Colca Canyon is 7 hours on dirt roads from Arequipa. It is deeper than the Grand Canyon and has small towns and indigenous people that can only be reached by hiking. Our guide, his donkey, Jim, my partner, & myself set out for one of these towns. We had been warned that because this town was perched high on the other side of the canyon it was not visited often. They should have said never. Our young guide and his donkey must have spent the night before partying because we kept waiting for them to catch up as we scaled the steep path to Tapay. I was feeling quite proud of our trekking abilities when an antique couple and two heavily loaded donkeys passed us as if we were standing still.
We were definitely in donkey territory. Every bottle of coke, grain of rice or building material comes in by donkey. No flat tires here. This area is green and fertile in places. There are many fruit trees and lots of other plants. I was delighted when Charlie, our guide, let me graze on some as we walked. Jim was happy because Charlie was getting the fruit instead of him. I always like to eat whatever I can find on a trail and Jim is forever climbing to some strange place to fetch the fruit of my fancy. I think this comes from eating on the streets of NY as a child.
Upon entering town our guide began talking with the locals until he found us somewhere to sleep. Our hotel turned out to be a mud hut with a dirt floor, bamboo platforms and the family’s fruits and vegetables. I think we were staying in their shed. The bathroom, always a touchy issue, was a short climb over a rock wall and just behind a cactus. It was hole in the ground with a board. Ah, life in the high Andean mountains.
The people here and in the other neighboring villages have a traditional dress that the Spaniards introduced to them. Prior to the Spaniards the tribes would practice skull deformation to distinguish themselves. The Spanish arbitrarily decided that the people should cease this custom that they had practiced for hundreds of years and wear costumes instead. I had this image of a Spaniard sitting at his drawing table and deciding the future of these people. By Colca Canyon we encountered two different styles. Both have heavily embroidered clothes with several layers of skirts sometimes tucked up to reveal other brightly colored ones underneath. One group wore crisp white hats with one or two flowers on them to show if they were married. I guess when they married the husband literally got to pick the bride's flower. The other had a floppy hat completely covered in embroidery. They wear their costumes with such pride and dignity. As we watched the people closely it became apparent that this is probably the last generation to wear their traditional dress. The youngsters all romped around in sweat pants.
We are not sure if this town has a special view of modesty or if our next experience was unusual. We had decided to explore our new place of residence. As we returned to the vegetable shed we called home we passed our 20 something landlady. We saw her washing her hair in the courtyard with no shirt on. We didn’t want to embarrass her so we quietly walked past. Having seen us she came running across the ‘street’ (actually more of a stone path for donkeys) half naked, her hair streaming water. She had locked the shed and didn’t want us to wait to get in. With a large smile and not a shred of modesty she opened it up for us.
We soon discovered that where it is not heavily irrigated the land is desert. At the bottom of the canyon however is a beautiful natural oasis. Palm trees, waterfalls and clear ponds could be seen beaconing the way for hours. When we arrived Jim was treated to a view of round healthy boobs for the second time. These belonged to a young French girl who was swimming in the lagoon. I left my shirt on. Somehow I didn’t think my soon to be 46 year old breasts, which had nursed 2 kids could compete.
We had been happily settled on our bus back to Arequipa for several hours when wild whooping and hollering was heard. A band of local men had ambushed the bus. The bus swerved and came to a stop. They let all of the air out of the tires and then hid to surprise the next bus. Everyone exited and collected their luggage. Surprisingly no one complained. I even overheard on English guy exclaim ¨Power to the people¨.
As we were making our way down the road I spotted a pickup with people jumping in. Remembering clearly how far we walked after the last blockade, being an opportunist and approximately 50 kilometers from town I jumped in too. Jim got one leg in before the truck took off. He traveled that way for quite a while until room was made for the other leg. Eventually we made our way back to the city to discover that no buses were coming or going from Arequipa. All ground transportation was in a stranglehold. All plans for future travel was indefinitely postponed. The Peruvian people were making a statement.