The Friday evening after our Rainbow Mountain trek, two volunteers and I boarded an overnight bus for a weekend excursion to Arequipa, a city just over 300 miles south of Cusco. Arequipa is the third largest city in Peru, behind Lima and Cusco, boasting the second deepest canyon in the world, Colca Canyon (11,488 ft). The Colca Canyon is home to one of the most revered animals in Incan culture, the condor (the other two are snake and puma).
The bus station was congested with people, some hurriedly trying to make their bus, and others patiently seated on the chairs or even the floor waiting for departure. The sides were lined with small stalls, each a different bus company, but each offering what seemed to be the same tour. The words “Arequipa, Arequipa, Arequipaaaaaa!” chimed over and over again as the tour companies tried to boast their Arequipa tour over the next one’s, the words slurred together into one long city name. Our bus was mostly comfortable, with large plush leather seats that reclined pretty far, personal TVs, and sufficient leg room. I say mostly comfortable since the temperature hit about 90 degrees F a couple hours into our trip, just as we were about to sleep. This made the ride extremely uncomfortable for the remainder of the journey. The bus attendant was nowhere to be found, except in the last hour of the drive. I asked him to turn down the heat, and he told me the heater was broken. Interesting, since if he could have just turned off the heat the outside temperature (30 degrees F) could have easily cooled the bus down… :)
Almost 12 long hours later, we arrived in Arequipa! The city was beautiful. It was a perfect mix between Spanish colonial architecture and the small cobblestone streets lined with tiendas (stores) from Cusco. The main plaza, Plaza de Armas, was bordered by majestic archways, the center filled with palm trees.
We could see the mountains and the volcano in the skyline; it looked as if it were painted into the scenery. We spent the first day wondering around town, mostly eating and relaxing as we were still tired from the overnight bus.
Attempting to explore the historical town near the monastery, we were surprised to find many of the shops and restaurants closed, and practically nobody walking around.
We tried going to one of the museums that houses the best preserved mummified body in the world, Juanita, but the line was about 40 minutes long, so we saw Juanita on the brochure and left. The bus ride was really wearing on us, plus we had an early morning ahead of us for Colca Canyon.
We woke up at 2:30am the next morning to pack up our things and board our 3am bus from the hostel. It felt like the tours were getting earlier and earlier! Needless to say, we slept almost all the 4 hour journey to our first stop - breakfast. After eating, we made three more 10-minute stops on the way to the canyon to various markets. After almost 2 weeks in Cusco, I think it was safe to say that I’ve seen practically all items that can be sold in any of the local markets, other than my favorite in Cusco - San Blas! More on that later. We did, however, spot a condor (right)!
Eventually we made it to Colca Canyon. the scenery was beautiful. Unfortunately it wasn’t a hike as I had expected, but rather a walk down a trail. We found a spot on the rock wall overlooking the steep canyon, put our legs over the edge, and just admired the beauty.
We saw at least 3 (real) condors while we were there, their wingspans over 3m wide, but my pictures and movies don’t do it justice. It just looks like I took a picture of a random bird (below), so you’ll have to take my word for it.
After the main attraction, we boarded the bus and tried to stay awake to admire the beautiful views on the way back. After being stuck behind a herd of alpacas crossing the road, we were cruising through the zig zagging paths down the mountain. Now that I was conscious for the ride back, I realized what I had missed on the way there was not only the breathtaking scenery, but the terrifying drive. I tried not to look down. The buses tend to stay extremely close to the edge of the mountain, unprotected by any railing, going full speed around winding turns. I have to close my eyes each time, hoping there won’t be oncoming traffic also going full speed ahead.
We arrived at the hostel at 6:30 pm, with just enough time for dinner and the drive back to the bus station for our overnight bus back to Cusco.
Pro tip: If you ever go to Arequipa, I would highly recommend a multi-day hike around Colca Canyon. Unless you really like bus rides :)