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October 18, 2004

Colca Canyon Trek

I took a three-day trek from Arequipa to the Colca Canyon, and it was another great experience.

The first day, we were picked up around 6:30 and taken to the bus station, where I discovered that a couple from my Inca Trail group was also signed up for this trek! What a small world. Also in our group were Merete from Norway and Matt from Australia and our guide, Andres. I hadn't gotten up early enough to eat breakfast, and I found out lunch was about six hours away, so I bought some bread and chocolate at the bus station to tide me over. A funny random thing: all the rolls in Cusco were round, but in Arequipa they're triangular, and sometimes have sesame seeds on them, but they all taste the same.

Anyway, as soon as you leave downtown Arequipa, the land is dry, rocky, and desolate. The mountains, hills, roads, buildings, everything is brown, brown, brown, and rarely broken up by a little bit of green. The scenery was more or less the same all the way to the canyon area, about 4 hours away. Some of it seemed positively moon-like to me, with so little variation, so little life, just piles of rocks to break up the monotony, but it was somehow beautiful at the same time. We had a short stop in a dry, dusty town called Chivay, then continued two more hours to Cabanaconde, a town that's pretty much the end of the main (dirt) road that runs along the canyon.

I sat next to our guide, Andres, on the bus, and we had fun talking about books, food, and animals in our respective languages/countries. He told me about pastel de papa, a gratin-like potato casserole, and I told him about burritos, first having to explain what a tortilla is! He asked me where he could hear country music in SF, and I explained that other parts of the states, like Texas and Nashville, are much better for that than SF. I did tell him the Fillmore was the place to go in general, though. We also swapped words for skunk, earthworm, and other random animals, and he practiced saying "Definitely" and "Unbelievable," words that other trekkers must have taught him and he was determined to say correctly. Pretty funny.

After lunch of soup and alpaca steak in Cabanaconde, we started hiking. It was hot, dry, and dusty, and the trail was made of small and large rocks and dusty, powdery dirt, so it was hard to get decent footing, especially as we headed downhill into the canyon. From the edge of the canyon, we could see the village we were going to stay in that night, the others we'd visit the next day, and the "oasis" where we'd spend the next night. They looked so far away! The canyon is reported to be twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and the sight was quite remarkable, but I do think the Grand Canyon is much more stunning because the land above it is so flat, and, as I recall, the sides of the canyon are fairly vertical. This canyon seems more like a valley--in fact we debated what the official difference is between them geologically--surrounded by high mountains. Very pretty, but with a very different effect.

For some reason, maybe because of the direction it faces (north?), or because that side is more sloped, the opposite side of the canyon from where we started hiking was much more lush and green, and inhabited as a result (or green because of the inhabitants?). As we got to the bottom of the canyon, crossed the river on a rickety bridge, and headed up to San Juan de Chuccho, where we were staying that night, the difference was stark. We passed through small fields of alfalfa, potatoes, and corn, past pig pens, small adobo huts with thatched roofs, and ingenious drainage systems. We stayed that night at the House of Rivelino, in a hut with mud-brick walls and a corrugated-metal roof, dirt floor, and beds made out of wood and bamboo with thin mattresses. There were lots of flowers out front, and even a patch of grass. We ate outside by candlelight under a thatched roof, and the outhouse had a real flushing toilet in it--very impressive. Prompted by one simple question I can't remember, Andres started talking politics that night, and it was hard to get a word in edgewise! I could hardly keep my eyes open, what with the early start, the hiking, and the beer and wine I'd had to drink, and finally when there was a slight pause I had to jump in and insist I go to bed, at about 9 pm! It was worth it--I slept very well under several alpaca blankets.

The next day we left around 8:30--a very civilized hour for a trek such as this--after a breakfast of absolutely delicious orange pancakes (with orange zest in them). YUM. That morning we passed through several small towns, Cosh˝irwa and Malata, that haven't been touched much by modern conveniences--just a satellite pay phone at a store, and that's about it. No electricity, dirt roads, mud-brick houses, trash burning in the yards, laundry out to dry, a new school and health clinic and an old church, with a dirt plaza out front littered with streamers and bottle caps from the last fiesta. And of course, a dirt soccer field, where the surrounding communities gather for games.

