Rocky road back to Arequipa
This afternoon, our three-day hike of the Cañon del Colca was almost finished. We'd finished our relaxing visit to the hot springs in Chivay (and the great buffet lunch), and all that remained was to complete one last bus journey, back to Arequipa. And that proved to be the hardest part of the whole tour. Because Arequipa is currently a city under siege: the protests that I saw on Tuesday, before I left on the hike, have gotten much worse; all roads in and out of the city are now blockaded by angry mobs, and every man and his dog is now up in arms about life, the government, and everything. This made our journey home very interesting indeed.
All was good on our bus journey back, until we were about a ½-hour's ride from our destination. Then, suddenly, the bus stopped on the side of the road, and everyone was told to get out. "Err, get out?" we asked, confusedly. "We're on a highway, surrounded by nothing except sand and mountains. Get out and go where, exactly?" The response: "you have to walk the rest of the way back to Arequipa".
Everyone getting off the bus, in the middle of nowhere.
And pretty soon, we saw why.
After walking up the highway for about ten minutes — luckily, it wasn't too hot, we all had food and water, and we were carrying very light backpacks — we started seeing the rocks. They ranged in size, from little stones, to rocks bordering on boulders: as wide as 50cm, and probably weighing as much as 60kg. They were strewn all over the road, making driving along it dangerous or impossible: it looked like someone had driven a dump truck along the highway, and just let them fall out behind as it went. The only way through them was on foot, or on bicycle.
Walking along the rocky road.
But that was only the start. Another 20 minutes or so, and we reached the edge of the city. The semi-slums on the northern edge of Arequipa are technically a separate city, called Ciudad de Dios ("City of G-ds"); and they were what we had to walk through, in order to get through the rest of the blockage. I doubt that they'd look pretty, or that they'd have the nicest crowds, at the best of times. And this afternoon was most definitely not the best of times.
The rocks continued, constantly littering the road. There was a big stream of people, all walking along the road, through the rocks, all having gotten kicked off their buses, en route from Chivay. Quite a few of them were our fellow gringo tourists. Looked a bit like a surreal kind of exodus.
Then came the angry mobs. We heard them before we saw them: they were shouting some kind of war-cry; and it seemed that every local in the whole area had joined their ranks. They started pretty thin: but as we continued along the road, the crowds got much thicker. Finally, we saw the crowd reach their thickest, and end abruptly; and then, with about 20m of no-man's-land separating them, we saw the line of riot police, with their shields and batons at the ready. At this point, our guide directed us off the road, and onto a slightly safer bit of land off to the side.
The thickest of the mob.
Just after we'd gotten off the road, we saw the crowd start charging towards the line of coppers.
The mob, the cops, and not much in between.
Our little group managed to find a way around the worst of the mob-charging, through some dusty side-streets. When we cut back into the main road, we found ourselves in the camp of the riot police, who were surrounded on two sides by the angry mobs. The police, who all seemed surprisingly calm and blasé about the whole thing, then escorted us through one of their lines of shields; and once on the other side, we managed to make our way through the thickest of the mobs, and to continue on the other side. That was a pretty scary experience: but most of the mob seemed to be reasonably friendly towards us, saying things like "suerte, amigos" ("good luck, friends"), and "hello, mister".
We had about another 1½ hours of walking to do, before we reached any roads that were clear of rocks, and that had cars driving on them. There wasn't too much hassle the rest of the way: the worst thing that we saw was the burning tyres, but really, they looked a lot more dangerous than they were. There were no angry crowds near them; and everyone was just walking around them, and trying to avoid the smoke (which I understand is rather toxic).
Burning tyres on the way back.
Towards the end of our unexpected highway hike, we encountered a wall of rocks, that the locals had constructed across the entire breadth of the road. Must have been about a foot high. Pedestrians were just walking over it; and cyclists were lifting their bikes over. But vehicles of any kind were simply not getting through. Apparently, the rule in these situations is that anyone who attempts to drive through the rocky roads, is liable to have stones thrown at their vehicle. Charming.
Wall across the road.
Finally, after about two hours of walking (and with the sun starting to go down), we reached the end of the blockeded road; and we found vehicles driving on the streets once again. We had made it through: we were back in Arequipa! Once we got to this point, it wasn't too hard to find a van to jump into, which then gave us a lift back to the city centre.
Most unfortunately, when we went to the hostel in Arequipa that we wanted to stay at, we weren't able to get in there. The place is called "Home Sweet Home", and it's one of the most popular hostels in the city. We tried to get some beds there when we first arrived in Arequipa, on Monday; but they were full, and they said that we should have reserved. So, before we left for our hike, we made a reservation for tonight; and for Monday and Tuesday nights, we stayed in Hostal La Reyna (a bit of a dump) instead. However, tonight our reservation meant nothing: due to the riots, nobody was able to leave the city today; so "Home Sweet Home" is still full! Arghhh! Anyway, we managed to find another reasonably good hostel, called "La Casona De Jerusalén", to stay at tonight.
So, that was the eventful end to our hike in the Cañon del Colca. Lucky we made it back to the city in one piece — although I'm not sure how long we'll be stuck here, now that we're inside. Anyway, it's safe enough here in the city centre: most of the action is on the city's fringes, where the access roads are being blockaded. Apparently, similar problems are occurring in other cities across Peru, including in Puno, in Tacna, and most especially in my beloved Cusco (Cusco under siege: I can't even imagine it!). Understandably, we were all completely exhausted from our hike, and from the added ordeal of the afternoon; so it was an early and a sleep-filled night for everyone.