All international travelers to Peru are forced to arrive via Lima, the only international airport in the country. We spent one quick night in Lima and flew to Arequipa early the next day. Arequipa is a lovely colonial desert town surrounded by snowcapped volcanoes, one of which, El Misti, is still active.
The following morning we embarked on a two day private car tour to Colca Canyon, the Grand Canyon of Peru. As we left Arequipa, we began to climb into the Andes foothills, eventually crossing a pass at an altitude of over 14,000 feet. We adopted the Peruvian cure for soroche (altitude sickness) and drank lots of Mate de Coca, a delicious light green tea made of coca leaves. We also bought a bag of coca leaves to chew on...included in the bag was a greyish piece of soft rock, some sort of salt that supposedly activates the altitude protecting qualities of coca leaves. Unfortunately, neither the tea nor the leaves had any inebriating effect!
As we climbed into the mountains through high desert we began to see flocks of the camels that are native to these highlands; alpacas, llamas, and vicunas.
Alpacas and llamas were domesticated by the native Peruvians long before the arrival of the Conquistadores. Alpacas were raised for their extremely fine (and very expensive) wool. Llamas were raised primarily as pack animals though their wool is also harvested. Vicunas resisted domestication and we were fortunate to see a wild flock of them.
Late in the afternoon we arrived at an attractive eco-lodge, our home for the night. It is quite cold at 12,000 feet so we were pleased to be greeted with the offer of a delicious hot drink which consisted of coca tea, orange juice and rum. For dinner I took the plunge and ordered alpaca to the distress of my traveling companion who is a vegetarian.
The alpaca consisted of a very thin steak, deliciously seasoned but horribly tough. A few bites was enough. One interesting note; several people assured me that alpaca was absolutely cholesterol free. How can that be? Lean, yes, but I thought all meat had some level of cholesterol. ALso note the French Fries and green beans served with the meat. These made frequent appearances on our plates and were quite delicious. The fries almost rivaled those of Greece, but Greece retains the edge due to frying in olive oil.
After a warm night's sleep buried beneath 3 thick alpaca blankets, we headed early to the Cruz del Condor on the edge of Colca Canyon. And yes, we saw many Andean condors. What a great way to celebrate my birthday!