Arequipa, as with much of Peru, is a city smack bang in the middle of beautiful, yet hostile terrain, a place where life before the conveniences of the modern age must have indeed been a bit of a bitch. Perverse and untimely threats were difficult to thwart. Imagine, if you will, waking up 500 years ago at the base of three volcanos, only to find that an army of soul patch sporting Spanish lads with swords is rocketing towards you atop burly war horses who themselves were about to evaporate of thirst in the heat.
Picture that you feel so perturbed by this sight that you wish to tell the nearby communities about what you’ve seen. Imagine now that not only must you get past those bad-ass volcanos to do so, but that futher on, burning hot sand dunes and some of the deepest canyons in the world are about to delight in further impeding your progress. Now, remember that you ARE NOT yet able to download a facebook app onto your as-yet-uninvented-mobile to get the word out more quickly. NOR has Twitter yet been brought to life.
Difficult times. Difficult times indeed.
Arequipa – known also as La Ciudad Blanca, the White City – is Peru’s second largest metropolis after Lima; although locals will quickly have you know that they are arequipeño first and Peruvian second. So deeply rooted is their pride in being from Arequipa that while there we saw this sign welcoming the Dacar drivers from their recent stomach-churning escapades across the desert sands…
…listing the city as a country in its own right alongside Peru, Argentina and Chile.
“But of course. It IS a country,” affirmed a nearby elderly gentleman.
Well there you go.
In any case, Arequipa is a great basecamp for frolicking and communing with nature: some of the world’s deepest canyons, the Cañón del Colca and Cañón Cotahuasi are a short drive away and bring with them glorious yet joint-killingly mean hiking (try descending 1200m before the morning’s out and then tell me how much your knees hate you). Condors are also a regular feature, with their presence in the canyons attracting tourists like fat kids to a Mr Whippy truck. I, unfortunately, was disappointed by the uncommon absence of condors the morning I was there – the birds had obviously partied pretty heavily the night before and were splendidly hungover, refusing to come out and play. Only one was to be seen and only then if you squinted and prayed to all the deities at once.
A day trip away from the city
An attraction unknown to many tourists lies 4 hours away from Arequipa near Corire, an oasis/fishing village known for its river prawns (camarones) and I imagine not a great deal else.
What Corire is close to however, is Toro Muerto; an archeaological site like no other. Virtually unvisited, Toro Muerto (Dead Bull) is a stretch of desert 5 square kilometres in total, littered with hundreds of thousands of rocks, thousands of them bearing petroglyphs: the curious carvings of a tribe long since lost.
No one is entirely sure what the markings were to represent: perhaps religious writings, stories…or simply the ancient graffiti of bored kids.
I passionately love and doubt the last theory in equal measure. The terrain out there is tough stuff, named Toro Muerto as a result of the inordinate number of beasts of burden who perished in the heat while crossing those parts. Trying to imagine a tunic-clad teenage tryst running away to pash and graffiti the rocks just doesn’t compute when actually there, body liquids being evaporated by the heat and skin scrubbed off by the gravel-like combination that is the holy unity between sand and a strong wind. Any teen who uses that place as their hideaway from the adult world is a truly tough cookie.
A rudely-drawn map is provided upon entrance (comically not to scale) but otherwise, you’re free to wander about as you please. Even despite the general lack of information, or understanding as to what the hell Toro Muerto’s petroglyphs actually represented, the terrain is striking. But do, dooooooo bring copious amounts of water and delicious snacky bits to keep your energy up – it’s dang hot out there.
* Buses leave from Arequipa’s Terminal Terrestre from 5am with the last bus returning to Arequipa around 7pm.
* Taxis from Corire to the entrance set you back around 20 soles. The driver will wait for you and take you back to the town square.
* Bues are available too, but will leave you on the main road, a good hour’s walk (an unsigned, confusing walk at that) from the site entrance. The sun’s mean-ass bite will surely have you choose to fork out for the convenience of the taxi.