There is 712km between Huacachina and Arequipa, and we managed the journey in 16 hours with a couple of stops along the way.
Our first stop was in Ica, where we toured the oldest Pisco winery in the region. This meant, of course, quite a bit of sampling…which is the perfect formula for disaster when your tour starts at 2pm and you’ve got a long, overnight bus ride ahead.
We briefly learned about the process of making Pisco and a little bit of the drink’s history. Peru didn’t nativly have grapes, but the Spaniards soon fixed that after they moved in, requiring a lot of wine for communion during mass. They imported the grapes, and the Pisco region has been growing them ever since. Numerous sweet wines are produced from the grapes as well as straight Pisco liquor, which is about 42% alcohol. The fermentation process occurs in these vessels, in which the juice from the grapes hangs out for about 2 weeks.We spent about 10 minutes learning about Pisco production, but were fairly quickly moved onto the sampling station. We sampled 3 different wines and 4 different kinds of straight Pisco. Some members of the group were very enthusiastic about the sampling portion of the tour, and got several refills in their shot glasses. Leading us through this debauchery was our tour guide, Nilo, who was downing Pisco right alongside us. I was a little less enthusiastic about the sampling, as I am not a straight liquor type of gal (unless it’s Jaegermeister) and I’m afraid my poker face wasn’t quite up to snuff.
After we were all liquored up, many additional bottles of Pisco were purchased by the more youthful Peru Hoppers for the overnight bus ride.
After leaving Ica, we started to wind through the desert on the way to the Nazca lines. The scenery consisted of long isolated yellow sandscapes, with small villages winking by every now and then, their small streets filled with brightly painted mototaxis.Our next official stop was the viewing platform for the Nazca Lines. To properly see the 170+ geoglyphs which cover about 500 square miles of desert, you have to take a small, single prop plane which hurls you around the sky for the bargain price of $80. Everyone we talked to about this option steered us away after hearing about my fear of flying and John’s motion sickness. The other option was to climb a rickety tower by the highway which, during our visit, was filled with small Australian women. You could see a couple of the lines from the tower, but the light was slowly fading.
After a quick and delicious dinner, we climbed back on the bus and settled in for our overnight journey to Arequipa. Peru Hop takes the safer road, going around the Andes as opposed to through them. Having witnessed the ‘safe’ road, I can’t imagine what conditions the Andes road was in. Our tour bus rocketed through narrow mountain passes, sheer towering rock on each side…I gave up counting the Cuidado! Peligroso Curve signs after 20. As we have described countless times before, drivers in South America are absolutely fearless. Our driver was passing multiple semi trucks on blind curves without a second thought. We basically drove in the middle of the road, which allowed us to take the curves that clung to the side of the mountains at a speed I most commonly associate with Nascar races. A crates-worth of various sized water bottles rolled back and forth in the aisle as we swerved up and down the mountains. I was able to observe our progress by the light of headlights, which gave the whole experience a more dramatic and terrifying flair. I finally tore my eyes away from our impending doom around 12:30am, grabbed John’s hand tightly and closed my eyes.
The most unbelievable thing about our journey was not the death defying driving, but rather the sleeping conditions of the second driver. Peru Hop employs 2 drivers for the night shift for safety reasons, which I applaud. However, the second shift driver spent the first shift sleeping in the luggage compartment under the bus. When we were stopped for dinner, I noticed one of the drivers sitting in the open luggage compartment. Then I noticed the mattress rolled out on the floor. That’s when I realized that was where he was hanging out of the entire journey. In the dark. By the engine and front axle. Under the bus. This was where our second shift driver was supposed to rest up for his part of the journey. As terrified as I was up top, I can’t imagine what the ride was like rattling around with the engine fumes.
In the end, we all made it to Arequipa in one piece, around 6:00am in the morning. We staggered off into our various hostels and caught a couple of hours of extra sleep, happy to be on solid, safe ground.
