In hindsight, Wade and I diving legs first into a two day, one night hike into the Colca Canyon a mere four days before starting our Inca Trail trek to Machu Picchu, may not have been our brightest moment.
We had a managed to make up time by catching overnight buses between our most recent destinations, giving us a few extra days before we needed to be in Cusco and I had been keen to visit the Colca Canyon since first reading about it.
The important detail that should have been the most glaringly obvious to us also just happened to be the detail we chose to ignore. Being more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and often claimed to be the deepest canyon in the world, you'd think we would have realised what this "simple" walk entailed but we had both failed to think too far ahead.
The trip was essentially a 13km hike down into the canyon on the first day, then an overnight stay at the “Oasis” deep in the valley before hiking for 4 hours, straight up-hill the following day to get back out….. Simple really!
Photo: The Colca Canyon is the deepest canyon in South America and is often credited with being the deepest in the world, although don't ask me who judges it or how this is measured!
To begin with, the starting altitude was 3750m above sea level meaning walking on level ground was difficult let alone up or down hills. We were out of breath and head-achy just getting out of the car! Secondly, as the word Canyon clearly suggests, the walk more or less involved descending some 1500m into the canyon on the first day, followed by a ridiculously steep and treacherous 1200m back out the following day. And that’s only the altitude, NOT the distance walked! Again, none of this would have been a big issue except for the fact that this was only days prior to us starting our much anticipated four day hike on the infamous Inca Trail. Woops.
There were seven of us in our group - all around the same age and fitness level - and within half an hour of beginning the walk we were all wondering what level of fitness it was exactly that we were all at!
In theory, walking downhill should have been the easiest part of the hike, however the loose dirt, dry heat and rocks gave our bodies (especially our knees!) a constant work out and we had barely walked an hour before two of our group created their own mini landslide when they lost their footing and slid some 3m in a cloud of thick dust. Now I'm not going to say I didn't snigger to myself at first, but once they came to a halt and we saw the sheer cliff face only metres away, well, let's just say we all tread pretty slowly and carefully for the next hour or so!
Photo: The steep and rocky paths made for some seriously treacherous hiking for the first 13km into the Canyon
For the most part, the path was wide enough to be considered safe, but every now and then, we were face to face with a sheer 500m drop into the canyon. The scenery was amazing. I've only ever seen gorges and canyons in Australia and this was a completely different environment. Local communities still live in the canyon today and their precarious and seemingly impractical farmland deep in the canyon is a feat of engineering to say the least!
When we finally reached the depths of the canyon, in a hot, sweaty, dusty mess, we stopped in a tiny village for a well deserved rest and some lunch. After being refueled with a gut busting local specialty, Lomo Saltado - beef, tomato and onion stir fried and placed on a bed of hot chips - we were ready to continue our trek and were all happy to hear from our guide Bonito, that for today, the hardest part was over.
I now know why our guide Bonito sniggered when we sighed relief at hearing this news. A little more emphasis on certain words would have given a much clearer idea of what was still to come. What Bonito actually meant was "for TODAY, the hardEST part is over". So in even simpler terms for us Aussie's "it's still not over and if you thought this was hard work, then tomorrow might kill you!". If only we had these subtitles at the time!
We all set a cracking pace after lunch as we had heard stories about our overnight destination - The Oasis, however secretly, I don't think anyone actually believed this place existed! We caught glimpses of it earlier in the day from high above the canyon however all we could make out was a patch of bright green, deep in the canyon with a few blue dots scattered in between. As far as Wade and I were concerned, as long as we could shower, lie down and take off our dusty shoes, it was paradise to us.
The last 3 hours of our walk was alongside a river where our path was determined by the rise and fall of the canyon walls. I almost cried at one point when our path started climbing back up, only minutes later followed by another knee crushing slope back down. I genuinely didn’t know which was worse!
I'm pretty sure I heard the voices of angels as the clouds parted and a mysterious stream of light brought our overnight Oasis into view. Even from a distance, we could see palm trees, lush grass and the blue hue of a swimming pool. But who am I kidding, we heard they had beer and the hiking was over for the day! Yes please!
As we threw down our packs and ripped our sweaty, dusty socks off our tired feet, I realised I barely had the energy to change into my swimmers before getting in the pool. Much to the disgust of horrified onlookers, a sweaty, dusty Wade jumped straight in as I began to massage my blistered feet in the cool water. Heaven on earth!
Our accommodation for the night was a cute little cabin lit only by candlelight and after a meal and few warm beers thanks to the lack of refrigeration (although our English mates didn't seem to notice the warm beers....), we were all buggered and went straight to bed.
With a seemingly pathetic bed time of 9:30pm, we set our alarm for the morning and realised we only had 6 hours to sleep before doing it all again tomorrow with an ungodly starting time of 4am.
As 3:30 struck, alarms began to ring throughout the otherwise peaceful Oasis so we donned our packs and head torches and headed straight for the track. It was a slow climb in the dark but with promises of breakfast at the top, we trudged on in silence. The altitude was making the steep climb all the more difficult so we were taking regular breaks to catch our breath and eventually watch the morning sun light up the canyon in a blaze of colour. It was only when the sun was well and truly up, that we could see exactly what we were facing. The climb out of the canyon was a long and zigzagged path that wound it's way, back and forward as we ascended the 1500 metres back out of the canyon.
The exact location of "the top" was a mystery to all of us who would guess a point, only to be proven wrong an hour later as we stood at our chosen landmark with a new vantage point that showed we still had hours of steep climbing ahead of us!
After three hours of one of the most difficult uphill climbs I've ever done, my blood boiled when I saw a group quickly catching up to us..... On mules!!! What? Where? How??? No one had offered me a damn mule!!
It was only when we stopped for a short break that I questioned Bonito about these lazy buggers on donkeys. He explained that yes it is an option however it's one that he personally does not recommend. Until recently, one local could guide up to eight mules up the narrow path and out of the canyon. However tragically a year ago, a mule lost it's footing only minutes from the end of the climb and fell over one of the many sheer cliff faces along the path, taking with it the poor tourist on it's back. It was a terrible accident and one that forced authorities to step in and make stricter rules on the number of guides to mules for treks in the canyon.
I was also relieved to hear this story while standing on solid ground and made a mental note to be very wary on the steep, narrowing path as we neared the top.
After three and a half long hours of putting one foot in front of the other, we finally reached the lookout point back into the canyon. Looking into the canyon, I was proud of the feat we had achieved but there was also a little part of me that was just relieved that it was over!
Photo: After a tough uphill climb starting well before sunrise, we finally made it to the top of the canyon for a quick rest, a few photos and then headed off for a much deserved breakfast
We walked a final 2km into town where breakfast was waiting. With sore and blistered feet, Wade cracked it when we learnt that the walking wasn't over, but we passed some beautiful rice paddies and farmland on our way that definitely sweetened the deal.
The long drive back to the town of Arequipa took us via a condor lookout and a national park full of wild llamas and vicuñas. It also gave us time to inspect our blistered feet. While mine were more tired than anything, Wade's were, for want of a better word, ruined. He had huge blisters covering the entire ball of his foot, which immediately caused a sense of panic knowing that we would be starting the Inca Trail in four days.
It was now a race against time to travel by overnight bus to Cusco where we would rest up and recover our weary bodies over the coming days for what was to me, one of the most important journeys of our trip - the trek to Machu Picchu.
* For more photos from our hike into the Colca Canyon and our time in the beautiful city of Arequipa, go to our Peru Part 2 Photo Album *
Enthusiastic but Useless Traveler.