Kingdom of the Ice Princess

26 Oct

Surrounded by stunning volcanos and the world’s deepest canyons, Peru’s second biggest city, Arequipa, rises like a mirage out of the high altitude desert. The landscape surrounding Arequipa is untamed and at times looks like the surface of the moon but in contrast, this university city is sophisticated, cultured and awash with life.

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Despite the city having been rocked by numerous big earthquakes, much of its colonial splendour is preserved in churches, convents and mansions. Arequipa is often referred to as the ‘White City’ as many of the buildings are built from a distinctive volcanic rock called sillar, with the huge cathedral, taking a whole side of the Plaza de Armas, as its crowning glory.

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Bright sunshine and clear blue skies during our time in the city meant we had fantastic views of the volcanos and rolling countryside from almost everywhere we visited. El Misti (5,822 metres) rises above the city and is revered by the locals. Accompanied on the left by jagged Chachani (6,075 metres) and on the right by Pichupichu (5,571 metres) it was perhaps one of the best city views we’ve seen on our trip to date.

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The surrounding countryside is known as canyon country and we’d heard that trekking opportunities through remote, rural villages and to the spectacular canyons were unmissable. We signed up for a two-day tour to Colca Canyon, the second deepest in the world at 3,191 metres, behind only neighbouring Cotahuasi, which is only 163 metres deeper. We usually like to arrange our trips independently but the tours from Arequipa were excellent value and hassle free. We arranged ours through a tour agency called ‘Willy Adventures’ – great name! – and paid 115 Soles (around 40 USD) per person which included transport, one nights accommodation, an English-speaking guide and our meals. The only downside was the pick up time – 3.00am in the morning – which was no laughing matter! The reason for the red-eye inducing early start was the distance we had to cover – 4 hours drive from Arequipa to a small village near to Chivay, where we finally woke up with a buffet breakfast and strong coffee, and then a further two hours drive into the canyon where we’d start our walk.

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Traditional village life transported us back in time as we watched women pass wearing beautiful embroided clothes and hats, and men riding in carts pulled by donkeys. Our guide proudly pointed out to us the village he grew up in and recounted with glassy eyes the many times he’d helped his grandfather in the fields. Small kiosks lined the roadside selling the areas delicious speciality ‘Colca Sour’ – Pisco served with sour cactus juice – and of course we stopped to try one! We were surprised to see the practice of falconry alive and well in these parts – with women who were almost as round as they were tall releasing and calling back their birds with a high-pitched whistle.

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The bus stopped for 30 minutes at Cruz del Condor, a stunning viewing point at the start of the canyon. The landscape was extreme – snow dusted mountains filled with deep grooves rose like giants before us, and below, the ground fell away. The rocky ledges in the canyon walls are home to Andean condors, which we’d heard could be notoriously hard to see, but we were lucky enough to spot a dozen of them soaring gracefully on the thermals.

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Condors can have a wingspan of up to 3.2 metres. These large black vultures have a white ruff around their necks and some white patches on their wings. The head and neck are nearly featherless giving them a distinctive appearance and interestingly they are one of the world’s longest living birds, with a life span of up to 100 years in captivity. Rather than keeping their distance, some of the birds seemed to actively seek us out in low-level fly-bys to see what we were all about. We could feel the air as they swept past our heads and we gasped in amazement at their prehistoric looking faces.

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As we left Cruz del Condor our guide told us about a topical story dividing the Country’s opinion. He explained that at the end of 2001 a young Peruvian couple from Lima had gone missing after a climbing expedition in the canyon. An extensive search was mounted and after 10 days the female was found on a rock ledge, dehydrated but alive. It took a further 6 months before they found the dead body of her boyfriend who had apparently gone for help after they’d got lost, but never returned. Initially the incident was put down to a tragic accident, however, a series of subsequent media interviews, where the woman acted very extrovertly for a grieving girlfriend, has led some people, including the investigating authorities, to suspect she may have planned the whole thing and pushed her boyfriend to his death. The debate rumbles on.

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We drove on 15 minutes to Cabanaconde where our trek would begin. Our early start meant it was only around 11.00am as we strapped on our small packs and headed off. The village was surrounded by mountains which were home to stories that were far better than any fiction. The most extraordinary of all started in September 1995 when a pair of climbers – Migual Zarate, an Arequipa guide and Johann Reinhard, a climber and anthropologist from the United States, staggered into a hotel in Cabanaconde carrying the mummified body of a young Inca princess wrapped tightly in a sleeping bag. They discovered her near to the top of Ampato volcano (6,288 metres) where volcanic activity had melted her tomb. It’s estimated she was only exposed to the sun for 10 days and only her face suffered from some deterioration. The pair took the body back to Arequipa on the bus, seemingly without attracting attention (!) and kept her in Zarate’s freezer at home until they worked out what to do. Before long the ‘Ice Princess’ hit the world news because at the time she was the best preserved mummy ever to be found in the Americas. Even the American president at the time, Bill Clinton, got in on the action saying after seeing a picture of the ‘Ice Princess’ – “If I were a single man, I might ask that mummy out. That’s a good looking mummy!”

