Arequipa and Devastating News

Trip Start Oct 30, 2005
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Friday, August 25, 2006

As we got off the plane on the tarmac at Arequipa, we were wondering why everyone that had already got off the plane was taking our photo. We turned around and saw the snow capped mountains/volcanoes behind us and realised that we werenīt that famous.

The airport was another tiny one, with only one baggage carousel. We met up with another Aussie couple and decided to share a taxi into town, where we settled into our pre-booked room (a recommendation from Lex in Lima), which had an amazing view over the city.

Out for lunch, we tried the lunch "menu" at a local place, basically a soup, main, and drink or dessert for next to nothing, but you get what you pay for. It was a bit average.

We decided to hit some of the souvenir shops, and have a walk around town. The main square, the "Plaza de Armas" with its dominant cathedral, was quite a sight, and Arequipa was quite a developed city and had a very colonial feel to it.

The next day was again spent around the town, visiting a few churches including the cathedral. We had an easy day as we would be taking a tour to the Colca Canyon the following day.

Still, Glenn wanted to walk to a supposedly nearby Mirador (viewpoint) over the city and mountains in the neighbouring suburb, but the area was a little dodgy and we failed to find the viewpoint, and with darkness approaching, decided to head back - just in time to have a great dinner that night.

Colca Canyon

The next day, we got up early for our tour of the Colca Canyon. After being collected by our guide we joined the rest of the group and we were on our way. It wasnīt long before we made our first stop, the requisite "shopping for food at the shop that pays a commission to the tour company and overcharges" stop! This is where you must buy your coca leaves for the altitude of the trip our guide told us. Not having tried coca leaves before we obliged and bought the damn things!

Finally we started our tour and headed out of Arequipa towards a Vicuna reserve, where herds of wild Vicuna, as well as Llama and Alpaca roam free. It was here that we had a lesson from the guide on how to tell these animals apart from one another (this lesson would come to serve us well for the rest of our trip in South America). The other beautiful thing we got to see along this road were the stunning snow capped mountains and volcanoes of the area, all very sacred to the local people and their belief in "pachamama" - mother earth, which is something that we witnessed by all of the offerings to the volcanoes (rocks piled up on top of one another) that we saw along the way - a little similar to what we had seen in Tibet!.

It wasnīt much longer before it was time for the coca leaf chewing lesson from the guide. Christie took the advice of another traveller in the group and decided to give it a miss. Glenn had to try it though (He didnīt buy the leaves for nothing you know!).

Placing a bunch of leaves in your hand, you add some of the mystery material in the middle (we think it was some kind of ash, but it acts as a catalyst to help release the chemicals from the leaf that assist with the altitude) and roll it into a ball and shove it into the side of your mouth! You let it sit there for a while to tingle away and process, before giving in to give it a good olī chawing! It tasted a bit strong at first, but wasnīt all that bad.

Some of the passes that we drove through were quite high in altitude, and at one of the highest points it was time to make a stop on the tour to try some coca leaf tea. Feeling the altitude at over 4000 metres, we both decided to give it a go and although it tasted a bit like strange grass (no, not that kind of strange grass), it seemed to help. There were alot of locals from the area selling their goods here (very common at these tour stops) as well as local children dressed up for the tourists holding little animals requesting money for photos.

It wasnīt long before we were back on the road again, heading for Chivay - which would be the town where we would sleep for the night. First it was time for lunch at a tourist restaurant. Glenn hated every minute of it (especially the price), but Christie made him grit his teeth and we had a nice lunch finding out a bit more about the people in our group. After dropping our things off at the hotel we would be staying at that night, we travelled just outside of Chivay to take a walk through one of the local villages up to a pre-inca cemetery. Once up at the cemetery, the guide explained a bit to us about how the inhabitants were actually mummified and placed in tombs - and then pillaged by grave robbers. As a mark of respect, she asked us to place some coca leaves on the graves in the name of pachamama. As we all filed past each other to do this, we then waited for the guide on the other side. At this point one girl pointed at her feet and mentioned to Christie "Do you realise that we are standing on bones?!" Okay, time to start walking back down the mountain.

After this it was off to the local hot springs for a dip along with all the other gringos and locals. It was quite nice to be in a big hot bath at the end of such a long day, although after a while it did get VERY HOT, and the cold shower at the end of it was even nicer.

That night the group was supposed go out for dinner for a night of traditional entertainment and dancing at the restaurant where we had lunch - cringe! - this we decided to miss, and we had dinner at a local family restaurant where we played with their kids while they made us dinner, much more enjoyable for us.

