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A MONTH IN PERU
By Mel Goldberg
Arequipa and Colca Canyon
We flew from Lima on a Lan Peru flight to Arequipa sometimes called the White City because so many buildings are constructed of white, volcanic stone.
Central to the city is the Plaza de Armas, the main square, dominated by the nineteenth century La Catedral, the only cathedral in Peru to stretch the entire length of a plaza. Around the square are also two-story buildings housing shops, many with restaurants above. After shopping and taking photographs, we lunched on a balcony overlooking the square.
After lunch we visited the Santa Catalina Convent, a Cloister built in the seventeenth Century, and still home to about 20 nuns (there were 500 in centuries past). We went back in time as we entered and saw the patios and gardens. The nuns live in a section of the Convent which is their entire physical world.
We had dinner at a local restaurant and my son Michael tried a Peruvian delicacy called cuy (guinea pig). It was served whole, splayed and breaded on a plate. I tried a taste, but there is not much meat on this small rodent, although is has been revered for centuries by native Peruvians. My meal of choice was alpaca steak, similar to arrechera but not quite as tender.
No visit to Arequipa would be complete without seeing the museum of the ice maiden mummy. Momia Juanita is not a mummy in the Egyptian sense. She is the frozen body of a 12–14 year old Inca girl who died between 1450 and 1480 and is preserved in her frozen state in the museum.
She was discovered in 1995 near the top of Mount Ampato by anthropologist Johan Reinhard and his Peruvian climbing partner Miguel Zarate. When they climbed Ampato to take pictures of the eruption of nearby volcano Sabancaya, they discovered an Inca burial site unearthed by the eruption. Juanita was thought to be an offering to the mountain deity of Ampato, in the belief her spirit would become deified and worshiped by local indigenous peoples.
After a day viewing the ice maiden, we ate dinner on a balcony restaurant overlooking the Plaza and listened to Peruvian music sung in Aymara, a local language. We opted for something more filling than cuy. We ate Papa a la Huancaina, potatoes covered in a cheesy, slightly spicy yellow turmeric sauce served on top of lettuce and Lomo Saltado, strips of steak sautéed in soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, chilies, onions and tomatoes, served over a bed of rice. We retired early since we had an 8 AM start the next morning to visit Canyon de Colca.
Our private guide met us early at our hotel and we departed on the four hour drive to the Colca Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the world at 3180 meters (10,433 feet). As we left the city along narrow cobblestone streets, we marveled at the magnificent views of the three volcanoes, Misti, Chachani and Pichu Pichu, which overlook the city.
The narrow, winding road climbed high into the Andes, crossing Pampa Cañahuas in the Aguada Blanca National Reserve. Herds of vicuñas and alpacas, prized for their soft wool coats, wander throughout the reserve. The highest point of the road, 4350 meters (14,272 feet), afforded unparalleled views of pre-Columbian terraces, still being cultivated by descendants of the Aymara, whose life has changed little since Inca times.
When we arrived at Colca Valley, we were told to rest, chew coca leaves, and drink coca tea to acclimate us to the altitude. The scenery at this 14,000 foot altitude was magnificent and we experienced the breathlessness of the high altitude.
We left early in the morning for the Cruz del Condor, Condor’s Cross, considered the best viewpoint to watch these biggest flying birds in the world can soaring over the peaks, ascending from the valley on early-morning thermals. We were not alone. Hundreds had gathered, hoping to view the huge birds as they circle, looking for carrion.
Unfortunately, after a wait of several hours, our condor-viewing experience was limited to one lone condor above us at a height almost too great for our telephoto lenses.
We left Cruz del Condor, ate lunch in the village of Sumbay and started the three hour bus ride across the highlands to the town of Puno on Lake Titicaca.