Canyons and Volcanos… on road to Arequipa

After leaving Cusco on the road to Puno, I took a right turn in the town of Sicuani and headed due south aiming for the town of Yauri, also called Espinar… on another map. This turned out to be a rather ugly miners town and therefore was expensive. I arrived friday evening and it was the lead up to the Peru National day celebrations on Sunday/Monday….most people in the streets were drunk already! I seemed to be the only tourist in town, which was a nice change to Cusco. The next morning I took a dirt road to Suycutambo which followed a beautiful canyon, past a couple of archeological sites with Inka ruins. I only than found out that this was to be a scenic tourist drive called the three canyons, but I only came across a couple of local cars and a few motorbikes….no tourist and what a landscape! After Suycutambo the road climbed up to 4700m, than dropped down into a high valley with many lamas only to climb back up to another pass of 4700m before dropping down to the small hamlet of Sibayo. I first wanted to stay the night, but the only free dingy horrible room had no lock on the door and there was some dodgy looking characters next door. Since it was already getting dark I got a ride with a nice geologist couple to Chivay (3600m), about 30km down the road and a tourist town, getaway to the Colca Canyon. Next morning I took the road to the Cruz del Condor down the famous Colca Canyon. Hords of tourist make their way out there early every morning to see the majestic condors at close quarters. Some buses come from as far as Arequipa, others depart from Chivay. I arrived mid day and most tourist were gone by than, so were the condors. The place was deserted for the afternoon and I enjoyed hanging out on this beautiful spot till the condors arrived back between 4 and 6pm to settle back into their nests across the canyon. The Colca Canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and quite impressive. I camped the night at the Mirador and was first up at 6pm. The Condors arrived about 7pm, but were low in the canyon and had to wait for the sun to heat the rock enough for them to soar. It was amazing to watch them fly once they got high and close. It was all over by 10am and everybody made their way back. It was a dusty road and once I came to the tunnel I caught a ride back to Chivay. I had eaten enough dust by than and the tunnel was scary enough first time round. As it was still early in the day I carried on up the Abra Patapampa (4910m) and across the Altiplano surrounded by volcanos. What a gorgeous scenic road: great vistas with snowcapped mountains, lamas and alpacas abound. I didn’t quite make it to Canahuas and camped out on the Altiplano which was a little cold, windy and dusty. From Canahuas I had the choice of a 80km asphalted pure downhill run to Arequipa with all the heavy traffic or a 60km dirt track via the Altiplano with another climb before it dropped sharply to Arequipa. I just couldn’t help myself and choose to go down the dirt road. It was a beautiful road, if somewhat sandy.  I was heading straight towards the perfectly cone shaped Vulcano El Misty. The beautiful and shy Vicunas were running alongside and not a car to be seen. The downhill was very rough, sandy and full of big loose stones. I had taken the backroad into Arequipa and had no traffic all along till I hit town. And this is to be the second biggest town of Peru! I did come in via a very poor and depressing part of town though. There was a new settlement of tiny cabins on a sandy hill….I hate to imagine life there on a windy day.

Most cyclists go straight from Cusco to Puno, or vice versa, as it is a strenuous detour to go all the way to the Colca Canyon and Arequipa. But this road is definitely worth it and in the top 10 of most beautiful roads I’ve biked on this trip.

The city of Arequipa stands at the foot of El Misty volcano (5822m), a perfect cone, and is guarded on either side by the mountains Chachani (6057m) and Pichu-Pichu (5669m). The city has fine Spanish buildings and many old and interesting churches built of sillar, a pearly white volcanic material almost exclusively used in the construction of Arequipa. It is the main commercial center for the south and has been declared a World Cultural Heritage site by the UNESCO. Arequipa is said to have the best preserved colonial architecture in Peru, apart from Cusco. I spent a couple of days roaming the streets and admiring the colonial architecture. The Santa Catalina Convent is one of the most remarkable sights, a complete miniature walled colonial town of over 2 ha in the middle of the city. Nowadays the few remaining nuns have retreated to one section of the convent, allowing visitors to see a maze of cobbled streets and plazas bright with geraniums and other flowers, cloisters and buttressed houses. These have been painted in traditional white, orange, deep red and blue.

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