Walking in the Arequipa region

Walking in the Arequipa region

The Andes are formed chiefly of the reddish-ochre rock called Andestite. However, the South of the country has been extensively modified by vulcanism, and the region around Arequipa is formed from basalt and other hard rocks. The result of this is a distinctive scenery that is far more jagged than the rest of Peru. In addition, the South is relatively arid and the lack of vegetation makes for a masculine starkness that is not to everybody’s taste. The distinctive patterns of cultivation of the coast – in which water is used to irrigate desert wherever this is possible – is echoed in this higher region. Bare cliffs tend to flank green valleys, or to descend into equally barren rocky gorges.

The town of Arequipa is described elsewhere. It has a thriving tourist industry, chiefly oriented around visits to the town. Many people who visit are on tours or circuits which take them on to Titicaca and Cuzco, and their stay is of limited duration. This is a pity as the culture of Arequipa is unique in Peru. Trekking is not, however, completely ignored. The equipment that you need can be bought locally, and there are also a number of trekking-oriented organisations which will set you up with hired equipment and make all of your arrangements for you. Prices are less than those in Cuzco and Huaraz. Hotels and restaurants are, however, costly as compared to those of Huaraz.

There are three developed treks in the region, as well as an effectively infinite array of walks that you could elect to follow. Two very large gorges have been cut from the highland to the coast, the Valles de Cotohuasi and Colca. Both are rather similar, although Cotahuasi is best approached in conjunction with the Nazca-Paracas-Pisco complex. It is worth noting that the depth of both of these cañónes exceeds that of the US Grand Canyon by a factor of two. Colca is around 3200m deep, Cotahuasi 3500m We describe Colca in detail – because it is the most accessible of the two - and also the ascent of the volcano outside Arequipa, el Misti.

Climbing el Misti

The volcano is one of a number of semi-active cones in the area. The Parque Nacional de los Volcanes is a valley with over 75 much smaller cinder-cones or scoria, lying at the foot of Coropuna.. Of the major volcanoes, Solimana (6320m), Coropuña (6610m), Ampato (6310m) are all taller than el Misti, which stands at 5820m. However, it is located only 17km from the centre of Arequipa and so achieves social rather than physical predominance. It is, anyway, a spectacular location.

There is absolutely nothing stopping you from picking one or all of the others as objects of your interest. Access is relatively easy and, as mentioned, treks of any kind can be organised. Note that volcanoes seldom have standing water, and el Misti has none. You must therefore carry what you are going to use, which can mount to a substantial weight over several days.

The volcano stands in a national park - Salinas y Aguada Blanca - which is noted for its bird life. The major attraction are its flamingos, and it is worth combining the two in a single trip. You will need a permit for the park and for the volcano. This has to be bought in Arequipa, and takes 48 hours. It is best to use a our operator to acquire a pass for you if time is limited.

Day 1: Access is by road, taking several hours. Your permit will be checked before you enter the park, and the road continues to nearly 4000m. Walkers proceed uphill towards a small cone, Monte Blanco, crunching up sharp volcanic grit interspersed with grass. there is no trail as such, and you follow your navigational common sense. The summit is an open, bleak place with a gritty wind, but the views are very good. White, fluffy-looking cactus (which is far from soft to the touch) is packed between black basalt. Where you camp is up to you, because – please recall – you have to carry your own water.

Day 2: Most try to reach the summit in the early morning, to catch the morning light on the surrounding volcanic peaks. This means setting out well before dawn, walking in the dark. The ascent has no defined trails and, like almost all climbs on volcanoes, involves ascent on steep, loose scree. (Some of this is very sharp, and can cut your hands. A pair of gloves is a helpful way of avoiding a cut, as is a walking stick or ski pole.) The first 3-4 hours are moderate, and then the grade steepens for a further two hours. The crater is a wide bowl, with a few fumaroles – steam and gas escapes – from the rim. A large cross marks the summit.

The decent to Monte Blanco takes a couple of hours, and you could easily make it back to your starting point in a few more. However, some prefer to camp for a further night, and exit via Chiguata. One obvious reason is that transport is available only by arrangement and by luck from the jumping-off point, whilst Chiguata is on the main road to Arequipa.

Day 3: A Southern-oriented scramble takes you around the mid-section of the volcano, dropping back into grass patches at around 4000m. Views to surrounding peaks are interesting and extensive. The flattening-out of the slope brings first grass and then scrub begins to develop. With this, and despite the lack of standing water, a more extensive wild life is evident. Raptors wheel overhead. The settlement of Cachamarca appears at 3050m, followed by the large adobe village of Collamarca, set amongst Eucalyptus. Chiguata is eventually found on a main road into Arequipa. Transport back to the town is easily arranged from here.

Colca cañón

You can combine sight-seeing or exploratory visits to the larger volcanoes described above with a trip down Colca. The high arid plain makes an interesting contrast to the much warmer interior of the cañón, however, and there is far more life inside it than on the plains.

The Colca river is much reduced over former times, as a result of extractions for hydroelectricity and agriculture. The archaeology of the region suggests that this was one of the first non-coastal settlements in Southern Peru, and it is certain that the indigenous people managed to avoid being subdued by other centres of power up until the crushing unification of the Incas. Their distinctive culture goes to make Arequipa distinctive in Peru, and something of this is discussed elsewhere. The Collahua people brought irrigation technologies to a high level of skill, and decayed remnants of their achievements line the route.

