Alpaca Circle of Life

10 11 2012

Anyone who knows me has had to hear all about my excitement to see/touch/bring home an alpaca from Peru. Well, my life is now complete and I can die a happy woman. However, I have also been introduced to the Circle of Life of alpacas and have been singing the Lion King song for days.

Our time had come to trek through Colca Canyon, the (debatably) 2nd deepest canyon in the world. Tuesday morning, 7am, we were ready and waiting to stretch our legs in the Andes. No one else from our hostal had booked a tour, so we had a totally private tour. We did share our van with a group of 6 dudes from Austria, and I hoped they would all be ok. I mean, we were headed to some crazy altitudes to plunge into the canyon bottom one day and straight up out of it the next. And these dudes were in their 60s, minimum. Poor things.

So on the van, we head out of Arequipa. The landscape is kind of just a desert, nothing really remarkable, so I zoned out and might have nodded off a bit. Then the van started slowing (which they just don´t do normally) and pulled over. Our guide, Veronica, jumped up pointing out the window. “Vicuñas! Vicuñas!” Groggy and confused I think this must be the chequa word for volcano, then I see something moving out there. She tells us we have entered the Pampa Galeras Refugio para Vicuñas – a refuge to protect the once-endangered national animal of Peru, the vicuña. It´s related to the llama and alpaca, but smaller and tan. And adorable.

We pile out of the van and furiously snap pictures, the poor vicuñas running scared. We finally continue, pointing out the windows excitedly as we see herd after herd of grazing animals. We´re getting  into prettier  country now, with scrubby vegatation and some visable evidence of the surrounding chain of volcanoes. We stop at a little road-side restaurant for a potty break and coca tea. I´m awkwardly trying to sip the bitter tea without eating all the leaves when I see something poofy out the door – an ALPACA!! I race out to see and the other guide gives me some coca leaves. “Feed them, they love it.” So I sat on the bench, shaking with excitement, feeding the two little alpacas with one hand and burying my other hand into their soft puffy wool. The trip is now complete for me, and we haven´t even reached the canyon!

We drive on for several more hours. We´re slowy approaching the canyon and we start to see the remote villages that still exist out here. Along with the villages, we see the terraces beggining to appear on the landscape along with fields and stone walls to mark everything. At one point, we get out and go on a quick 15 min walk among the fields to help get our lungs more accustomed to the crazy-high altitude. It´s quaint and beautiful and idyllic, like something straight from a movie.  Some of these terraces were built by the pre-Inca cultures that live here, the Collaguas and the Cabanas, the oldest dating back 800 years!! We get back on the bus and continue, the road soon becoming terrifying. No more pavement, road construction, and hairpin curves have me holding on for dear life. Then, suddenly, we stop. Veronica gets out, so I follow, soon to discover this is our starting piont. We get to the lip of the trail, the canyon and mountains spread out intimidatingly in front of us. We secure our packs and take off. Starting altitude: 3600 m (someting close to 11,000 ft, I think).

The trail is dusty and dry, nothing but cacti to break up the solid tan canyon wall. The basalt rock is cool, and birds fly around, but I´m fascinated with our lovely guide. We chat as we walk, and she is outgoing and friendly. And so interesting! We practice our Spanish, she practices her English, and in doing so tells us all about the canyon, the people, the culture, the history. She answers every question we have for her! We also get to know each other since we know how to ask most personal questions in Spanish. And so it goes, down down down into the canyon. I can´t wait to add some pictures later, the views were absolutely astounding.

I was hot, sweaty and guzzling water when a bridge came into view – we had reached the bottom! We got to sign our  names in the book of the Gate Keeper and took a break. My knees were killing me from the 1000m hike down (close to 3000 ft) but what a victory! The trail continued up and down, through the complete opposite of what we had been hiking in – lush vegatation, tiny fields and irrigation canals, trickling water – the side the people live on. I was wearing down and slowing up, contemplating flagging down one of the passing donkeys, when we reached our first destination: LUNCH. There´s a little collection of huts with a kitchen and what appeared to be just a home that offered homestays. We sat under a lovely pavillion while Veronica brought out lunch: the traditional meal of veggie soup followed by lomo saltado. I scarfed mine down, manners be damned. I hadn´t eaten all day, and here it was 3 in the afternoon!! After letting our food settle a minute, it was time to keep going. I asked Veronica what meat was used in the loma saltado and almost fell over at her answer – ALPACA.

And it was delicious – maybe my favorite dish so far. Circle of life, people.

