Yes we canyon! Colca Canyon, Peru
There are very few things that merit getting up at 3am in the morning, being shaken to bits for four hours and having your eyes and airways lined with dust. Standing at Cruz del Condor, gasping as a condor with a 3 metre wing span glided over our heads, we knew we had found one of them. When we signed up with Land Adventures to do a three day hiking trip in Colca Canyon we thought that the 3am start was an unavoidable pain in the ass. Really we just wanted to do the hike – warm up for the Lares trek next week and maybe shed a few of the pie pounds that were still clinging to us after New Zealand and Oz. Yet somehow watching these three huge, graceful birds swoop through the canyon was worth every hardship. With only the slightest twitch of a feather they dropped from mountain top to valley floor, relentless in their search for food. Every now and then they thrilled their audience by gliding only a few feet over their heads, causing many (myself included) to almost stumble over the cliff edge as they craned their necks to get a closer look.
Suddenly wide awake and ready for action we got back on the bus and headed to Cabanaconde where we met our group over breakfast. As was the Land Adventure promise there were only five of us and one guide on the trip – one strange German and two even stranger (and definitely more fun) Kiwis, Brooke and Mahea. After the first of many delicious feeds that our very pretty guide Lucia was to cook for us we set off on our trek. Half an hour outside of town we came to a halt at the edge of a mountain and got our first glimpse of the world’s biggest canyon.
Now I don’t know what the exact criteria is for becoming a canyon but Colca certainly didn’t look anything like the dramatic plain of sheer walls and steam-rolled floors that I had imagined it to be. To be honest it just kind of looked like a valley, albeit a nice one. On the side we stood there was very little – a few cacti and two paths that zig-zagged their way from top to bottom. The other side was where all the action was – inca terraces, precariously balanced villages and on the canyon floor a river (the start of the Amazon would you believe!) and what could only have been a mirage. Shimmering in the midst of unnaturally lush and green foliage was a string of bright blue swimming pools. “That is where we are going,” said Lucia before she galloped off down the hill. And as we all know, what goes down must come up…
The first few hours were a pretty boring downhill stumble. We could see our end goal the whole time, indeed we had a clear vista of the entire canyon most of the time during the two days we spent in it, but we just didn’t seem to be getting any closer. When we did eventually get to the suspension bridge we raced down to the river and stuck our very swollen feet in the Amazon. Divine.
Our second surprise of the day came when we crossed over the river. It seemed that without even realising we had gone through the wardrobe and opened the door in a whole other world. Gone were the coarse shrubs and menacing rocks to be replaced by well-tended grass, orchards and a narrow path that was bordered on one side by a tiny gurggling canal and sheltered by overhanging trees. Little girls chased runaway sheep while their mothers hobbled amiably behind them. Lucia led us through the warren pointing out different flowers and fruits – some we had never seen before and some, like avocados the size of our heads, we were well acquainted with. The cactus was a big feature, offering up spikey fruit but more valuabley, tiny little nodules that when squashed surprised by turning from chalky grey into 15 shades of red – perfect for dying llama hair or wool threads.
As was to become a reoccuring theme though, our steep downhill climb was matched by an equally steep uphill struggle. At the top of the hill sat our homestay accomodation for the night and five ice cold beers so there was no two ways about it really. We would have to climb the hill. Forty minutes later we had collapsed on the grass at the top, panting and staring with horror at the mountain we had to climb the following day. If we couldn’t get up one tiny hill how were we ever going to get out of the canyon? Hiking at this altitude was like walking around with lead in your shoes and six cigarettes in your mouth. And as Gary so helpfully kept reminding me in his puzzlingly fit, totally-able-for-these-hills state, if I couldn’t do the Colca Canyon there was no hope of ever getting to Machu Picchu.
Lucia woke us up the next morning with pancakes, an obvious but delicious ploy to try and make us forget about the day ahead. Our first stop was a cool little museum in someone’s front room where we sampled the local maize beer – tipping a little out onto the soil for Pachamama (Mother Earth) – and marvelled over the locals and their innovative use of dead animal carcases as water containers and bull’s testicles as ladles. Mmmmm soupy. The next distraction was the promised oasis, a bizarre and really contrived little area on the valley floor where a cluster of hotels with swimming pools had been built as a way to attract tourists. For four hours we sat by the pool staring at the mountain that loomed over us. After lunch we would handle it but for now we would have to settle for a spot of sunbathing.
Of course lunch was over far too fast and then… The Hill of Death. Over only 2km the dusty, rocky, gravelly little path of doom snaked its way up a whopping 1,200m ascent. I was able to keep up with the boys at the start, marching 10ft along the path before stopping, turning almost 180 degrees and walking 10ft in the opposite direction then another 10ft and so on, zig-zagging up the sheer mountain face. Eventually though my muscles started to ache, my throat started to call out for oxygen and my head started to throb. As I sat and gasped on a rock, trying desperately to ward off an oncoming asthma attack and some impromptu vomitting, the boys sped off towards the top. So much for sticking together. For the next half an hour I stumbled along alone, stopping for a rest at every bend and cursing those lazy tourists who had opted to hire a donkey to do the walking for them. Thanfully Brooke and Lucia soon caught up with me though and my misery was halfed – if I was going to die climbing this stupid hill then at least I wouldn’t die alone (although gossiping may not have been the best use of our limited oxygen). In the end Gary got up the hill in 1 hour and 48 minutes (but who’s counting right?) while I brought up the rear at 2 hours and 40 mins. I won the race to the shower though and after scrubbing off several layers of skin and devouring a delicious alpaca steak and a mojito, we were dead to the world.
The last day was a bit of a waste of time. It consisted mostly of time spent back on that awful bus being shaken to pieces although we did get to go to the hot springs – tepid springs would have been more apt – and we got our money’s worth at the fantastic buffet lunch we had at the hotel in Chivay. Meanwhile Gary ran around outside taking pictures of little girls and their alpacas. At least the scenery on the way home was beautiful, a lot more impressive than the canyon itself actually which, although Land Adventures were a fantastic tour company and Lucia was a great guide, probably isn’t worth all the effort unless you are warming up for the Inca Trail or one of its alternatives.
There are more photos from the Colca Canyon available in the gallery