Conquering Colca Canyon

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Following five days of frolicking among penguins, sand dunes and swimming pools, we decided to get serious and finally tackle the altiplano Peru is so well known for. According to our new route devised in Lima, this took us south through Nasca and up to Arequipa on the night bus that would limit our sleep to the rare flat stretches of an otherwise very bumpy and windy road. After nine hours of fitful sleep, we finally pulled into the Arequipa bus terminal at 6am.

Main square in Arequipa

Arequipa, a beautiful city sitting at 2300m above sea level, would serve us as the entry-point into the Colca Canyon, the deepest in the world at 3400m, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. In our newfound quest to become “more outdoorsy”, Marc and I decided to go on a three-day trek in the Colca Canyon along with Lars, our new friend from Paracas/Huacachina. We booked our tour and went on a laid-back walk around town to the principal sites, nothing too strenuous, as we had been informed by our guide that we would be picked up at our hostel at 3:00am (!!!) that same night to bus it to Cabanaconde, where we would start our trek. An extremely early dinner at 6pm, and we were in bed by 8.

I had a little laugh on the bus the next morning when we picked up another trekker who had overslept because his hostel had forgotten to wake him up as they had promised. He’d had about half a minute to throw on some clothes and grab a bag with supplies. He jumped on the freezing bus, tall, gangly and blond, with a t-shirt, shorts and Converse, all smiles and not a care in the world. Lars, Marc and I were bemused by the kind of traveller he represented, which we clearly weren’t, with our Goretex hiking trainers and convertible trousers.

Remote-controlled condor

Our bus stopped at Cruz del Condor,

a viewingpoint where we saw a few condors glide elegantly through the air in the vast valley of the Colca. They seemed to appear every 10 minutes, which made us wonder if there was a guy somewhere with a remote control.

Our next stop was Cabanaconde, where we would have a lunch of soup (tasty) and alpaca with turnip (not so tasty) before starting our descent into the canyon. We bought some big bottles of water to last us the three days, and we were on our way.

Is this really a good idea?

Before we started our trek, I wasn’t too worried about the fact that this was going to be more walking than I’d done in…my entire life?  That is probably because the altitude was limiting the oxygen reaching my brain. That quickly changed once we started walking. I wasn’t worried so much even though my legs were proving to be very wobbly, and I was short of breath. But at one point, Roy, our guide, turned to me and asked, “Do you have problems in your legs?” I’m still unsure if he meant at that point in time or in general, but either way it must have looked

Cutler in the Canyon

pretty bad to him, as he proceeded to donate his trekking sticks to me, which I kept for the next three days. I was the slowest walker in our group of three; Lars was like a bullet, and Marc was nice enough to walk with me most of the time, or else.

Walking problems aside, the descent was incredible. Every time we would stop for a rest (often, as you can imagine), we would get a chance to take in the scenery of this vast canyon. From green pre-Inca terraced mountainsides, rocky cliffs to waterfalls, everything was of such a large scale we could only stare in awe.

The Colca River at the bottom of the Canyon

Roy kept us motivated by giving us treats of chocolate, biscuits and wild cactus fruit along the way, and shared his vast knowledge of the medicinal and culinary uses of the local flora. We even got to see some more condors, this time not remote controlled!

The call him the silver bullet...

We also experienced a quick downpour, at which point we put on our “waterproof outer shells” and were very pleased with ourselves. The three of us had also purchased some convertible trousers the previous day, which also came into good use as the seasons changed from hot dry summer to cold wet winter in a matter of minutes.  We were reminded again of the importance of proper gear when we crossed another trek group, in which one girl was wearing black skinny jeans and Dr Martens, looking thoroughly displeased.

Crossing the Colca

Four hours later and a kilometre lower than we had started, we had arrived at our lodging for that night. A tiny village of adobe huts, we dropped of our stuff and sat down for dinner. Eggy soup and another variation on chicken and rice for dinner, followed by conversation with another trek group, and we were off to bed at 9pm for a 5am start to our walk to the next destination, what was very seductively called “the oasis.”