I didn´t have much time to ponder the fact that I just ate my favorite animal, and loved it, because Veronica had all sorts of new stuff to show us. We passed avocado trees and pomagranate trees, vibrant flowering vines, crops, aloe plants and the giant agave plants. Being into this sort of thing, we soaked up all the info she threw our way. Lots of big prickly pear cacti lined the trails, and showed us the cochineal bugs. I wouldn´t have even guessed they were bugs, but she plucked one off and squished it on her palm. The grey little bug smeared brilliant crimson across her hand!! They harvest and dry these bugs to export all over the world for the dye. Check your red lipstick or candy next time to see if “cochineal” is in the ingredient list…

We pass through a little side gorge after encountering a fork in the trail…and choosing the shorter option.Veronica continues to point out interesting things to look at and tells us about the trails up above us that appear to climb up the rock face – trails left from Spanish times when the invaders where searching for gold in these mountains. I guess the trails are still there because they found it… The trail is going up and down and the sun is dipping in the sky. We finally reach a high point, pause for a snack, and continue back down towards the river. We cross once more and hike up to our evening accomodations: Paradise. The sun is setting and it was hard to get the full affect, but we got the gist of it – the lushest vegatation you can think of, flowers and palm trees, huts with bamboo sides and thatched roofs, waterfalls (though not natural) and several swimming pools. Um, yes please!

We settled into our hut, just big enough for a double bed, and explored the grounds by headlamp. A pavillion contained chairs and tables, and the guides were cooking dinner for us and the other 2 or 3 groups that were also here. The only electricity I saw was one light bulb hanging over the kitchen. We ate our delicious meal and passed out almost immediately.

The next morning, we were back on the trail at 4am, hiking by headlamps. Silence prevailed as we were still waking up, and today´s hike was all up. We climbed for about 3 hours, up and up, often climbing huge sets of rock steps, making me more tired. It was no surprise when several different times I got a break because I needed to stop on the side to let a villager and donkeys go by. Those people are amazing in their ability to rocket up the canyon sides!! We watched the sun rise and continued our climb. About half way I really started to feel the altitude and had to stop more often to suck air. I was contemplating giving in and rolling back to the bottom when a tall Brit when flying by. I blame his 12 foot legs for his speed.

Finally, we did make it to the top. Three hours to climb straight back up 1000m – and all before breakfast! It was only 7am! We trekked through some more fields into the little village there. Veronica led us along the cobblestone streets where there were more donkeys and llamas hanging out than there were cars, to a little house that turned out to be our breakfast stop. We walked in and I almost passed out when I saw the group of 6 Austrians already seated at the table. How the hell did these old codgers beat us, and not a heart attack among them?! Turns out, they did leave a touch earlier than us, but I was by far hurting the worst, and now I had my injured pride to add to the list of injuries.

Breakfast was laid out before us in a traditional family style – baskets of bread, plates of meat and cheese and avocado, and bowls of scrambled eggs. We passed everything around and had a good old time. Our bus picked us up and so began the journey back to Arequipa. Scheduled stops brought us to several look-out points, tiny villages, and tourist stops. We stopped with about a gazillion other people at a designated spot to see condors, the world´s largest bird that can fly. On the way there, one swooped down pretty close to our bus, so we had no real desire to sit at the tourist landing waiting with everyone else. The villages were cute, and saw more alpacas, and Veronica gave us a mini tour of one of the original Spanish churches. Oddly enough, they all have big crosses out front…because the indiginous people weren´t actually allowed inside to worship. Huh.

The last and largest village had a restaurant where we were served a buffet lunch of all kinds of insanely good food. Then we drove back past the amazing sprawl of terraces and fields. Yes, I loved them to pieces. I was nodding off again against the window when we made another fantastic stop – a natural hot springs!! We were given an hour to lounge in the modern facilities, so out of place amongst the traditional villages, to relax out worn out muscles. Then we continued to our last stop of the day: the highest point in the area you can drive to. (Safely, anyway…) The point on top of the mountains where we pulled over sits at 4800m (about 16000 ft) and I was amazed at the strange feeling taking over my brain as it became oxygen deprived. We soaked in all the views of the massive volcanoes before us, listening to the history of how important this place was to the people because it was where they could get closest to all the gods at once and make their human sacrifices, and how the massive amount of rock piles are there in homage to the past. Some cute llamas decorated in thier Sunday best posed for pictures in the crowd. I was ready for the bus down to get my body back to normal.

I was sad to say good-bye to the wonderful canyon, the adorable vicuñas, and the gorgeous mountains. But most of all, I was sad to bid farewell to my new bestie Veronica. The very first day, she told me I had great hiking rhythm and really did well, then she put one of those goreous vibrant flowers in my hair – besties for life. Best guide on the planet! We also waved adios to Arequipa and caught the night bus to Cusco. It was a difficult night and a difficult first morning in Cusco, but in the last 3 days, I have fallen head over heels for this city!! Inca ruins are everywhere, even in the modern buildings. We´ve visted the site of Saqsayhuaman (I swear on my first born´s life it´s pronounced “sexy woman”) where the Spanish finally, agaisnt all odds, defeated the Incas. We met up with our new pals Harry and Louisa who we first met in Huacachina and had a wild night out with them. And we have trekked all over the city on foot, exploring every bit we can! I could totally live here.

And tomorrow we start our next big adventure: Machu Picchu! We´ll spend the next two days in the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, seeing all sorts of cool stuff. Yay! Speaking of which, I have an early morning and need to get to bed!
Much love to all,

J/K

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