Peru is an amazing country. Despite hovering around the equator, it boasts an extensive array of climates. It has broad beaches along its Pacific Coastline, desert highlands, and seemingly endless Amazonian rainforest.
I’ve not written about my South American adventure since just after my departure, but I feel the need to redress a vast oversight. I completely failed to mention one of the highlights, not just from Peru, but from the entire trip: Colca Canyon.
The canyon, second deepest in the world, is easily overlooked on an itinerary which might include the beautiful city of Arequipa, the mysterious Nazca Lines, the remote Amazonian outpost Iquitos, and of course, the legendary Machu Picchu. (I’ve also not written about Machu Picchu. What the hell is wrong with me?) Colca Canyon might be overlooked in this crowd, but it shouldn’t.
The Lonely Planet didn’t have a great deal to say on the matter, relegating this natural wonder to a few small lines under the description of nearby village Cabanaconde. Instead we had to rely on a hand-drawn map from the information center in Arequipa to navigate the canyon. The map was a very loose representation of the villages along the way, and a few elevations. From what the helpful woman at the information desk told me, the hike could be completed from 1-3 days–approximately 12 hours hiking in total. Buses only arrived and departed the town twice a day, so we needed to be careful not to get stranded there for a long stretch. As such, we chose the 2-3 day option, planning to camp after the first leg, and assess our progress at that point.
The journey took about six hours from Arequipa by bus to the quiet mountain town of Cabanaconde. Along the way we were treated to the movie Pearl Harbor, dubbed into Spanish, of course. It was a double feature DVD, and I was absolutely gutted when they cut it off at the beginning of Top Gun. I really wanted to hear Spanish Tom Cruise say, “I feel the need…the need for speed!” It was not to be.
We arrived in early afternoon, and with the desert sun at its peak intensity, the thin mountain air at 3200 meters elevation (10,500 feet), and our rumbling stomachs working against us, we decided to duck into a small restaurant for a quick bite. Christine and I shared some sort of greasy chicken and rice dish, which miraculously failed to give us intestinal discomfort on our ensuing journey.
Of the difficulties I expected, being able to locate a large hole in the ground was not one of them. I figured wrong. On the way out of town, I must have asked half a dozen locals where the trail started, only to get a wide variety of often conflicting information. With a fully loaded hiking backpack, including tent, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, water, food, etc, and at elevation, I was not particularly thrilled with the extra time and energy spent just finding the trail. After the better part of an hour, we finally came to the trail head, and our hike could begin in earnest.
Hiking a canyon is unique because you’re treated to great views the entire trip, unlike mountains where you’re generally only earn the payoff at the very top. It is also different because the hardest part is at the end. That said, after the Colca Canyon descent, I have a few choice words for anyone who thinks going downhill is significantly easier than the reverse. There was nothing particularly easy about the first leg down into the depths of the canyon.
It was a mild grade at first, but soon it became steeper as we had to endure countless cutbacks down the side of the canyon wall. We were already becoming tired when we spotted the bridge and de facto destination of our trip, and we still had another two hours yet to descend. Theoretically, according to my dubious hand-drawn map, a small village where we could camp existed on the far side of that bridge. Even as oxygen slowly increased, we became weary from he weight of our bags, and the continual fight against gravity pulling us forcefully to the bottom of the basin. We pushed on, but it increasingly felt as if my legs were being converted into jelly. Still, we had continue. The sun sets quickly at this latitude, and the bottom of the canyon had already been plunged into darkness long before the sun had dipped below the Earth’s western horizon.
When we finally reached the bottom, light was only barely holding onto the Earth at this late dusk hour. We were greeted by a woman from San Juan, the nearby village, at the bridge. She had clearly seen us coming for a long time, and she was there to offer us a much needed place to stay. We asked if it was possible to camp, and she agreed to let us stay, but only if we each bought a coke from her. Our jaws nearly hit the floor. This woman was clearly not fond of making money. We would have gladly paid for a spot to camp, plus two cokes at twice the price.
She led us, again in near total darkness, to her home. For a marginal fee she cooked for us, and it was one of the best meals of the trip. When she then handed us our two cokes and they were ice cold, we thought we were either dead or dying, as this was clearly the last hallucination of a dying brain.