Our walk to the oasis was short and easy in comparison to what we had just endured, which gave us a chance to chat a bit more with Roy. He taught us some words in Quechua, the language of the region, and also told us about the political history of Arequipa, which with its 10 million inhabitants had nearly become its own republic sometime in the last few decades. I was also surprised to learn that more than Colombia or Bolivia, Peru was the largest exporter of drugs in South America.

At the all-natural oasis

We arrived in the oasis before being able to continue our conversations more in depth, but serious subjects were soon forgotten when we saw the green lawn and the swimming pool awaiting us. We enjoyed soaking in the pool, especially as we hadn’t showered since Arequipa. (Seriously testing out our hippy tendencies!) A German trek group, which included our converse-clad friend Johannes, was also at the same oasis. Johannes was, as expected, in high spirits.

After lunch – a spaghetti omelette, cooked by Roy, surprisingly good – I was faced with a very difficult choice: to take a mule back up the canyon or not. As a variation of the old saying goes, what goes down must come up, especially in the Colca Canyon where we were quickly running out of drinking water. But would I attempt the ascent on foot or would I engage the help of a furry, strong mule to take me up the 6km trail to Cabanaconde?

The price of mule hire was 50 soles, about $15, which would break our budget, but I could also carry everyone’s bags. Walking down had been hard enough, surely walking up would be harder? But we’d also seen a dead mule on the side of the trail on our way down, which wasn’t too encouraging either. In the end, after much thought and a nap in the sun, I decided to walk it up. It helped that Lars very kindly offered to carry the heaviest items in my backpack. Roy kept asking if I was sure, which didn’t really inspire confidence, but off we went.

In the end, I was very glad to have decided to use my feet rather than a mule.

me and my sticks

There were points on the trek where I would not have liked to have been tied to a mule teetering on some narrow, rocky, uphill path on the side of the deepest canyon in the world. Walking slowly but steadily, with frequent rest – and chocolate-stops – I managed to make it to the top in 3 hours and 15 minutes, a whole 2 hours faster than what I had expected! In the end, I think the descent was physically harder than the ascent, which was mentally more challenging. It was a great test in self-discipline, and as cliché as it sounds, it boosted my self-confidence. Our new motto would be, “We have conquered the Colca Canyon, we can do anything!”

sweaty but victorious

That night, we had the pleasure of taking the nicest, hottest shower since our arrival in South America. Dinner and drinks with other trekkers at a local restaurant was a pleasant way to end the evening, and we headed back to the hostel with our bellies full and just as our legs were seizing up.

Canyon sunset

Our return the next day to Arequipa was uneventful until about 30 minutes outside of the city, when our bus broke down on the side of the road. This is rather common around these parts so we were not surprised, but as we had already been in the bus for a good 5 hours we were all pretty ready to be home. It turned out we had been leaking petrol all the way home due to a broken pipe, and we now had an empty tank. Two guides went to fetch some petrol from a nearby station, but nobody knew how long that would take. They returned around 1.5 hours later to a round of applause by the many passengers having cigarettes outside. We finally made it home, but not until it was a good 4 hours past our ETA.

Lars, Marc and I later had dinner at a Chifa (Peruvian-Chinese restaurant) around the corner from our hostel for our cheapest meal yet at 3.50 soles, or about €0.90: a bowl of wonton soup and chicken fried rice. We were the only gringos in the restaurant. It felt like a victory. We topped it off with the nicest Pisco Sours (Peru’s version of the whiskey sour, with egg white) any of us had had so far, at a café-bar called Istanbul, which also had some pretty nice toilets, something we had all learned to look out for.

We called it a night early again, satisfied with ourselves and all our conquests of the previous days. We had, after all, conquered Colca Canyon.

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2 Responses to “Conquering Colca Canyon”

  1. cynthia cutler Says:

    Thank you for Such a fab description of your adventure. Now I know why not heard from you. Well done Manna.

  2. cynthia cutler Says:

    Thank you for descryibing such an amazing adventure. Now I know why I have not heard from you. Well done Manna. x

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