Colca Canyon will go down as one of those trips that was phenominally beautiful and great fun, followed by a giant disaster. There are many tours that go to the Colca region out of Arequipa, but being the DIY enthusiasts that we are, we decided to plan our own itinerary and go about things on our own. I researched how to get there using public transportation and decided on a relaxed paced four day, three night trek. I didn't exactly give Daniel all the details from the get go. In fact, I think the conversation went something like, "Wouldn't it be fun to trek down a canyon?" "Sure." I may have left out the bit about the trek being four days, the fact that the canyon is more than TWICE as deep as the Grand Canyon, and the law of "what goes down, must come up" (you know... us.)
We boarded a bus from Arequipa to Chivay, a small town along the rim on the canyon, arriving just in time for dinner. We spent the night, then boarded a morning bus to Cruz del Condor, an area where Andean condors can sometimes be seen flying along the canyon walls. The andean condor is the largest flying land bird in the world, with a wingspan of 10.5 feet and weighing in at up to 33 pounds. We were told that the best chance of seeing the birds was between 7 and 10am, and we were not disappointed. We ended up seeing around twelve condors at close range and thankfully, managed not to get pooped on. They were amazing to watch... they rarely flap their wings. Instead, they glide gracefully for up to several hours along air currents rising over the canyon walls.
Once we had our fill of bird watching, we tackled our first day of hiking. We were told in Arequipa that it was 8km from Cruz del Condor to Cabanaconde, which is where the trails descending into the canyon begin. We walked along the road with our backpacks for what ended up actually being 12km. During our three hour walk, we took in some stunning views of the canyon and enjoyed how peaceful and quiet it was. As we got close to Cabanaconde, we ran into a local family with two kids riding on donkeys, being chased by their pet baby lamb. We walked the rest of the way into town, settled into our hostal, and got ready for the morning ahead of us.
We woke up and began our descent from Cabanaconde (at 3287 meters / about 10,800 feet) into the villiage of San Juan de Chuccho (2300 meters / 7,500 feet). The trail started out very well maintained, but quickly turned into a mass of rocky, zig-zazgging, uneven "stairs". The descent was more difficult than we had anticipated, mostly because of the rough terrain and the steep drops, but we managed to make it to the bottom of the canyon in great time. We didn't see any other people until we made it to the bottom of the canyon, and the only sounds came from the wind, plants rustling, birds, and the river at the bottom. Once we got to San Juan de Chuccho, we stopped for lunch and to spend the night at a place recommended to us called Roy's. I don't really know what to call the place we stayed... it was a not a hostal, hotel, guesthouse, or restaurant. It was essentially a family who had a few freestanding rooms on their property with big windows that overlooked the mountains.
We were the only people there, and the woman made us breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the time of our choosing. We played with her adorable one year old baby, Maite, and chatted with her about her family and their business. Her husband, Roy, built the room we stayed in himself. He is in the process of building a new guest room from the ground up, with the help of one or two other people. It will take him about a year to complete, and will enable them to have more guests stay with them. It was a joy to see the pride that they took in their work, from the hand laid stonework to the delicious lunch. It was the perfect example of people who live with very little, but see an opportunity to better themselves and work hard to make it happen. They were the nicest, most hospitable people imaginable and our night there was a highlight of the trip. The villiage does not have any electricity, so we relaxed in our room by the candlelight and enjoyed the most unpolluted view of the stars that I have ever seen in my life. We left the next morning feeling recharged and genuinely happy.
Next, we took a trail from San Juan de Chuccho to Sangalle el Oasis (2180 meters / 7100 feet). It was supposed to take 4 hours, but took us 5.5 hours after factoring in getting lost and a closed portion of the trail. It was a mix of uphill and downhill that took us past a few small villages that were overall uneventful, with the exception of seeing a woman walking along making thread by hand from wool and a man carrying a refrigerator on his back. We also saw a Giant Colibri, which is the largest species of hummingbird. It looked to be about the size of a robin, floating stationary in the air. For the mostpart, we managed well, but we were both ready to be done with about an hour to go. We were looking forward to reaching Sangalle, aka "The Oasis", for some relaxation. When we got there, it was more like about five faux-resorts, each with a swimming pool. When I say faux resort, I am being extremely generous. What they really were was a swimming pool, surrounded by a few huts made of stacked rocks with straw roofs, dirt or concrete floors, no windows, and a bed. The sheets are rarely changed because of the lack of electricity and the magnitude of dirt blowing around. Our bed came complete with hair, dirt, small pieces of rocks, and god knows what else. We ended up sleeping in our dirty clothes that we hiked all day in, and not taking showers because they were freezing and disgusting. The meals they served were terrible dual-carb concoctions (think white rice with potatoes on the side), and Daniel didn't end up eating much for either lunch or dinner.
The zig zag trail is our ascent.
The next morning, we woke up early and got the hell out of that oasis dump. I wish I could say that our troubles ended there, but it is truly where they began. We started our 3,600 foot ascent back into Cabanaconde early, with the mantra of slow and steady wins the race. Unfortunately, a mix of altitude, lack of eating, heat, and riduculously steep and long "stairs" wiped us out early on. Daniel was especially miserable, and we ended up stopping to take a break after nearly every turn. At one point, we were doing a ratio of walking 2 minutes to resting 5-15 minutes. I was a little worried about how he was going to make it to the top; surely I couldn't carry him, and there weren't any other people around. When we were about two thirds finished, we ran into a Russian girl who was just as miserable as us. Misery loves company, so we finished the climb together. What was supposed to take 3.5 hours ended up taking 6.5, and we have vowed that aside from this post, we will never speak of that day again. In hindsight, that ascent was a bit ambitious for us "suburbanites" after already hiking for three days. We didn't take a single picture that day, through our brains have been scarred with the memory. The good news is: we made it to the top (eventually), and we are still married.
We spent the night in Cabanaconde, and took the most ridiculously jam-packed bus to date back to Arequipa. We're spending a few days staying put and relaxing before heading off to Bolivia. Despite our misery the final day (though Daniel may disagree), the Colca trip was worth it. I am also glad that we chose to do it independently rather than as a tour, so we could take our time and go at our own pace. We would not have had the phenominal day at Roy's had we gone with a group, which ended up being one of my favorite days on the trip so far.