We finally made it out to Arequipa around noon. It’s a beautiful city, the second largest in Peru after Lima. The central core is an UNESCO World Heritage site, the buildings are all made from sillar, white rock hewn from the surrounding volcanoes (of which there are 3). Arequipa was completely destroyed in 1600 by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and has been hit by major earthquakes in 1687, 1868, 1958, 1960 and, most recently, in 2001. This has encouraged builders to keep their buildings sturdy and low to the ground. The closest volcano to the city is El Misti, seen here at sunset rising above the city like a 5822m high Christmas pudding.
Our first day in Arequipa was dedicated to catching up on sleep and acclimatizing to the altitude. The city sits around 7500 ft, which is not too bad, however we are taking a trip to the Colca Canyon in a couple of days, where will get up to 14,000ft. We’ve stocked up on the local remedy, Agua de Florida and have some actual prescription meds if this magical liquid fails to help. Altitude sickness strikes randomly, so we don’t know whether we are going to get sick at all…I’m sure you will find out all about it in the next blog post.
We kicked it up a notch on our second day by visiting the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. Don’t be misled by the name, this 20,000 square meter complex is actually a convent. Being sent to the convent was a big honor and if you happened to be the second born girl, it was your birthright. When you turned 12, you became a novice for 4 silent years. Your family paid 100 gold or silver pieces for this privilege and if, at the age of 16, you chose not to stay, it was a huge dishonor. After you passed a secret nun test, you got to become a big girl nun…and that’s when the fun started.
You stayed in the convent for the rest of your life, but it wasn’t as austere as I was expecting. Your family paid for your house to be built within the walls, and for a couple of servants to cook and clean for you. If your family was loaded, you got a pretty great house…most of the houses we toured were better than some of the hostels we have stayed at so far. The complex included several chapels, community kitchens, bath houses, a hospital and a cemetery. When a nun died, she was laid out in a formal room and her portrait was painted within 24 hours. It was considered to be a sin of vanity to have your portrait painted while you were alive. It was also considered a sin to be seen nekkid, even by other nuns, so you got in and out of the bath in a dress. It wasn’t all fun and games…you only got to speak to your family through a double grate in the wall of the convent, complete with a Hannibal Lecter type revolving hatch for personal items. One thing which surprised me was that the role of Mother Superior was filled democratically. Every 3 years, the nuns voted for their new leader (who had a rather posh house).
The convent even housed it’s own Saint. St. Sor Ana came to the convent when she was 4 in 1606 and lived to the ripe old age of 90. It was said she could levitate and see the future. She was made a saint in 1985 by Pope Johnny Paul II after a woman was cured of uterine cancer after drinking a potion which included some dirt from Sor Ana’s grave.
In 1970, a newer convent was built within the walls, which still houses 20 nuns. The original buildings were brightly painted with blues and reds, which gives it a rather Mediterranean feel.
Let it be stated for the record that, as a second born, I would be a terrible nun…basically because I can’t keep my mouth shut for 4 minutes, let alone 4 years.
All this piousness resulted in an extreme pizza craving, so John, our new friend Dave and myself finished off a couple of pizzas at a local restaurant before taking a 3.5hr walking tour of the city. As we hung around waiting for the tour to start, I picked up a snuggly sweater made from baby alpaca (a move I felt slightly guilty about, as I ate a delicious Alpaca chop the day before) for a bargain price of $13. Dave and I got the same sweaters, although in different colors, as we are both taking a Colca Canyon tour tomorrow which promises cold, cold temperatures. John is sticking with his Iron Maiden hoody (we’ll see who’s warmer…I bet it’s the sweater twins).
I was very sleepy and peeled off about halfway through the tour to catch the sunset on the terrace on the top of our hostel. The sun set directly behind the monastery and painted the volcanoes in bright pinks.
As I have mentioned, tomorrow we head off for a two day tour of Colca Canyon, the world’s second deepest canyon (the deepest being a couple of miles up the road). We’ve been promised an intoxicating combination of altitude sickness, llamas, star gazing and Andean Condors. I am sure an annoying number of Llama pictures are soon to follow!