By all means we should have been quite uncomfortable, if not terrified. Here we were, bottom of one of the great canyons on Earth, a four-hour hike uphill to get to the closest small outpost of civilization, completely disconnected to the outside world, and in deep trouble if anything went wrong. And yet, we could not have felt more at home. Must have been the coke.
We awoke with a tremendous feeling the next morning, and took our time getting up. We had already decided to take a full three days, as we were in no condition to complete the full 8 hours remaining, especially the arduous climb to the canyon’s rim. Thankfully, the second leg was more or less flat, though the downhill bits announced themselves loud and clear through the dull pain in our overtaxed legs. Regardless, this was still the most enjoyable of the three days, even as our hike took us through the midday desert sun. I kept the hand drawn map close by my side, although it seemed to offer little help.
About half an hour before we reached our destination, we were greeted by a yellowish local dog bounding around a bend. She hesitated, looked around, gave us a quick sniff, and then went back from where she came. She repeated this process several times until she was finally accompanied by two hikers, the first we had seen in hours. I recalled this story in another post, “South America is for the Dogs,” so I will do the natural and self-gratifying thing of quoting myself:
The woman, a loquacious kiwi, explained that the dog was actually leading them, not the other way around. Apparently, they picked up this mutt early in the excursion, and the dog had been leading them safely along the ill-defined paths. After questioning each and every turn for the last two days, this strategy made perfect sense to us.
The two hikers in question were pushing through our arduous 3-day hike in a single day. Making us simultaneously feel like the lamest hikers this side of the equator, and paradoxically superior for taking the time to enjoy the hike and take it all in. Of course we’re biased, but we’ve both come to the conclusion that taking the extra days was the right decision. Even if we could have packed much lighter, the 12-hour hike in a single day would have been stressful and grueling.
That we made it through the hike as well as we did is no small miracle. The trails along the canyon slopes all remained unmarked, and we often had to guess if the little village we approached matched the similar location on the map. All the same, even without a guide dog we arrived by mid afternoon to our destination, “The Oasis.”
A more fitting name could not have been given, as its lush green vegetation stood in stark contrast to the beige-brown desert tones all around us. The Oasis called like a beacon, and the sound of the nearby waterfall only heightened the sense of wonder as we made our final descent. Within the hour we had negotiated a camping spot, along with free access to their swimming pool. I cannot recall a more refreshing dip. The curious dog with the even more curious couple were there, and they were still intent on tearing through the canyon like it was their personal mission to make us look bad. They were committed to completing the loop in one day, and after the briefest dip in the pool, they were on their way again.
This night was not nearly so relaxing. We woke up at 4:30 to pack up the tent and make the slow clod out of the canyon. The bus was scheduled to leave at 9, and it was “only” three hours to the top. If the way down seemed endless, this seemed infinitely worse. We were fighting the thinning air, the built-up exhaustion from the previous days, and the other hikers passing us in droves. But we made it. And we were greeted to cheers from the other exhausted hikers, and an old lady selling coke and candy bars. The coke was warm, and the snickers was stale, but it was still the greatest feeling.
Thinking we had plenty of time, we set off toward the town around 8:15. The trail, as it had countless times before, split off with no indication as to the right direction. After safely navigating the various twists, turns, and forks in the roads for the last three days, we felt like the home stretch would be a breeze.
We were wrong. Luck had finally caught up to us, and in a few minutes we found ourselves walking through the irrigation system between several farms. High stone walls topped with cacti only furthered to trap us in our narrow corridor. Our only option was to press on, using the church tower in the town to guide us. After a great deal of stress and bickering, we found our way back to what can only loosely be described as civilization. My watch read 8:53, 7 minutes to spare! We know some hikers did Colca Canyon in less time, but we wouldn’t have traded a minute, even if we cut it a bit close at the end.
It was a great adventure, but we were never so happy to climb onto a South American bus. I can’t say if they showed Top Gun, as all the noise, bumpy roads, and horrible driving wasn’t enough to keep me awake on the road back to Arequipa.