, with the women wearing beautiful hats and colourful long dresses, specific to their locale. Today, even the women that wear modern clothing, often still wear the hat of their village (a hat is obligatory in the strong sun). These ladies are in the market in the village of Chivay:
The following morning, we walked up the hill side to see some pre-Incan Huari tombs built into the bottom of the cliff-side above the valley.
On our way out of the Colca valley, we detoured back up the valley a little to see the beautiful village of Sibayo, known for it’s stone buildings.
The final leg to Arequipa – climbing and pre-historic cave paintings
Rather than heading straight to Arequipa, we took a slightly longer route round, with a mission to find some interesting rock climbing behind the Ventana del Colca (the “window of Colca”), taking in a couple of evocative pre-historic caves on route.
It was a rough track up the valley side to get to the first caves, the Cuevas de Mollepunko. But they were worth the effort. The little group of three large caves are in a stunning position overlooking the valley below, which would have given the early inhabitants of the land a great vista to watch for animals to hunt or the approach of enemies. The walls are covered in scratched and painted drawings made by the early inhabitants of this land.
We suspect these caves are not visited often and the small parking area provided an excellent camping spot for the night.
It is easy to see why the Ventana del Colca has its name, although the rock formation at the head of the valley leading down into the Colca Valley looks more like a gateway.
Behind this gap are some rock faces that have been developed for sport climbing, so we had to drop in and give it a try.
We didn’t climb for more than a few hours and few routes though, as the combination of blazing sun and no shade with the high altitude made it a pretty harsh experience. So we drove on to find the Cuevas de Sunbay.
The road to these caves took us through the village of Sunbay and, on the way out, we came to a barrier across the road with an enormous improvised bell to ring. We rang the bell and waited awhile, but when nothing happened, we lifted the barrier and drove on. Fortunately, a guy with the keys to the caves, who said he hadn’t heard the bell (???), saw us driving down the road and managed to catch up with us on foot, with a rather yappy dog at his heels, by coming down the more direct railway line through the valley. We were pleased he did, because these caves are harder to find, hidden in a small canyon and are behind a barrier to protect them. We spent a more exposed night in the parking area for these caves too.
The spectacular drive on into Arequipa the next morning took us onto the plain of the Reserva Nacional de Aguada Blanca, with the volcanos of Chicanchi, Misti and Pichu pichu laid out in front of us, emerging from the enormous, dry, salty flat plain.
We were treated to the sight of a small group of vicuña drinking from a small pool of water in the middle of the dry plain.
Arequipa – Peru’s elegant second city
We drove into Arequipa on Monday 25th January 2016, stopping at a gas plant on the edge of the city in the hope, once again, that we might get our assortment of two gas bottles from each of Uruguay and Argentina refilled. To our delight, they said they could do it and to come back after lunch. It had me in stitches of laughter when our two odd shaped bottles emerged from a hatch, initially unrecognisable, as they had also been spray painted in Peru’s “Llamagas” purple! Very fetching it is too, next to the Yellow Van yellow! Maybe the new colour scheme will help with getting them refilled again later on in Peru!
In town, we found the overlanders’ favoured place to stay, in the small grounds of a elegantly painted colonial house now operating as a hotel, complete with nice campers’ bathrooms and an elegant sitting room to sit in to use the all important wifi. We set out to explore the city, famous for its architecture and unique spicy cuisine:
The Convent of Santa Catalina
Arequipa has numerous churches and monasteries, but the most famous is the beautiful convent of Santa Catalina. Almost a small city itself behind the high walls in the centre of the city, it is like entering a different world as you step through the entrance off the busy street outside. At its peak, it housed up to 500 nuns and their servants in the enormous complex of cloisters, rooms and tiny plazas. The small group of remaining nuns now live in a modern convent to one side of the complex and the doors on the historic complex were opened to the public around 40 years ago. It is a magical and peaceful retreat to wander around it today.