Further investigation revealed that the young girl had been sacrificed 500 years ago by the Incas as they tried to appease the volcanos in this region, which they perceived as bringers of death and destruction. Other mummified bodies of young girls have since been discovered in the area and historians believe that the chosen ones were picked at an early age, and sacrified just before they reached sexual maturity. For the parents of the children it was a great honour for their daughters to be selected as they believed it would bring the family huge wealth and enlightenment in a future life. Juanita, as the princess is also known, is currently displayed in Arequipa’s Santury Museum but the village of Cabanaconde wants her back! The community has already built a small museum in the hope that their lobbying of the government will result in the Ice Princess being returned to her rightful home.

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We had a decent group of people with us on the trek, which is always half the battle. A couple from the States in their late 20’s who were taking their first independent trip and vowed never to do a package holiday again, a brother and sister from Canada who were on holiday for three weeks in Peru, and three girlfriends from Holland travelling together and still in their first few weeks.

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Our guide took us across pretty farmland where the rich brown soil and yellow wheat glowed in the midday sun. We followed small irrigation lanes, walking on muddy mounds either side of the flowing water, trying not to get our feet wet. Grazing cows eyeballed us quizzically as if to say “Are you really walking down THERE!” After 25 minutes easy walking we reached the canyon’s edge and admired the scenery. We learned that canyons come in two main forms – the first roughly rectangular in shape, where the sides are steep and the distance across the top is similar to that at the bottom – like the Grand Canyon in the US – and secondly, roughly triangular in profile, with gradually descending sides which move from being wide at the top to narrow at the bottom – like Colca.

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A rocky path led downwards in switchbacks and because it was hard to take our eyes off our surroundings for a second we tripped and slipped our way down the dusty path. An earthquake measuring 5 on the Richter scale had shaken the canyon just a few weeks earlier causing mini-landslides which blocked roads and cut off small villages. We could see scars on the golden canyon walls where loose rocks had fallen and we hoped everything was stable under our feet!

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At the bottom of the path was an area the locals referred to as ‘The Oasis’ and as we looked down onto lush palm trees and natural rock swimming pools, it was easy to see why. The river at the base of the canyon had turned the dry and barren rock landscape into a luscious hideaway and we picked up our pace keen to bathe in the refreshing water.

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Our accommodation for the night was a bamboo bungalow with a thatched roof and a cute plant filled garden. Aptly named ‘Paradise’, the small, rustic resort had all we needed for a happy afternoon – a pool filled with water, a view of the boulder strewn river and a small bar advertising ‘Happy Hour’ between 5pm and 7pm.

All food and drink has to be brought down to The Oasis on a two-hour mule ride so we weren’t expecting big things but we were truly impressed with the three course dinner prepared by our host. A few drinks and lots of fun and laughter with our fellow travellers and before we knew it 10 O’Clock had arrived and we were stifling yawns – well, we had been up since 3.00am! Only the restaurant and bar area had electricity so we found the way back to our bungalows by torchlight. The Milky Way spread itself along the gap in the canyon walls above us and a silence, which almost hurt our ears, filled the air. We slept the sleep of the righteous – or the sleep of two people who’d just trekked into one of the world’s deepest canyons!

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The following morning we rose before sunrise and set off climbing out of the canyon before even the chance for breakfast or a coffee. The Canadian girl in our group, a national level boxer with aspirations of taking part in the Rio De Janeiro Olympics, set a mean pace and of course our sense of competitiveness meant we had to keep up with her. Our climb into the canyon had taken around two hours and in reverse three. The climb up was relentless with endless steps and few flat sections. I couldn’t help but play the music from the movie ‘Rocky’ – where he runs up that huge set of stairs – over and over in my head and let out little punches of satisfaction that we were making good progress. Once our group had all made it to the top and we’d caught our breath, we posed for triumphant team photographs. We’d gone 10 rounds with Colca Canyon and come out victorious, despite having legs that would surely decide not to work the following morning!!

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2 Responses to “Kingdom of the Ice Princess”

  1. superhorsefeathers October 27, 2013 at 4:33 pm #

    Awesome pictures guys!! Great post too. Love Arequipa!

    • latinchattin October 29, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

      Thanks Jo! It feels like a long time ago since we were there now but very good memories. Say hello to Peru for us! x

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