Posts tagged ‘Colca Canyon’

The backpack diaries – our top ten South American experiences

So this post is a little late – over a year late to be precise – but that’s okay because we still remember every miniscule detail of the trip as if it was yesterday. We’re determined to get back on the blogging horse and we have a few great European posts up our sleeves for you, including (home sweet home) Dublin, so don’t go away yet. To get the ball rolling here is our long overdue Top 10 of South America, it took almost a year of arguing, biting and scratching to compile so you had better enjoy it…

10. Paraty, Brazil
Pretty little Paraty may not make it onto many Top 10 of South America lists but this picturesque gem of a town beat tough competition from Ilha Grande to appear on ours. The reason is its unusual charm, the product of pristine beaches married with a picturesque historical centre. In town you have uneven cobbled streets lined with white-washed cottages, windows and doorframes a flipbook catalogue of bright blues, reds, yellows and greens. Outside of town there are endless perfect beaches backed by rainforest that get quieter and quieter as you trek through the forest, away from parents sipping beers on plastic chairs and kids playing football. Walk far enough and you’re sure to find your own deserted patch of sand.

9. Colca Canyon, Peru
Hidden away from the world by towering canyon walls is a tiny gem of a place. Giant cacti bearing bright red fruit, birds with a three metre wing span, terraced fields, well tended orchards, winding paths sheltered by overhanging fruit trees and little girls chasing stray sheep. This is where the mighty Amazon begins as the gurgling stream we dipped our toes into after the long slide downhill. The only problem? What goes down must come up. It was a hike that for me at least, was more difficult than the three day Lares trek – but we did it in two hours.

8. Wineries in Mendoza, Argentina
Take six wine-loving backpackers, six dodgy bicycles, one hand-drawn map and dozens of world-class vineyards, chocolatiers, olive oil producers and absinthe brewers. Throw in a dash of sunshine, a sprinkling of local characters and you have yourself one hell of a day.

7. Trekking in Tupiza, Bolivia
Who would have thunk it? In the arse end of Bolivia, itself the (lovely) arse end of South America, we found the whirlwind adventure we had been chasing all this time. Our reluctant partners in crime, advertised as Argentinian stallions, turned out to be a bunch of fat, grumpy Bolivian mules. Together we cantered across arid scenes of red-sand cliffs and rocky terrain worthy of John Wayne, we crossed railway tracks, fast-flowing rivers and fields of waist-high grass. When we slept it was metres away from them. When we ate they were tied to the trees under which we sat. We wore cowboy hats, chewed coca leaves and spat a lot. It was breath-takingy beautiful and eventually, bum-numbingly painful and it was our biggest South American adventure.

6. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
You don’t walk in Rio de Janeiro, you dance. You tap your toes as you sit in a restaurant, wiggle your bum on the beach and shake yo’ thang at the Lapa street party. Here salsa is king but caparinhas shaken by large-bottomed women with infectious smiles are a close second. Rio lives up to the hype. We came expecting endless white sand beaches with beautiful people playing volleyball, City of God slum towns where kids wandered alleyways with guns slung over their shoulders, skyscrapers that winked in the sunlight and entire neighbourhoods that spent all night dancing in the streets. It was all of that and more, so why isn’t it better than Buenos Aires? Because we were expecting it.

5. World’s Most Dangerous Road, La Paz, Bolivia
At certain points, if you go over the edge of the World’s Most Dangerous Road you fall 600 metres before there’s anything to grab hold of. So obviously we had to try it. And obviously we were bricking it. The start was a fantastic warm-up – smooth tarmac road, a metal barrier and space enough for everyone – but eventually the road changed into a narrow, gravelly track that wound blindly around corners. Then came the trucks, hurdling towards us at video game speed. They took the inside lane while we spun out to the very edge, our toes teetering over a vast drop where birds circled above a rainforest canopy far below.

4. Iguazu Falls, Argentina
At Devil’s Throat it wouldn’t be hard to convince yourself that the waterfall is actually inside your head. With the way it thunders and pounds, sheet after sheet of white noise, it’s hard to think of anything else really – just the waterfall and those suicidal little sparrows that nose dive into huge clouds of spray. Foz Iguazu is actually 275 waterfalls spread over 2.7km in two countries. At it’s highest point it drops 83m, that’s 29m more than Niagara and at one viewpoint, visitors can enjoy 260 degrees of waterfall – a fact that prompted Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to sigh “Poor Niagara!” on her first visit. Poor Niagara indeed. Surrounded by national park, the Argentina side has a fantastic array of wildlife too, from rainbow coloured butterflies to (reportedly) tigers. And no visitor should miss a chance to take a speedboat into the waterfall either – all those screams you hear are happiness at it’s most hysterical. Just leave your clothes on dry land.

3. Buenos Aires, Argentina
Since we’ve been home people have asked us time and time again where did we like best. Now we don’t like to play favourites but if we were to pick just one place where we could stay suspended in time for ever and ever, it would be Buenos Aires. Maybe it was because we had a reunion with a long-missed friend or maybe it was just because Buenos Aires really is just that good. It has tango dancing in the streets, steak you can cut with a spoon, a nightlife that never seems to stop, real life cowboy markets, a cemetery you could easily build a home in and so much to do that you could never get bored here. Buenos Aires is all that and a bag of chips.

2. Lares Trek, Peru
Okay so there was a little bit of altitude sickness but there was also a team that sprinted ahead of us to cook four course meals three times a day in an oven made from stones, a guide that made us giggle, hours of singing The Sound of Music while we skipped down mountain sides, and eye-opening visit to a Quechun village, beautiful scenery, much coca leaf chewing, a night spent drinking macho tea under the stars and of course, the star of the show, Machu Picchu. I defy anyone not to include this beauty on their top ten of South America list.

1. Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
For two days we saw nothing. The sandstorm was so bad it tore the roof off a hostel (the temperature was -20°c), so bad that it blasted all the paint off one side of our jeep, so bad that we couldn’t see to the end of our bonnet. Then we arrived at Salar de Uyuni and it stopped. At first it was just a mirage glimmering on the edge of the desert but as we got closer it sucked all the colour out of the world until all that was left was a bright blue sky and a ground so dazzlingly white, we needed sunglasses. This wonder of nature is one of the few places in the world where you can clearly see the curve of the earth.


There are more pictures from South America available in the gallery


December 21, 2011 at 11:44 am 10 comments

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

September 3, 2010 at 12:21 am 3 comments


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