August 6, 2012 by t4li
Arequipa is full – FULL – of tour companies offering 1, 2, 3 day treks of nearby Colca Canyon. Also, we knew that our Inca Trail adventure to Macchu Picchu was looming in the distance, taunting our bodies made weak through interminable bus rides and inescapable frech fries. We had to get in shape. This seemed like the perfect opportunity. Well . . . we were right.
It’s honestly difficult to take a picture than can relay the sheer size and majesty of this damn thing. Probably impossible, if you’re a non-professional. I want you to look at the picture above, really LOOK at it, and then imagine that the canyon that you are looking at is 13,650 feet deep, more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. OK, now get high and think about that. WHOA I KNOW RIGHT?! Ok now imagine that you have to walk down one side, spend a day hiking on the other, and then climb back up the first side. This is what your idiot narrators decided to do. It was fucking magical.
The first day: a tourist bus picks you up from your hostel at 3 am and drives the 4 hours to the canyon as you slumber fitfully. There is a quick stopover at Cruz del Condor – a lookout point that is known for having a buttload of condors all the time, just flying around like some sort of awesome bird of prey.
Then, the adventure begins; we were split into our group of 6 and assigned a guide, Norma, who was a totally badass Peruvian lady that I loved to pieces. Here she is, badassly explaining about a cactus. Norma!!!
Then you’re off! Heading down a path that winds back and forth on the mountain like an extremely indecisive snake. The cliff face is very steep, so the only way one can make one’s way down is through a lengthy slaloming process. Even so, this slalom is rather steep itself; although you’re going down, the way is tricky and tiring. Also it’s very hot. Heading down into the canyon took us about 4 hours of dedicated and careful hiking. Oh yes, we were very careful because tourists have been known to slip and fall off this precipitious cliff to their deaths – in fact, this had happened to a Brazilian woman just two weeks before.
Our guide told us that the canyon wants 7 lives every year. I guess it’s good then that only 3-4 people die doing the trek each year. We heard stories of tourists who just slipped and fell off the edge, or who got pushed over the edge by the mules that are always traveling up and down with cargo. We heard a story of a girl who got lost in the canyon and they found her 2 weeks later. She had been eating some plants that were not exactly edible and she lost her mind. A local died when decending the mountain drunk out of his mind.
So yes, what I’m trying to say is that there’s no railings or safety structure of any kind, and 80% of the time you’re right on the edge of a steep drop down. South America!
Spoiler alert: we survived! And celebrated our first day of successful trekking by resting the afternoon away in the village of San Juan. Here you can see the cliff we just walked down.
The next morning our leg muscles were a little unhappy with their treatment the previous day, and made their frustrations known. Screw you, we said, we’re walking for another 5 hours along this cliff face to explore the little towns that reside inside this canyon. Although the Peruvian government is in the process of building a road to service these villages, the past thousand years the only way to transport goods in and out was by literally walking up the mountain, usually with a mule loaded with goods. So this trek that was playing havoc with our quadriceps? Is a walk that many villagers make every day. Usually in sandals.
The second day of trekking was nearly all horizontal, and was an excellent time to appreciate the beauty of the canyon. We visited a museum, drank authentic chicha, and ended our day by hiking down to an oasis in the cleft of the canyon. That little crystal-blue postage stamp is the pool we lounged about that afternoon, walking around like zombies due to our cramping leg muscles and eyeing the mountain with trepidation. Because day 3 of the hike is when you get up at 4 am and walk back up the mountain that it destroyed your legs to come down.
We had a choice – we could walk up the mountain, or we could rent a mule.
In my infinite wisdom and realizing that I was trying to convince myself not to climb it rather than the other way around, I chose to walk up the damn thing.
We started at 4:30 am, before the sun could rise and make it too hot. The only illumination was from our headlamps, so the only thing you could see was the preceding persons’ boots, until light from the approaching sun starting to peek over the mountain range at around 5:15. We wouldn’t be eating breakfast until the top so my breakfast was two chocolate bars and a liter of water. From bottom to top, it was a climb of 1000 vertical meters; it took me 2 hours 45 minutes and, I can tell you from the bottom of my heart, for the last 10 it was by the skin of my teeth. But I made it.
This from a girl who can’t walk to her house from the T without losing her breath. Whoda thunk it!!
Leah started feeling sick the day before the trek. Halfway down the mountain on the first day, she was hit with a fever. In the hot sun, this was no picnic. She also made the mistake of not lacing her shoes tight enough, and got a host of blisters on both feet. By the last day, her fever had still not broke and she admitted defeat. The mountain won, and she resigned herself to taking a mule back up and out of the canyon. She described the mule ride as equally fun and terrifying, since they like to walk on the outer edge of the trail, giving the rider a perfect view of STRAIGHT DOWN. We learned afterwards that Leah had actually come down with a case of strep throat, and probably made the right call.
Thanks, Colca Canyon. You were truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and we can still feel you in our calves. The Inca Trail ain’t got nothing on you.