Luckily we made a quick detour on our way to Bolivia otherwise we would have missed one of the most bizarre sites we have visited on this trip (and that’s saying a lot). Ten miles down a dirt road past herds of alpacas and tumble-down buildings brought us to the rose-colored adobe town of Lampa, Peru. Dominating its central square is the 400 year old Church of the Immaculate Conception. At first glance it resembles one of the finer cathedrals in Cusco: gold plated altar, ornate wooden pulpit, bloody Jesus statues in glass boxes, and Virgin figurines in glittering robes. Things get weird when you descend down a claustrophobic stairway to the Inca tunnels below the church. Skulls and bones decorate the entrances to tunnels that supposedly lead all of the way to Cusco, Arequipa, and Puno (over 100 miles away). The story goes that years ago people tried to follow the tunnels to find out where they led…and they never were seen again!!! The tunnels have now been sealed off, so we’ll never know. Climbing back out of the catacombs we next visited the newer chapel that was built when the church was restored in the 1970s. The architect thought it appropriate to dig up the bodies that were buried under the church so their bones could be used to decorate the temple. He then reserved the space at the bottom of the temple for his eventual final resting place. Interesting choice. Tomorrow we head for Bolivia.
Leaving Arequipa we headed for one of the deepest canyons in the world, Colca Canyon. We first ascended through broad plains home to herds of wild vicuñas. I had been hoping to see vicuñas ever since our visit to the Alpaca 111 factory outlet in Arequipa where I fell in love with their cousin, the alpaca. These graceful animals look somewhat like a cross between a llama and a deer, and they skittishly watched us as we stopped to take their picture. Further along the dusty potholed highway, we climbed to 4,900 meters and the highest pass of our trip. While we were slightly plagued by headaches, we stopped to admire the strange yareta plants growing along the road. Resembling fluorescent green boulders, this odd plant thrives in desolate environments over 4,200 meters. Because of the harsh environment, it grows about 1 millimeter a year and many of the plants are thousands of years old. We then descended below yareta territory and into Colca Canyon. Plunging 3191 meters from its highest point to the rushing river valley, it is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Colca Canyon is home to the Collagua and Cabana people who tamed the wild hills of the canyon 1500 years ago by constructing endless terraces to make agriculture possible. After living in the canyon for at least 2,000 years they were conquered by the Incas in the 1400s, with the Spanish hot on the Inca’s heels less than 100 years later. Each of the small towns that is spread throughout the canyon is now home to 300-400 year old picturesque churches. After the Spanish conquest, the canyon was largely cut off from the rest of Peru until roads were built in the 1970s. Because of this isolation, the people of Colca Canyon have retained many of their traditions, still farming the ancient terraces for potatoes and corn, decorating their llamas and alpaca with colorful yarn, and wearing intricately embroidered dresses and hats.
The city of Arequipa is nestled high among the dramatic volcanoes and mountains of southern Peru. It is known as La Ciudad Blanca (The White City) as its buildings are constructed from the white volcanic stone, sillar, that is widely available in the area. Arequipa is also casually referred to as the ‘Berkeley’ of Peru, because of its leftist, secessionist leanings and frequent street protests. Fulfilling this reputation, crowds complete with paper mache effigies of political figures and banners took over the streets several times a day (and strangely, in the middle of the night). After picking up my mother at the tiny airport, we set off to explore Arequipa’s dramatic cathedrals, plazas lined with arched colonnades, and dodge the aggressive cabs that own the streets. At one intersection, the city tried to give pedestrians a slight advantage by installing a stoplight with an electronic singing ‘walk’ sign. It was a mostly unsuccessful experiment as cabs ran the red light for over half of the time allotted for pedestrians. We took a peaceful break from the hectic traffic by visiting the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. For its first 250 years, the monastery operated partially as a repository for rich, protected girls of the Arequipa upper class. Many of the ‘nuns’ had ornate tapestries and chandeliers to decorate their ‘cells’ and servants to cook and clean for them. Upon instituting austerity reforms in 1870 the monastery changed its hedonistic ways and became closed to society. In 1970 the small group of remaining nuns moved to a newer convent, and the monastery was opened to the public. This giant cloistered 400-year old monastery takes up a complete city block. Winding through its narrow alleys between bright orange and blue adobe buildings, the sounds of honking horns and hawking vendors were blissfully muted.
Alpacas at the Alpaca 111 factory outlet