Colca Canyon

My hiking trip to Colca Canyon was very good: A taxi came to collect me from Hostal San Isidro in Arequipa (which was very pleasant, incidentally) at 1:30am on Thursday morning, just a few hours after I’d gone to bed the previous night. Apart from the driver, there were two Peruvian women in the taxi — someone from the travel agency whose name I didn’t catch, and a fellow “trekker,” a girl from Lima called Eli (Elizabeth).

We got to the bus station and were given bus tickets by the agent, a bargain at 1 soles, or about 28 cents, each. The bus left the station around 2am, and after chatting with Eli for a bit (she had lived in the U.S. for some time, so fortunately for me spoke fluent English), I tried to get some sleep. Sleeping got considerably more difficult, however, when the tarmac road ended not far out of Arequipa and we started bumping along a dirt road, so by the time we got to the small town of Cabanaconde, about 170km north of Arequipa, I was pretty tired.

We got off the bus in the main square of Cabanaconde around 7am and were met by a girl who took us to a nearby hostal for breakfast: Fried eggs, bread and jam and mate de coca. She also gave us some dried mate leaves at Eli’s request, because they help alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness: Cabanaconde is pretty high, at an altitude of 3,300 metres (according to my guidebook).

After breakfast, our guide Rolando arrived and we set off towards the canyon in bright sunshine at around 8am. Rolando didn’t speak much English, but Eli did a fantastic job of translating the various bits of historical and botanical knowledge Rolando offered.

After about 10 minutes we reached the lip of Colca Canyon, one of the deepest canyons in the World (although not THE deepest apparently). The view was definitely spectacular; hundreds of metres below on the opposite side of the canyon were traditional indian villages and Inca terraces, and 1200 metres below was the Rio Colca.

We descended down winding paths to the bottom of the canyon, spotting various species of flora and fauna on the way, and collecting samples of plants with medicinal properties such as moonia (no idea how to spell this), which apparently is also a good remedy for altitude sickness. At the bottom of the canyon we joined a group of other gringo trekkers paddling in the river. I wasn’t initially planning on paddling (the water was very cold), but I slipped on some algae while washing my face and partially fell in!

Once my shoes and socks had dried a little, we crossed a rickety cable bridge to the other side of the canyon and started climbing up to the picturesque village of San Juan de Chuchu, a beautiful verdant garden of a place irrigated, like all of the villages in the canyon, by meltwater from the nearby mountains carried by Inca water channels. Rolando told (and Eli translated) the story of how the town got it’s name: Apparently, centuries ago some visitors arrived and, after eating the local fruit, they started shaking violently — hence the “chuchu,” or “shaking” (the story sounded much like the magical realism in “100 Years of Solitude,” which I’m currently reading).

We stopped for lunch at a tranquil and seemingly-deserted hostal, and had a lunch of a traditional vegetable stew, followed by a salad with fresh avocados plucked straight from the tree, plus lots of beer. The beer was expensive by Peru standards at 8 soles ($2.25 U.S.), but it has to be brought from Cabanaconde by mule, so I didn’t mind too much paying a little extra! There was no electricity in any of the villages, but they managed to keep the beer reasonably cool anyway — at such a high altitude, it’s warm in the sun but quite cool in the shade.

After lunch we continued our hike through the other villages, encountering local people with a variety of domestic/farm animals. The towns are inhabited almost exclusively by old people, and are evidently declining in overall population as the youngsters get out as soon as they can.

After passing through 3 or 4 more villages, we crossed a hanging valley and descended past some Inca agricultural terraces before reaching the bottom of Colca Canyon again. We crossed another rickety suspension bridge and climbed up a little way to the Oasis, a small campground with a swimming pool fed by tepid thermal spring water and various rustic “cabanas,” little bamboo shacks.

By this time it was about 5pm and we’d been walking for the better part of 8 hours, so Eli & I were both pretty tired (if Rolando was, he wasn’t admitting it) and our feet were aching. After chilling out with a beer and chatting with some other gringos for a while, Rolando fed us some fairly basic and uninteresting food, and then it was time for bed (at 8pm!), because he wanted us to get up at 3am (ANOTHER ridiculously early start!) for the hike back out of the canyon. By now it was a chilly pitch black moonless night, with countless stars visible, so I was very glad of my new baby alpaca sweater.

Getting up at 2:30am in the pitch black was pretty miserable, and we didn’t really have enough flashlights between us; Rolando had a small flashlight and I had a small keyring LED torch, but that was it. Along with various other groups, we started the slow trudge up the steep dark slope. It wasn’t a lot of fun, and Eli was suffering from some combination of asthma, nausea, altitude sickness and fatigue and was having a very hard time: It was slow going. A little past half way up, a guy with a couple of mules passed us, so we paid him to take Eli up on one of the mules. We also encountered an indian woman selling drinks and snacks halfway up, which was very welcome: A Fanta and a sweet bread roll gave me a much-needed energy boost.

Not long afterwards, we reached the top of the canyon and it was then a short easy walk back to the hostal for another egg and bread breakfast, before catching the bus (which had to stop to change a punctured tyre on the way) to Mirador Cruz del Condor, a scenic viewing spot at the edge of the canyon where condors can be seen swooping and gliding around against the spectacular backdrop of the canyon. The condors didn’t disappoint us — several of the huge birds soared right over our heads.

About 45 minutes later, the next bus came and took us (plus assorted locals and a baby lamb) on the slow bumpy ride back to Chivay and then Arequipa.

I went back to Hostal San Isidro and, after getting cleaned up, went back into town to meet a couple of guys, Jon from Colorado and Yves from Antwerp, from the Oasis for dinner: We all ate chicken carapaccio (raw chicken marinated in lemon juice — living dangerously!) and various kinds of alpaca steaks, which were pretty delicious. After dinner Yves and I went for a few drinks and a game of pool (Jon had to catch a bus), then I headed back to my hostal for a much-needed proper night’s sleep in a real bed — basta rustico!

Shortly I’ll be heading back to the airport for a flight to Cuzco, my final destination before heading home next Wednesday (once again, my flight today has been delayed by a couple of hours, so I came back into town to use the Internet).

Health concerns are starting to weigh on my mind a little now — my stomach’s recovery after the jungle seems to have been short-lived, so I’m a little dehydrated and am planning to start taking antibiotics today after all. I’ve also got a large painful sore on my backside, presumably where some unknown animal bit me during the night through the mosquito net in the jungle (although to be honest I don’t really know when it happened, because it didn’t swell up at first). It doesn’t seem to have gone down much over the last couple of days; hopefully the antibiotics will help this too, but perhaps I’ll get it checked out in Cuzco to be on the safe side.

Well, time to head back to the airport…

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