Chocolatada kicked off my Christmas adventure. This occasion is the highlight of the year for many of the children in our NGO and for days leading up to the big event, volunteers had been wrapping presents and labelling goody bags, the volunteer house full of debates about how best to wrap a football or how to disguise a doll.
Early on the Sunday morning a posse of mums gathered in the school yard to cook lomo saltado (beef, onions and peppers) in huge cauldrons over open fires. Seven hundred bread rolls were cut and filled with this mixture, gallons of hot chocolate drink was mixed and stirred and as the sun beat down on the sandy school yard the huge metal gates were opened and families tentatively began to trickle in.
Volunteers wearing Christmas hats and tinsel-edged capes were joined by a Father Christmas (in flip flops) to form a welcome tunnel through which the guests would be cheered and whooped before taking their seats on the stone terracing around the stage and plaza.
Groups of children sang and danced and showed off their skills, a talented volunteer dressed as a clown entertained the crowd and certificates were issued to children who had tried the hardest. By now, most of us had a couple of children each sitting on our laps or pressing as close as they could to us, playing with our sunglasses and cameras and generally vying for our affections, until we gently shook them off and went and distributed the food and drink. Somebody turned up the volume and there was some wild dancing all together in the sun with siblings bouncing younger children on their hips and a conga chain weaving through the throng. After the bags of presents and food parcels were distributed everybody began to head for home, anxious to get back before it got dark; but not before queuing up to kiss and thank each of the volunteers. Best clothes were shown off – the girls were adorned with bright hair accessories whilst many of the boys looked smart in what was probably their one decent shirt.
After a quick tidy up there was the usual squash for taxis and it was back to the volunteer house for chifa – Peruvian style Chinese food – or should that be Chinese style Peruvian food?. There were some sad goodbyes to those who would not be returning after the holidays and then at ten thirty pm I, with my fellow travellers M & G, set off to catch the ten hour night bus to Lima.
With a few hours to spare we mooched around on the beach at Miraflores for a bit before heading back to the bus station for a long sixteen hour journey. Luckily, despite all of the horror stories that I had heard beforehand about the buses in South America, the long-distance tourist buses are actually extremely comfortable. Yes, of course there are plenty of ‘chicken buses’ and rolling death-traps but for not a lot of money by UK standards, you can buy an almost fully reclining seat, an aircraft type meal and with a TV screen set into the seatback in front of you you can pass the time with films, music and games.
After quite an alarming ride swaying and rolling around the hairpins through the mountains in the dark we arrived at Arequipa. Known as the white city because of the colour of the buildings we duly bought our coco leaves at the local market which would hopefully combat altitude sickness and gawped at the mummified body of Julietta , a fourteen year old sacrifice victim in her glass freezer inside the Santuarios Andinos UCSM Museum.
The following day the three of us joined a two day expedition to hike into the Colca Canyon. It all began gentle enough, albeit at the alarmingly early hour of three am. We breakfasted in a tiny little courtyard with snow capped volcanoes standing proud along the distant horizon – and yes – that was smoke puffing cartoon-like out of the top of one!
At seven thirty we were standing on the edge of one of the deepest canyons in the world, totally mesmerised by the massive condors which soared at eye level, floating majestically on the invisible thermals. Although crowded with tourists and the inevitable souvenir sellers, the experience was amazing and a collective hush fell over the valley as the birds made their appearance. The early morning air whispered of the heat that was to follow and the morning light bounced off the rocks with an amazing clarity. It was easy to see why the ancient people revered the mountains and the entire region and how even now, they are considered sacred places. And then an hour later we began trekking down into the canyon.
The canyon is nearly twice as deep at the Grand Canyon and as the sun got hotter and the track steeper we had to negotiate a very real, very live, happening at that moment, rock fall. The guides anxiously scanned the slippage above for the tell-tale clouds of red dust and instructed us when it would be safe to individually cross the loose scree slope. After a grueling descent there was to be no let up and we began the scramble up the other side, panting up stone steps, some of which were more than knee high. Overall we would cover over eighteen kilometers in seven hours. There was a brief lunch stop and then we were off again, meandering up huge ups and steep downs whilst traversing along the valley. The tracks presumably followed ancient pathways but there were rather too many ups that downs for my liking. I was really feeling the effects of the altitude and plodded along in my own pocketful of misery, encouraged along by M, G and our amazing local guide Vanessa who didn’t even break out into a sweat. My spirits were revived when I eventually staggered – and I do mean staggered – into an oasis at the bottom of the canyon.
Lush green grass, butterflies, hummingbirds and a swimming pool were waiting. The evening was spent in great company eating and drinking cocktails and watching the full moon rise above a cleft in the mountains. The glow worms and the fire-flies put on a magical display of little neon orange lights as they danced in the bushes and trees and with no roads in or out of the canyon the place was a true haven of tranquility.
The following morning, after a deep sleep in our little cabin close to the roaring river I agreed that it would be wise to follow the advice of our guide and to hire a mule up and out of the canyon. The route out of the gorge was a steep three hour climb up a series of tight, narrow switchbacks, gaining over one thousand meters in altitude. I was initially VERY nervous when the two mules ridden by me and G began to jostle on the narrow path for first place but I soon relaxed when it became clear how sure-footed they were. I did wonder why they had to sometimes choose to stand on a pebble literally on the edge of the precipice and I would shut my eyes and hold my breath at that moment, the deep silence only broken by the clatter of sixteen hooves and the constant calm murmuring of Rafael as he whispered to his beloved animals.
Reaching the top long before M and the intrepid hikers, me and G sat in the early morning sun. I shared a packet of chocolate biscuits with three local ladies who proudly posed for photographs for me in their colourful skirts and bodices. They chose one lady to be their main model and turned her embroidered waistcoat inside out to display the clean, fresher colours and fiddled with her hair and her skirts, then giggled excitedly and babbled away in their quechua language when I showed them the pictures.
The rest of the day was spent travelling in the minibus, stopping for an hour or so to cross a horribly swaying rope and plank bridge and visit some hot thermal springs at Chivay where we slowly boiled ourselves in the waters, Once over the mountains we stopped for lunch and later shrieked with excitement when we caught sight of our first wild alpacas and dainty vicuñas (their deer-like relatives) grazing on the vast sweeping plateaus, before shivering at the highest point where countless travellers and pilgrims over the years had built small sharp cairns of pebbles. We then had a quick, much needed freshen up back at our hostel in Arequipa. The incredibly friendly owner of the Hospedaje La Posada del Kuraka had not only held our main rucksacs for us, but he supplied us with clean towels, a hot shower and a room in which to change, and then we were off to the bus station for yet another overnight bus, this time to Cusco and for Christmas.
(I apologise for the incorrect spelling of Canyon – it should be spelt Canon with a squiggle over the middle ‘n’ but I can’t seem to fathom out how to do that within this template)