The day started earlier than planned as there was an anti-mining protest scheduled, which meant that all roads into Arequipa were going to be blocked for 3 days and we had to leave before that started. Apparently, the mines have caused huge environmental damage over the years, with soil and rivers being contaminated with the mercury that is used in the gold extraction process. Consequently, local people have been slowly poisoned as they have continued to fish in the rivers and grow their fruit and vegetables on the land. The current protest concerns a proposed copper mine near Arequipa in an area of major agricultural production that, in his election promises, the President had said he wouldn’t permit. Feeling is therefore running high.
I was picked up first and, after the rounds of the hostels, was joined by 3 Dutch people, 2 French couples and a German man. I was the only native English speaker on the English guided tour! We had to take a bit of evasive action to get through the road blocks by going through some of the back streets of outlying suburbs but were soon on our way.
Whilst we were travelling to our first destination, Paul, our guide, inundated us with political, social and environmental information. In doing so, he solved one of the puzzles I had had. There are thousands of small box-like houses on the hillsides outside the cities. Apparently, it is legal to squat on land in Peru and these houses have been built by country folk coming to town for work. Once they have lived in them for 3 or 4 years, they are entitled to the land, even if it is private. As a result, these houses, with no electricity or water, are popping up everywhere causing a major political and social problem.
Our first stop of the day was at the Rock ‘Forest’ at the back of Chachani, Misti and Pichu Pichu volcanoes. We had a magnificent view of the mountains and spent a couple of hours walking through the rock formations, which had been formed over thousands of years by the wind and rain.
After we rejoined the van, we drove about 10 minutes down the road to a cafe where we had Inca tea, which is a cup full of herbs and hot water – very tasty and, no doubt, healthy. In an adjacent room, 4 or 5 ladies were knitting and spinning alpaca wool and I chatted to them, in my very limited Spanish, for a while and ended up, inevitably, buying an alpaca wool beanie.
It was onwards and upwards after that. Throughout the morning, we stopped for vicuna and alpaca viewing as well as to admire the incredible vistas. Unfortunately, despite altitude pills, ibuprofen, chewing coca leaves and drinking coca de mate (coca tea), I still ended up with a headache, which persisted all day. We were at 4,500 – 5,000 metres all morning and it was obviously too much for me.
After descending very steeply down an extremely zig zaggy road, we arrived in Chivay for a late buffet lunch. Whilst we were there, it clouded over and started to rain. There was even thunder and lightening! Luckily, it didn’t last long and by the time we had visited the market, where we sampled some very unpalatable cactus fruit, the skies had cleared again.
We continued up the Colca Valley, heading towards Pinchollo, our destination for the day. Along the way, we stopped at various viewpoints to admire the majestic mountains, as well as the terraces created by the Incas, which are still in use for agriculture today.
We also had a short stop at Maca, one of the many villages whose population has declined considerably over the years as people have moved to the cities for work. However, there was a lot of effort going into restoring a wall in the Plaza de Armas!
We arrived in Pinchollo just after 5pm and immediately set off down the mountain to view the sunset. I would have to say, I was rather sceptical about this as it appeared to me that the sun had gone too far behind the mountains already and there were some very black clouds. Nevertheless, off we went, as that was in the itinerary. As expected, it was underwhelmingly spectacular!
After a long day, we walked the short distance to the Colca Trek Lodge. This was wonderful and much more luxurious than any of us had anticipated. It was built by the trekking company and is only used for its tour groups, although other people can use it when trekkers are not occupying it. The company is supposedly very environmentally conscious and gives as much work as possible to the local communities.
I had a room to myself, being the odd female in the group, which was wonderful. There was a beautiful dining/lounge area with a view of the mountains. I could have taken up residence for quite a while! Dinner was excellent and we even had vegetables (green ones!) that I never see on a normal menu. Afterwards though, I had to take my headache to bed. I was asleep by 8.45pm, which must be a record even by my standards.