Many of the Colca treks do the obvious: they simply follow the cañón down from somewhere near its origins to somewhere closer to Arequipa. River rafting treks do exactly this, using the lower reaches. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this, it is more than a trifle monotonous at the valley is huge and unchanging for long period of walking. Here, we describe a traverse of the headwaters of the cañón. This is a tough route, but one which if far from unchanging. As it crosses a 5100m pass, you absolutely must be acclimated to altitude and physically fit. However, you also get a view of the extraordinary Parque Nacional de los Volcanes and good views of other major volcanoes.

The jumping off point for this trek is the quiet town of Cabanaconde, (3280m). This can be reached by bus from Arequipa on a regular basis. The town offers good views of the cañón itself, and is a bullfighting centre for the area. Local bullfights are unusual in that the bulls fight other bulls, rather than matadores. You may care to note the white flowers and spiny organ pipes of the San Pedro cactus, the fruits of which have hallucinogenic properties. They have been used in shamanism down the length of Peru for millennia.

Day 1: The dusty path drops through terraces and dry gullies patched with cactus and agave. Eventually it meets a road, which continues down to the floor and then twists up to Llanca, opposite. The trail breaks away from this at around 300m and continues down the cañón. This encounters yet another road before dropping to around 2500m, where it levels out. The Rio Colca appears, deep in a 300m gorge and the trail follows this to a crossing, where it is possible to camp. (Camp sites are heavily limited by the availability of water in the dry, trekking season.)

Day 2: This is a day of ascent, and the issue of water can be pressing if you do not start with a full water-bottle and a full stomach. The initial climb zigzags steeply upward, and then runs parallel to the river. The Rio Colca heads off South-West, and the trail follows a tributary, the Rio Cuzco.After some hours in this valley, one encounters irrigated land, which makes a pleasant break. The trail reaches the village of Choco, 2470m.

The village lies at the confluence of two rivers, and the trail follows the newcomer, the Rio Chalaza into its very steep-sided, dark valley. The path runs along the noisy stream, eventually arriving in Miña after many crossings and recrossings. The trail is, essentially, the river bed and this is tiring to walk on. The gorge opens closer to Miña and farmed terraces appear before the stone houses in this remote, rock-bound village make their appearance.

Day 3: The path crosses the Cerro Huarana pass (4570m). The path up from Miña is indistinct, passing through animal pastures and cactus-dotted wasteland. The switchback up to the path is an intense climb, resulting in a saddle with moderately interesting views. The path descends to grassy pampa where there may or may not be water, and you can camp if there is. Otherwise – and if you want to press ahead – you climb up to much better views, including a prospect of the Colca cañón and the snow peak of the Ampato volcano.

A gradually increase in the steepness of the climb marks the trail up to the 5100m Cerani pass. This can be seen ahead for some hours before it is reached. The last stages of this climb are on steep, loose scree and the altitude tells on all but the fittest. Coropuña can be seen to the West, and the Parque Nacional de los Volcanes, with its myriad of cinder cones.

The drop down is as tough as the climb. After a number of smaller areas of greenery, a pastured valley can be seen below with signs of habitation. This has both water and camping locations, at around 4500m. The site gives views of Coropuña and is generally atmospheric.

Day 4: The trail contours around the shoulder of the valley, offering fine views. Eventually, at around 4700m, you get a view down onto the valley and seasonal village of Umapalca. There is usually water at the village, and there will be guanacos and llamas grazing here if the season is right for this. Here as elsewhere, a guide is helpful as a plethora of animal trails head off up and down the slope and it is far from clear which to follow. Heading downhill, the path wanders across stony fields of ichu grass, with good views to Coropuña.

This is a region much favoured by cactus, and the path is densely fringed by species of all shapes and sizes. The village of Chacas appears through these, deep in the valley ahead. If the season is right, it will perhaps be surrounded by green fields and is anyway set amidst generations of terracing. Below it lies the Laguna de Chacas, 3000m. Once the village has been reached, the walker will have descended for about 700m and the knees will be telling a familiar tale. Happily, this is the camp site, and the village even boasts a restaurant.

Day 5: Chacas is a road head, and it is necessary to follow this upward to the ridge above. (There is the usual pedestrian and animal short-cut, if you are feeling vigorous.) The ridge is 500m above Chacas and offers excellent views. Part of the Parque Nacional de los Volcanes lies immediately below, and a few cones and lava flows can be seen.

The road continues down into the Río Challahuire valley, where you part company. Crossing the river, scrambling up lava flows into another cactus garden to reach an extensive lava flow, the so-called lomas de Ninimama. Black lava (probably exuded around 200 years ago) is patched with cactus and other plants. This is hard going, but an very unusual experience. It is also hot in the sun and trekkers should once again remember to bring large, full water bottles with them on this trek. Leaving the lava flows, the path climbs more steeply to the terraces and cultivation of the village of Andagua.

Andagua is a sprawling town with a prominent Plaza de Armas, basic shops, equally basic hostals and a regular bus service to Arequipa. The bus trip takes around 10 hours.