Eventually, we could see the swimming pool and bungalows of the Oasis Lodge, where we'd be spending the night at the bottom of the canyon. After another hour or so of brutal downhill, sliding on the rocks and kicking up dust, we arrived around 12:30 pm. We had a swim before lunch, which was probably my least impressive meal in Peru: rice and what looked like polenta but I think was instant (!) mashed potatoes, topped with a little bit of a tomato-y sauce. We were starving, though, and ate every bite! We then had the rest of the day to read, relax in the sun, swim, and nap. It felt so luxurious to lie around and do nothing, and the pool was refreshing and exactly what we needed, as was the warm sun to dry us off (note to self: next time the packing list includes a bathing suit, bring a towel as well!).

After a full day lounging, a few beers, a ton of spaghetti, and some wine, I was once again having a hard time keeping my eyes open after dinner, as Andres told us a legend about the baby condor. We turned in around 8:30, to our cute little bungalows, but there were huge gaps between the bamboo making up the walls and in the thatch roof, and I only had one blanket, so I was cold all night and slept poorly.

We awoke at 2:45 to start hiking out of the canyon so we'd arrive in time to see the condors from the top of the canyon. It's tough hiking in the dark, especially when you don't know the trail! I fared best when I had Andres in front of me, and I could just follow his path. The few times I was on my own, I constantly had to stop and figure out which direction to go next, where the switchbacks were, etc. But it was great to take breaks, turn off my light, and take in the stars and the so-subtle outlines of the dark mountains against the dark sky. Andres kept offering me his flashlight, which was kind of annoying, since I didn't think there was anything wrong with mine!

After about 1 1/2 hours, it was my turn on the mule we'd hired to share between us. It was so surreal to be riding a mule up the side of the canyon as the sun rose! I learned how to get the mule to continue when it stopped, and how to hold on tight to his mane so I wouldn't fall off the back on the steep parts. It was amazing to watch the mule navigate the rocky trail, especially in the almost-complete dark. There were a few times he'd head right to the edge before determining whether to turn right or left, and sometimes I couldn't contain myself and I'd let out a little squeal--it was hard to relinquish all control for navigation, and I'd be saying in Spanish "right, right!" or "left, left!," hoping he'd understand my directions.

We reached the top of the canyon a little bit after sunrise, and walked back to Cabanaconde for a much-anticipated breakfast of fried eggs, bread, and tea. We then went to catch a bus to the Cruz del Condor, the best place in the world to see Andean Condors, supposedly. There was a huge line to catch the bus, and it looked like we wouldn't get on. I definitely sensed some tension up front between the tourists, with their assigned seats and eagerness to get to the Cruz, and the locals, with their bags full of wares that they hoped to sell to all the tourists at the Cruz! We were definitely in danger of missing the condors entirely (they only come at a certain time for some reason), and the passengers had reached an impasse, with so many people in the doorway the driver couldn't close the door. Then another bus magically appeared, picked up the rest of us, and whisked us off before the others could even figure out what had just happened. We got to the Cruz early and got good spots for the view. But, on the bus ride there, as I looked for pictures I could delete to make more room for condor photos, my camera batteries died, and I didn't have back-ups with me. The others assured me they'd send me their photos, and then I actually found it liberating to sit there and just take in the canyon at early morning, scanning the sky for condors. Sometimes it's easy to get bogged down in taking pictures and forget to just enjoy where you are.

In the 1 1/2 hours we were there, we were joined by more and more tourists, but not a single condor! You just never can tell with wildlife, and for some reason they decided not to put on a show that day. Thankfully, I'd already had a great trip, so while it was disappointing not to see any, I didn't feel that the trip had been a waste. On the shorter trips to the canyon, I think the condors are much more of a focal point, and it would be really frustrating to go all that way and not see them.

We took the bus back to Chivay, had an early lunch in town, then headed back to Arequipa. It was a great trip--good company, fun times, amazing scenery, albeit no condors. I even recommended the same trip to a few British guys in my hostel this morning.

Today I took the bus to Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, and I've arranged a boat trip for tomorrow to visit the famous floating islands and then get dropped off at a little-visited town where I'll stay in a cabin overlooking the lake or with a family in town. I might be able to take a kayak trip from there as well. After that, I'll head south to Cobacabana, on the Bolivian side of the lake, and visit Isla del Sol, a sacred Incan site, because they believe that the founder of the empire, Manco Capac, emerged from the lake there. I feel like the adventure is really beginning now, and it feels good!

Posted by Amy on October 18, 2004 06:06 PM
Category: Peru
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