Over breakfast the next morning we discovered that our choice to avoid the dinner the night before was a good one. We then piled back on the bus to make our way to the Colca Canyon. Along the way we stopped at another pre-inca cemetery, with graves made horizontally into the rock face and continuing on, just as we were about to pass through a tunnel, the guide told us to hold our breath and make a wish - if we could hold our breath to the end of the tunnel our wishes would come true. Both of us failed miserably at this, so we wont tell you what our wishes were.

We finally arrived at the Colca Canyon. It was a pretty amazing sight, even in the blinding sun. The Colca Canyon was thought to be the deepest canyon in the world (twice as deep as the Grand Canyon), until they recently discovered one slightly deeper nearby. Still, it was pretty impressive for us and we, along with a French couple from the group decided to hang around a little bit longer than the rest of the group to take it in. The four of us then trekked up to the lookout called "Cruz del Condor" to see the condors rising on the morning thermals. This is what we had come on this tour for, and although it was absolutely packed with people we werenīt disappointed - the condors flew so close to us and we were able to appreciate their massive size and the reason why they needed the thermal winds to fly. From what the guide told us, these birds weighed about 17 kilograms and had a 3 metre wingspan.

After the condors had finished flying for the day, we were back in the bus headed for Arequipa, not before stopping at some very cute and picturesque Andean villages along the way. The guide had also bought us some "cactus fruit" to try. When she opened it up it looked very much like a kiwi fruit, although it tasted like a lemon. She said that the locals use it as a replacement for lemon in their pisco sours (local spirit drink)! We also tried some other cactus fruit a little old lady was selling on the side of the road, though these were much sweeter and delicious - some of the ripest ones being hot pink in colour.

We returned to Arequipa from the tour in the early evening. After getting a bite to eat it was time to check our emails.

Devastating News

As expected, there was news from home, but it was not good news. Glennīs dad had been struggling of late, but we thought it was from other complications (other than the cancer) that were being addressed by the doctors. We called home, and the news was even worse - the doctors had told Mum that they have seen his current condition in other patients with pancreatic cancer before and that he may only have a few days to live.

We were shocked - we had no idea that it could be so soon, he was only diagnosed in February and we had hoped so dearly that he could fight this and be there when we got home. After our visit home in May, we thought that it was quite probable - he was doing so well with the chemo, and it seemed to be helping to slow the growth of the cancer.

We immediately decided to come home, but it was late at night and we didnīt know what we could achieve. We called the airline (LAN), but they could not help over the phone to change the flight destinations as we had paper tickets. Our insurance company and travel agent could not help us either. We were meant to fly to Cusco the next day - with Machu Picchu nearby, a place that Dad had always dreamed of visiting. We shifted the dates of the Cusco flight to give us time to organise the change of tickets in the airline office the next day. We returned to our hotel, completely gob smacked and devastated at the news we had received. We spent the next couple of hours packing our bags so that we were ready to get the first flight out if possible the next morning.

We were up at 5am (with hardly any sleep) as the office was meant to be open then (as we were told by the airline on the phone the night before). Of course it didnīt open till 8.30am, and there was only so much wandering around the square that we could do.

When the office did open, we explained our situation and were then told that they required permission from the Oneworld Alliance (who our tickets are with) to change the tickets (even though all remaining flights were with LAN) and that it may take 24 hours, but come back in the afternoon to check!

What the ŋ****?!!!! We explained our situation again and said that we were hoping to fly asap. We argued with her till we were both in tears. We had to even ask what was possible to do - she simply said come back later.

Demanding to check what was possible, she said that they couldnīt do Arequipa to Lima and Lima to Santiago flights in same day as there was only 30 min between flights. We tried to argue we were prepared to accept the risk, but it got nowhere.

She was able to get reservations on flights, but the best she could do was to get us home on the 29th, which we were not prepared to accept. We made her also reserve flights that she could for the previous days, but the flights to Lima and Santiago were the problem.

In the end, we still had to come back in the afternoon, so we went to an internet cafe to see what flights were actually available, and what do you know, there were flights. Glenn raced back to the office, now with a long queue, but when Glenn got to see her, she explained for our budget class tickets there was no seats left, even though seats were available in economy. If we wanted to upgrade, we would have to upgrade ALL of our flights (even the ones we had taken!!!). Why canīt we just pay for the damn tickets we need you stupid woman!

Back on the internet, we were just about ready to book the more expensive flights ourselves, when we found an afternoon flight to Lima leaving today for even cheaper than our ticket class. We reserved this, and going back to the agency, were then able to get tickets the next morning for Santiago, with a flight leaving that evening for Sydney, meaning we would make it home on the morning of the 28th.

But now she wanted lunch!!! So we had to wait to get our tickets, with our flight only 2 hours away! She was good at making us nuts! We raced back after getting our tickets to pick up our bag and get our flight. We were on our way, after a crazy day of getting nowhere... finally, we were going home.
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