Back to the real world

I tossed and turned all night and had only had a couple of hours sleep when the alarm went off at 4am. It was still dark and the last thing I felt like doing was getting up. However, we needed to leave by 5am or thereabouts to start the ascent and get as far as possible before the sun came up so, after a very early pancake breakfast, we set off.

Sun rising over the mountains
Sun rising over the mountains

Surprisingly, it was easy to walk in the dark with head torches and it was only about half an hour later when it started to get light. Other groups had already left and there was a trail of lights zig zagging up the mountain. It also took quite some time for the sun to actually appear over the mountain tops by which time we were almost at the top. It was a hard walk but certainly a lot easier than yesterday and it was also a beautiful morning, which made all the difference.

Pack donkeys in Cabanaconde
Pack donkeys in Cabanaconde

We met Freddy, our driver, in the Plaza de Armas in Cabanaconde and Paul hurried us along so that we could reach the hot springs at Chacapi before all the other tour groups arrived. This we achieved and were able to soak our aching limbs in the lovely warm water. The hot spring is natural. However, the pools themselves were a little disappointing as they were like normal swimming pools but had tarpaulin roofs, which rather spoiled them. No doubt, this was useful shade but I would have much preferred to have had the pools open to the sky.

Almost back in Cabanaconde
Almost back in Cabanaconde

Afterwards, we were chivied along once again to get to the restaurant in Chivay where we were going to have lunch. This was much more up market than the restaurant we went to the other day and catered for tourists on a large scale. I could seem why Paul wanted us to be there early though. As we started on the buffet, more and more groups arrived. It would have been hideous if we had arrived there later.

View of the Colca River valley
View of the Colca River valley

Three of our group left us after lunch as they were travelling on to Puno. The rest of us continued back to Arequipa. We were again encouraged to leave as quickly as possible after we had finished eating as the anti mining protest was still in progress and we didn’t know if we would be able to get through the blockade. As it happened, Paul’s anxiety about this was justified.

As we approached Arequipa, the roads were blocked with all manner of things, but mainly with large rocks, which had been placed all across the roads. This wasn’t just on the major routes but also along any side roads that the protesters thought traffic might be able to use to get through. We turned off on to the back roads and twisted and turned through some fairly rough streets up the hills in poor areas until we could go no further. Paul and Freddy found a road on which the rocks were small enough to be moved easily and a couple of locals directed them to a way through. However, as we drove along, protesters threw stones at the van on a couple of occasions, which was a little disconcerting. They were too far away to actually hit us, though.

Road block
Road block

We eventually made it back to the city and I was dropped off last. I then walked up to the Plaza de Armas in the hope that the supermarket there would be open. However, the protest was in full force, with broken glass and rocks on the pavements, fires burning on the roadways and police with riot shields barricading the way. A number of people were standing round watching and the atmosphere felt decidedly uncomfortable. I decided to go to the big supermarket that was a little further away and then straight back to the hotel for a glass of wine and bread and cheese in my room, followed by a much needed early night.

Rock forests and Inca terraces

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.

Chachani volcano (and spot the vicuna)
Chachani volcano (and spot the Vicuna)
Vicuna
Vicuna

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.

View up the river valley from the rock forest
View up the river valley from the rock forest

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.

Glamourous as ever in the rock 'forest'
Looking glamourous as ever in the rock ‘forest’
Part of the rock 'forest'
Part of the rock ‘forest’
Knitting a beanie
Knitting a beanie

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.

The market in Chivay
The market in Chivay
Some of the disgusting cactus fruit in the market
Some of the disgusting cactus fruit in the market
Plaza de Armas in Maca
Plaza de Armas in Maca

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!

Inca terraces still being used for agriculture in the Colca Valley
Inca terraces still being used for agriculture in the Colca Valley

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!

Highest point of the pass looking towards Ampoto
Highest point of the pass looking towards Ampoto

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.