SOUTHERN PERU. SECOND PART: AREQUIPA – CHOQUEQUIRAO

This section is ideal for the traveler, because it has a bit of everything: impressive places of nature on the coast and in the mountains; culture of all types and colors: pre-Inca, Inca, colonial and current roots; history. Some of the places that one should visit in these region are:

 

• Arequipa

• Nazca

• Huacachina

• Ballestas Islands and Paracas National Reserve

• Ayacucho

• Choquequirao (from San Pedro de Cachora)

Arequipa

One of the most beautiful cities in Peru, with buildings and white colonial houses (nicknamed the White City for its constructions of light colored volcanic rock), wide squares and green areas. Against a backdrop of a mountain range on which stands the gigantic Misti volcano (a perfect cone of 5822 meters), flanked by the Chachani (left) and the Pichu Pichu (right). Its mixture of big and cosmopolitan city (second largest city in the country), on the one hand, and its Andean environment, on the other, makes it very attractive for the traveler. Some of the things you can do in Arequipa are:

 

  • Stroll through the colonial center enjoying the churches, convents and mansions

  • Go out at night

  • Visit some museums. Two stand out above the rest: the Museo Santuarios Andinos, focusing on different aspects of the Andean culture (the main attraction are the Inca children offered to the gods/mountains, in whose climatic conditions they were perfectly preserved), and the Museo de Arte Virreinal Santa Teresa.

  • Hiking in the mountains. There are many routes to choose from, among which we can mention the popular ascent to the Misti volcano (bring coca leaves for altitude sickness!). It takes between two and three days to go up and down.

 

About the Colca Canyon you can visit it with a guide, but I recommend doing it on your own (much cheaper and at your own pace). The road is spectacular, passing through the Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reserve, the inhospitable altiplano (areas close to 5000 meters), and the descent to Chivay.

Nazca

Village in the hot desert, located in the middle of the mysterious Nazca Lines: about 300 geoglyphs and 70 biomorphs scattered over a vast territory. They are believed to have been made by the Nazca and Paracas peoples between 900 BC and 600 AD by removing the dark stones of the desert... That is, exposing the lighter colored soil. But nobody knows what they really mean, nor how they could do them without having an aerial perspective. While the tour by small plane flying over the lines must spectacular, I am not sure if I would recommend it. Two reasons: its high price, its low moral value (only accessible to the gringos with money while the locals cannot afford it). However, it is a good destination that is on the itinerary and deserves a stop. You can go on your own to El Mirador (The Viewpoint), in the Panamericana road 20 km north of Nazca (direction Ica/Huacachina), from where you can observe (partially) a couple of figures: El Árbol (The Tree) and Las Manos (The Hands). Obviously, the aerial perspective has to be much better, but seeing these two from here is also wonderful.

Huacachina

Literally, an oasis in the middle of the desert. This small and picturesque town with a beautiful lagoon in the center and surrounded by sand dunes is perfect to rest a few days, away from all kinds of stress. That is why so many backpackers come to relax their tired legs and backs. Lie on the sand under a palm tree, take a dip in one of the pools of the hostels, ride a buggy and travel through the "dunátic" landscapes, rent a board and train your sandboarding skills or, simply, walk aimlessly through the dunes. The sunsets are spectacular.

Ballestas Islands and Paracas National Reserve

These two shelters of coastal landscapes of the department of Ica can be accessed by boat from Pisco or Paracas village (day trips). In the Ballestas Islands (one hour from Pisco) you will go through arches and caves and can see animals such as sea lions, dolphins, Humboldt penguins, cormorants, pelicans and flamingos, among others.

 

Paracas Reserve offers a protected and unspoilt part of the Peruvian coastal desert, where very different landscapes await you with cliffs and lots of fauna. The Reserve is in an exceptionally rich maritime zone, where outcrops of extremely cold waters (Humboldt current) cause a great abundance of plankton that feeds fish, crustaceans, molluscs... Which, in turn, attracts sea lions and birds. A wide variety of species that come to eat till they burst.

Ayacucho

One of the most beautiful cities in the country: spectacular colonial architecture, spectacular surrounding mountains (above 2750 meters elevation). Ayacucho stands out for its works of art (pre-Hispanic, colonial and Creole), arranged in churches, temples, mansions and other stately buildings (colonial art); and blooming in the markets (local art). The best thing for the visitor is to walk aimlessly, marveling at its streets and buildings, and enjoying its warm inhabitants.

 

As if that were not enough, the capital of the homonymous department lives and breathes history in abundance: near here the final battle was fought leading to proclaim the independence from the Kingdom of Spain (December 9, 1824). You can visit this place, the Historical Sanctuary of the Pampa de Quinua (32 km from Ayacucho), where a monument/obelisk stands in the center of a grassy esplanade. But before that there was more (much more), obviously... From the settlements of pre-Inca civilizations to the arrival of the "conquistadores"... Here we are not going to dwell too much (come and learn yourself!), I will just mention that the Wari (or Huari) Empire was born in these lands, which expanded to the north and south and stood out for the quality of its work with textiles, ceramics, metals and stone (years 1100-1400 AD). 20 km from Ayacucho (on the road that goes to Quinua) is located the Archaeological Site of Wari, which was once one of the largest urban centers in Peru. In addition to walking through that landscape shared by wari ruins and cacti, there is a very interesting museum. Definitely, Ayacucho is a place to stop for lovers of history.

Choquequirao

The best kept secret of the Incas can breathe freely, it will not be overwhelmed by tourism (yet). And that is precisely its greatness, which provides much of the magic that this place has. In the middle of the mountain range, far from any town and road, is Choquequirao. Immersed in the purest nature. To get here first you need to travel to San Pedro de Cachora (a small town in a detour more or less close to Abancay, on the road that links Andahuaylas and Cusco). Then make a small "sacrifice", walking for 30 kilometers (one way) through the most beautiful landscapes of the universe. Your legs will end up exhausted up and down mountains, but your mind and soul will be jumping with joy at the sight of those snowy peaks, valleys and forests. Much of the path runs parallel to the Apurímac River, encased in a spectacular canyon.

 

A minimum of two nights of camping is required on this route. You can camp where you want, but there are not many flat areas to set up a tent... On the other hand, there are a couple of campsites: one just before crossing the river on a kind of chairlift (this campground is free), and another at the entrance of the archaeological site (for a fee). If you wake up early (and you are in shape) you can sleep both nights at the campsite before the river, so you can walk lighter the round trip of this stretch (leaving part of yur luggage inside the tent). In Cachora there are some hostels to recover strength.

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