Arequipa is Peru's best-kept secret. We came for the condors not knowing if we would even be able to see them without committing to a five-day hike into the depths of the Colca Canyon, but discovered there is so much more to this city.
The bus ride from Puno was billed as six hours and taking off late wasn't the start we were hoping for but the scenery more than compensated. After an hour of dusty roads and extensive half-constructed urban sprawl almost connecting Puno to Juliaca the breath taking scenery emerged.
Just the day before a Russian tourist, with a note of disgust and disbelief in his voice, had told us this landscape is tundra. All those high school geography lessons came flooding back and I instantly thought, "Well that makes sense."
However it wasn't until it appeared before my eyes that I realized I actually had no visual of what tundra really looked like.
At first the open, exposed and arid landscape seemed lifeless. It was then I recalled those Köppen climate classification definitions and remembered "no trees but ground covers and low scrub." There was also plenty of barren, open land.
However, spectacular alpine lakes soon came into view. A variety of bird life hovered above, suggesting plenty of unseen life below. The slopes were dotted with llama, alpaca and vicuña. (Not that we knew that was what the third group were at that point) We saw plenty on the roads, and thankfully they scurried to safety as the heavy vehicles approached. We were also thrilled to see the drivers not only aware but keen to ensure the safety of these placid creatures.
My perception of a near lifeless desert quickly changed as the variety of landscapes unfolded over the next few hours. Of all the sightings the greatest surprise and delight was certainly several flocks of pale pink flamingos wading in the shallows of alpine lakes.
By the time we approached Arequipa it was dusk and the volcanoes surrounding the city were bathed in a pale pink glow which intensified and eventually turned the whole sky deep orange much to my complete delight. A journey that had begun badly certainly ended in a spectacular fashion and I was once again reminded by nature that expectation sets you up for disappointment but also unparalleled gratitude and appreciation.
The "Lonely Planet" claim that Arequipa is Peru's most picturesque city seemed absurd as we crept through traffic in the outer zones of sprawling suburbia but it proved to be totally true when the majesty of the white,volcanic rock structures of the ancient quarter were revealed to us the following morning.
In the past I have lamented the take over of historic buildings by guest houses, hotels, cafes, restaurants and shops but this time I could see that without them, the structures might fall into the hands of developers and be gone forever. Certainly the ancient quarter of Arequipa is well restored and beautifully maintained. The internal courtyards of many structures serve as outdoor cafes and museums, universities and banks and all manner of other commercial uses abound. Pedestrian friendly zones make strolling the narrow cobbled streets safe and more than once we were encouraged to step inside and view the exhibits on offer in the many tiny municipal galleries hidden away in the courtyards.
Our day trip to Colca Canyon to see the Andean Condors began at 3am. Although my heart sank when the guide said that sometimes there are none to be seen, I opted to think positively. I focused on the fact that it was a beautiful day and the condors live there so why wouldn't we see them? And we did.
We marveled at their majesty and despite it being very difficult to photograph them when you are so in awe of seeing them, we both captured a few great shots and felt blessed to witness them in the wild.
We traversed much of the same landscape as we had journeying to Arequipa and were happy to have our questions answered and a guide who was able to explain in English the significance and protection of the wildlife in this national park region. The vicuña in particular are revered and adored by the locals and there is an abundance of no hunting signs along the roadside. After our hellishly early start we were happy to forgo the sunset to arrive back in Arequipa exhausted but thrilled with the day's sightings at 5pm.
The next couple of days disappeared sampling the culinary offerings of this cosmopolitan city and walking the cobbled streets admiring the architecture and largely unsuccessfully searching for opportunities to get above the street level to photograph the still active volcanoes, which surround the city.
All in all Arequipa piqued our interest well beyond the condors which we came to see but without a doubt they were still the highlight of the time we spent here.
Sitting now in the airport awaiting our flight to Lima, I am more than happy that we decided not to endure the 15-17 hour bus trip back to the capital.
We certainly feel satisfied with the time spent in the places, we selected for ourselves here in Peru and have seen not only the sights which motivated us to come but a whole lot more. It has been travel at its best with language challenges but world-renowned sights and unexpected experiences and insights too.