Peru less travelled

On a whim we decided to head off the tourist trail to the world’s biggest canyons. We headed inland up the hill from the coast and as the road climbed through the ubiquitous sea stratus driving became challenging.

Fortunately the road gradient was steep and we soon pushed through the cloud layer into the sun. Soon we arrived at a small village nearby which are petroglyphs carved into rocks a couple of thousand years ago. Thier exact meanings are basically unknown. Far below the green strip of agriculture clings tenaciously to the river.

From Choire, we headed up up and up to chiquebamba. This quaint little village at just under 3000m altitude commands a beautiful view out over the western slopes. Here, donkeys cart milk churns from farms to towns and old ladies walk down the street carrying firewood in colourful slings on their backs.

A quiet and cold night in a hostal saw us head onwards early to Cotahuasi. We weren`t entirely sure of the roads, but headed onwards anyway up to the puna. The road climbed higher and higher and the llama headers gave us friendly waves from the roadside as they sat in the 4000m+ air watching over their flocks.

Volcan Coropuna loomed large and soon the deteriorating road headed up towards it. Reaching 4800m the road wound its way across the lava slopes before heading down to 4300m. We had beautiful views into the distant canyon as condors soared overhead.

As we had lost most of our acclimatisation over the past two weeks, we didn´t linger at altitude and headed onwards. We dropped to under 4000m at the lookout at the edge of the main canyon and looked in to the villages and farms 1500m below us, with the volcanoes towering behind us.

The dirt road suddenly was welcomly paved as we headed down into town. The town was bustling and friendly. The children were admired and adored by all who passed us. We stayed at the friendly Hatun Huasi lodge just near the church and square – they had secure parking. There was little choice for dinner in town. Pollerias, pollerias and pollerias (hot chicken shops). Even the restaurants that advertised other things just had chicken. Eventually we found somewhere that served the other local delicacy lomo satado – salted beef stirfry with rice and chips.

During dinner, word had got around about us. People walked past and peeked inside just to see us!

The next morning we headed off to the remote village of Puyca. Along the valley floor, the road picked its way through farmland growing kiwicha, quinoa and other crops. Soon mommy scary roads appeared as we wound our way 1000m up steep steep valley walls. There are six hairpin bends in the picture below. And no crash barriers…

We turned heads in Puyca, we were photographed again. Kids coming home from school stopped and stared and wandered closer just to watch us. After a lunch in the square we headed back down past the terracing gracing every slope and then had a relaxing swim at the thermal baths.

The following day we headed to Pampamarca, another small village high up above the valley. Again, like the rest of the valley, everybody said Buenas Dias to us as we passed. We walked the cobbled backstreets, too narrow for cars. Behind doors, barns and courtyards kept herds of sheep and other animals overnight. We talked to the local teacher who said he´d never seen tourists here in their own car before.

On the way down again, we stopped for the quinoa harvest.

TheN in the morning, it was time to leave. We headed down to the Sipia waterfall, where the chasm proper starts and lays claim to the deepest gorge in the world status, before heading up and out of the valley. We left the `main`road and headed on a good but seldom driven road across the northern side of the volcano. Up at 4800m again, we had good views of the volcano, before descending down into the Valle de Volcanes and the city of Andagua, and its wonderfully creative plaza garden. We found a hostel that was nice, although not heated. Above the tree line, the little firewood is used for cooking, not heating and electricity is expensive. Few buildings are heated, even in the minus overnight temperatures.

We ate at the only restaurant open for which the set menu had semolina soup with an unidentifiable chicken part, followed by a main of rice, potato and a sauce. The total cost for a dinner for the five of us 5 was 30 soles ($10).

In the morning we climbed a nearby old volcanic cinder cone and could see the lava flows down the valley. We then headed northbound along back roads along the llama and alpaca farms, before climbing out of the valley past Ocampampa back to the high altitude puna, home of the vicuña.

The road began well as it wound its way along past a couple of mudbrick towns, then it gradually got worse. Despite being wide and well graded, potholes slowed progress back to around 20kmh. Eventually with rain pouring in the ranges, we bounced into Caylloma and turned south on the main road. It was worse. An apalling road, even for Peru. Huge potholes, washouts and ruts from the trucks that drive the route. 30km south of Caylloma we crossed over a small stream that has recently been determined to be the source of the Amazon river, making it longer then the Nile. For over three hours we bumped and rocked our way over the hugh altitude roads, before dropping into the gorgeous town of Sibayo (3800m) where we found a friendly homestay.

Sibayo`s square and streets are cobbled and all the stone houses have traditional thatched roofs. Again, nothing is heated and all the locals stand around in the early morning sunshine warming up after minus temperatures overnight. A flat tyre in the morning was the result of a small nail.

We then drove down to the town of Chivay for the night before heading into the Colca canyon for the day. The second deepest valley in the world after Cotahuasi, was very different, much tighter and steeper.

We then decided to head out westwards along the length of the canyon, assuming that it was the tourist route. It was not. Again, we seemed to find ourselves on deserted rough dirt roads, and well after dusk we eventually found ourselves on the sealed Pan America highway.

The 120 km drive onwards to Arequipa was challenging with only one headlight globe working. 2 hours later, after negotiating streams of trucks and cars, we found our way into the large city of Arequipa, just in time for peak hour on a Saturday night. After inspecting some dodgy hotels, we decided to spend a few dollars extra and found a lovely hotel one block from the square and monastery.

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