Anna Leask

Anna Leask is a police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

A taste of the real Peru

Anna Leask experiences authentic and unspoiled Peruvian life at a rustic town in the Andean Highlands.

Children in the rural village of Chivay in the Arequipa region of Peru. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Presidencia Peru
Children in the rural village of Chivay in the Arequipa region of Peru. Photo / Creative Commons image by Flickr user Presidencia Peru

Visiting the armpit of Peru is not as anywhere near as unpleasant as it sounds.

Chivay, a small village about 160km from Arequipa, is described as just that in the Lonely Planet guide. Perhaps those writers missed out on the pleasures of rural Peru, though, because I found Chivay to be an absolute delight.

Sure, it's a stop-on-the-way-to-somewhere-else kind of town, but in the two weeks I spent in Peru it was one of the most authentic experiences I had.

To get to Chivay from Arequipa, you have to drive through the majestic Andean Highlands, past snowcapped mountains and ancient volcanos. The scenery seems endless and becomes clearer and more vibrant the higher we climb by road. The sky seems bluer and the clouds whiter as we approach our first pit-stop.

A cup of coca tea is compulsory before we reach the highest point in our journey, to avoid altitude sickness. Soon after, we're standing at the halfway point, 4910m above sea level.

It's chilly, almost freezing, and the air feels so thin. Our guide Helmut says we can stay for only five minutes, and we're not to walk around too much - there's just not enough air for us there and the sickness can come on quickly if you overdo it at that height.

It's a breathtaking stop, crisp and clean among the snowy peaks. A few minutes later, everyone panting slightly, we're back on the road and making our way downhill to Chivay.

The roads are dotted with local women in full traditional dress selling whatever they can, their rosy-cheeked children usually nearby; men riding donkeys or leading goats and barely any other vehicles. The farms, like many places in Peru, are terraced, creating a stunning landscape en route to Chivay.

We arrive in the rustic little town just in time for lunch at Zacaria's - a local restaurant serving a traditional buffet. We feast on marinated alpaca, quinoa curry, every kind of potato you can think of, trout baked in red pepper and even guinea pig - the national dish. No one is game enough to try the guinea pig, but the rest of the spread goes down a treat.

From there it's off to the markets. In Chivay they're a mix of touristy garb and local produce, including very freshly killed beef hanging from racks ready to be cut to order, the biggest rounds of cheese I could ever imagine, giant corn kernels in a range of colours including purple, fruit and veges as far as the eye can see and even a group of women selling cow guts. Yes, actual whole cow guts, which did not look nor smell even remotely appetising or edible.

The markets are full of a mix of old and young Peruvians. Children running and playing, singing in Spanish and hiding behind their mothers' billowing skirts when tourists dare to snap unwelcome photos of them. And older women, their weathered faces and hands a telling sign of the hard rural life they've had, still coming each day to earn their living despite appearing about 30 years past retirement age.

The houses in Chivay and the farmlands around the town are simple huts built with mud bricks lining bumpy dirt "streets", on which we have to give way to farmers herding their stock, not in any rush to get to where they are going.

We leave Chivay, which is pretty much the last stop on the way to the Colca Canyon, and make our way to our hotel for the night - the divine Colca Lodge.

The lodge is built amid pre-Inca agricultural terraces, and all of the rooms have a spectacular view out to the rushing River Colca.

The rooms are rustic-yet-luxurious, and boast their own private terraces, where you can sit and take in the view.

Sadly, there's not nearly enough time to enjoy the lodge, which is famous for its natural hot spring pools situated on the river's edge, as we've got a very early start the next day.

We're up before the sun and devouring a hearty breakfast and plenty of strong Peruvian coffee before we hit the road to get to the Condor Cross. We wind our way through the Colca Valley and watch Peru wake up. Tiny villages come to life as the sun stretches across the countryside, and we soon reach our destination.

We get to the top of the Colca Canyon, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and settle at the best viewing spot, ready to see the famous condors which nest in the area.

You've got to be there early: first, to beat the tourist buses and the pushy buggers with giant cameras who will stop at nothing to get that one perfect shot of an Andean condor in flight; and to beat the sun.

Condors soaring through Peru's Colca Canyon. Photo / Thinkstock

The condors glide on thermal currents which are strongest in the morning sun.

I don't like birds, not even slightly, but to see a condor take flight and glide across the canyon, black wings spanned against the rocky grey backdrop, is something quite fantastic. They seem to waft across the air, but as they swoop closely overhead you can see how sturdy they really are. With a wingspan of up to 3.2m and a preference for carcasses around the deer or cattle size, they are a fearsome-looking creature close up.

By about 10am the condors have settled - but the tour buses have not - so we start our journey back to Arequipa, back to the big smoke.

Chivay and the Colca Valley really are must-sees if you want a real taste of Peru.

Simple and unsophisticated they may be, but it's places like this where you will get the best taste of real and largely unspoiled Peruvian life.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: LAN Airlines operates six flights a week from Auckland to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to Lima and other destinations around Peru, including Arequipa. The best way to get to Chivay is by road from Arequipa. There are many local transport options.

Further information: Adventure World offers a 12-day/11-night Highlights of Peru tour.

Anna Leask travelled to Peru with LAN Airlines and Adventure World.

- NZ Herald

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