I was born and bred in Great Britain, England to be precise. I’m not patriotic; the British have done some great things in the past and some not so great so I refer to it simply as ‘Britain’. My fortuitous birth has allowed me to grow up in a country with opportunity and security that many, including myself, take for granted, but the small size of Britain has left me yearning for more ever since quitting my job in 2007 to travel around the globe with a few friends.
Unfortunately I’m now a somewhat responsible adult with adult responsibilities and a great job. Travelling for months on end is no-longer an option so I try and maximise my annual leave to visit as many places abroad as possible and keep my travel bug at bay.
You can drive from the most South West point of Britain to the most North-West point in around 16 hours, during that drive you’ll pass through countless cities, towns and villages, all offering you almost identical architecture, landscape and culture. I’m not knocking it, it’s gorgeous in places, but I’ve had a taste of what’s on offer off the island and there is too much to miss out on. Especially better weather.
In October 2015 I escaped the island and took a trip to Peru. Visiting Machu Picchu was the main aim (which was just as incredible as anticipated) but travelling so far for so many hours it would have been stupid to not make the most of seeing as much of the country as possible. One thing I wanted to see were the condors flying around Colca Canyon, one of the deepest canyons on Earth. To do so, I would have to travel 485km from Cusco to Peru’s second-largest city, Arequipa.
South of the Salinas and Aguada National Reserves, Arequipa is nicknamed ‘The White City’ as most of its buildings are made from white stone, quarried from the three nearby volcanoes. One being the active Misti volcano that overlooks the city from a great height. With it’s European-styled architecture, buzzing Plaza de Armes, tranquil Santa Catalina Monastery and fried guinea pig on offer, Arequipa was an unexpected treat. So was joining the festival of the Lord of Miracles (Señor de los Milagros).
As much as I like to tick off all the typical tourist sites at places I visit, one of the things I enjoy the most about travelling is going off the beaten track, peeling back the surface of a place and trying to experience what it’s really like to live there. Trying to merge myself into local communities and get a more authentic feel for the place. To achieve that, you need days off. Days with no plans other than to explore. This is how I stumbled across the Lord of Miracles Festival. Walking around the city’s back streets, by chance (or miracle…) I saw a large group of people filling a nearby street. Camera in hand I went to see what all the fuss was. Turning another corner I was then faced by hundreds, if not thousands, of locals. Some dressed smartly, some in religious robes, many under umbrellas to protect themselves from the hot midday sun.
Asking those around me, I was told that I was caught in the middle of one of the most important Catholic events in Peru. In 1655 an earthquake hit Lima, killing thousands of people and destroying many homes and buildings. One of those buildings housed a large religious brotherhood. Miraculously, a wall in the brotherhood’s house, which contained the image of Christ on the cross, remained intact, whilst the rest of the building was destroyed.
Years later, and still in perfect condition despite it’s ruined surroundings, the building was repaired and an altar was made around the image. During the festival, locals carry replica altars through the streets and people travel from nearby towns and villages to worship Christ. During the festival, various religious groups followed the altar, burning candles and playing instruments along the way. I snapped a few shots. I’m not a religious or superstitious person, but I was amazed (maybe shocked) at how devoted these people were.
After almost getting crushed I escaped the sea of people and explored the rest of the city. Hundreds of people were out and about. Groups of men, women and children of all ages worked together to create religious murals on the roads as a sign of their respect and a display of their devotion. It was clear that each neighborhood community had planned in detail how their mural would look.
The sense of community and tradition on display this particular day made me think back to the times when my old neighborhood got together for big events and celebrated in the street. Now you’d be lucky to get a smile off some people. I felt lucky to have experienced the festival. Arriving a day earlier or later and I would have totally missed out. I don’t think I’d have enjoyed my stay in Arequipa as much if I had. Unless you’re people watching, laying on a beach or enjoying a cold beer, don’t rest. Keep exploring. You never know what’s around the next corner.
Away from the busy streets I visited the peaceful Santa Catalina Monastery. Built in 1579 and covering over 20,000 square meters, the monastery housed nuns (and still does) within its colourful surroundings. Guarded from the outside world by the high walls, those inside the monastery were part of their own unique community. A community that housed approximately 450 people at one point.
After a day in the city eating the local cuisine and relaxing in a few bars I was picked up at 3am the following morning to visit the Colca Canyon. My driver, a local man from Arequipa, seemed to know everything about the Incas. Good for me, because I’d just come from Machu Picchu and wanted to know more. As striking as the Catholics can be in their dedication to their religion, you can’t go anywhere without seeing crosses or paintings of Christ, the Inca history and folklore interests me more.
The Spanish conquistadors destroyed Inca records and artifacts but the Inca superstitions and mythology still run deep through the region. The native people fought against Spanish repression and luckily, the stories of various deities and important Incan symbolism and beliefs have survived.
A quick stop for breakfast in Chivay, a small town in the Colca valley, and we set off for the Canyon. The earlier you arrive, the greater chance you have of catching the condors taking advantage of the morning thermals. Whilst waiting, my driver Andrés tells me of the strong bond between the native people and the Earth; traditions of burying alpaca fetuses as offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the significance of the condors. It’s said that they fly up to the heavens to deliver messages to the gods. Condors only eat the dead and the natives believe this to be significant to the circle of life, along with the snake, which is a symbol of rebirth and transformation when they shed their skin. The natives also believe that when Pachamama is mistreated by her human children, she falls sick and feels unloved. Taking the form of an angry dragon deep in the Andes, she then causes earthquakes to focus human attention back on the importance of Earth and Pachamama.
Andrés suddenly breaks from his passionate speech and points to a condor approaching from the top of the canyon. Without warning, several condors appear and circle through the air at great heights before swooping down just over my head. I ran across to a set of rocks to get a better view, my feet dangling over a 1,000m+ drop. Gracefully gliding, the condors almost get within touching distance. After admiring the gorgeous birds you start to understand why the Peruvians hold them in such high regard.
We then travelled through the National Reserve. The lush surroundings of the canyon slowly evolved into Mars-like landscapes the higher we went along the Patapama Pass. With an altitude of just under 5,000m we stopped to admire the panoramic view of the Andes with the three volcanoes on the horizon. The view is occupied by hundreds of rock piles. Andrés explained that as the Incas climbed the Andean trails through the mountains they would pick up a stone and when reaching the summit, would add it to an existing rock pile or lay the stone down to start another. The piles are known as apacheta. Apachetas serve as sacred offerings to Pachamama in the hope that the gods above will offer safe travel to those on their journeys. Despite not being superstitious or spiritual it didn’t stop me from placing a stone on top of an existing pile. It was a long and dangerous drive back to Arequipa and I was maybe hoping for some good fortune in returning safely. Or maybe it was the lack of oxygen.
The Peruvians have strong Catholic beliefs thanks to the Spanish and strong Incan superstitions that stir up the imagination of even the most hardened non-believers. Every local you speak to has an interesting fable to tell. Stories you’d want to listen to whilst sat around a campfire. With such a rich and unique history, you can’t help but admire their culture and be blown away by the things you learn along the way. That’s the way it’s meant to be.