Only 5 hours drive from Arequipa you can find the world’s the second deepest canyon, the Colca Canyon. It’s well suited to trekking, if you’re into that sort of thing, and there are numerous tour operators in Arequipa who are more than willing to show you around its depths for two or three days. I did have a few doubts about my abilities, but I signed up to subject my body to the strains of a two day trek anyway – I was ready to really find out how well my body was going to handle exercise at high altitudes before hitting the Inca Trail!
We left Arequipa on a cramped minibus at the ungodly hour of 3am, and I squished myself into my tiny seat and willed myself to go back to sleep. This feeling didn’t last too long though – as the sun rose and we wound our way through the mountains to an altitude of 5000 metres above sea level, the scenery became more stark and stunning at the same time. City parks and half finished houses gave way to rolling brown and grey mountains, getting increasingly rockier and sparse as we ascended into the thin mountain air.
5 hours later, after a rather underwhelming breakfast in a town called Chivay (I was glad I had bought my own snacks!) we arrived at our first real stop – Cruz del Condor. It was here that we got to stretch our legs a little and watch the amazing condors cruise over the canyon. With a wingspan of around 3 metres, watching these birds float over you in the warm morning breeze is a real treat. We were very lucky on the morning we arrived as there was about 10 or so birds flying around delighting the crowds of tourists that were gathered – out tour guide had warned us that some mornings they don’t come out at all.
Once we had our fill of watching the condors, it was time to get on with the serious business in the canyon. We were going to be hiking down to the bottom, having lunch and then hiking part of the way back up and across to our accomodation for the night. We gathered at the edge of the canyon and were given the option to hire hiking poles which I, rather stupidly in hindsight, did not take up, and sent on our merry way.
The scenery continued to amaze me as we wound our way down the side of the canyon, slowly getting closer to the river at the bottom. The loose rocks and large steps were really making me regret my decision not to hire hiking poles, but good conversation with a Dutch couple in my hiking group made the time pass quickly, and within about three hours we had navigated numerous switchbacks and reached the bottom.
After a short but exhausting climb up to a small town called San Juan de Chucho, we finally sat down for a well deserved lunch. In typical Andean style, we had quinoa soup with corn followed by grilled chicken and rice. Simple but filling, which was just what was needed to refuel. Not much time for rest though – once we were done with lunch we shouldered our backpacks on again and were off for the walk up and across the canyon to ‘The Oasis’, where we would find our home for the night. I was really struggling with the altitude on the uphill sections, of which there were a lot, which made the afternoon difficult. But I had a really nice group that gave me loads of support, and before the sun set The Oasis was in sight, as was the punishing path that we would set out on at 5am the next morning. But that was the next day’s problem – for the evening there was a lovely freshwater pool that I took a dip in before the temperature dropped to freezing. After that it was some card games with new found friends, a hearty dinner and an early night in preparation for the next morning.
Waking up at 4.30am after restless night, we fumbled around in the dark for our belongings and gathered at the base of the canyon to begin the ascent. We would be going up over 1000 metres over the course of the morning, and it was scheduled to take about 3 hours. I wish I could tell you I got it done faster, but it actually took me 3 hours 40 minutes. I didn’t feel so bad though as most of my group took over 3 hours, and I am really proud I didn’t take the option to hop on a mule as so many others did. I got myself into that canyon, and medical emergencies aside I was going to get myself out!
After we hauled ourselves over the top, it was finally time to have some breakfast. I could have cried tears of joy when we arrived, after a weird scramble down a river bed and across some paddocks, and I saw scrambled eggs and coffee on the table. It was certainly a well deserved meal, and it was so great to sit down and throw the backpacks on the floor. On a side note, if I could go back in time and buy one extra thing for this trip it would be a better day pack with a supportive waist strap! Anyway, with full tummies we jumped back on the bus for the drive back to Arequipa, which had a few stops along the way including Incan terraces, hot springs by a river, and volcano and llama viewing at 5000m.
And that was my trip to the Colca Canyon! It left me feeling tired but optimistic about finishing the Inca Trail. I’m glad I did it with a tour company – even though it doesn’t seem that difficult to navigate on your own, there are a few tricky spots and it’s just nice to have someone organising meals when you don’t think you can walk another step. Also, I don’t think I paid that much more than what I would have to organise transport and accomodation myself.