There are not too many occasions where I like to be woken up at 2:30 a.m. by the alarm on my phone, but when a hike is involved I’m typically ok with it. To visit the Colca Canyon there were a few different options but all of them required an early morning wake up call. I had debated back and forth about going on this hike, but the alternatives just didn’t seem like they would do the canyon justice it was a little too “touristy” for me.
I was taking Peru Hop, a hop on hop off bus tour company, from Lima to Cusco over the course of 10 days. I had spoken with a friend who had been to Peru earlier in the year and she had given me some tips on what to see and how best to do it, and Peru Hop came highly recommended. I can confirm this was a good recommendation and have no bad things to say about my experience. Here’s how it works; you can choose from a number of different itineraries and destinations along the way and you have the flexibility to stay at any of their stops for as long as you like. Before arriving in Peru the Colca Canyon Trek was the only stop I knew I wanted to do, the rest I was just along for the ride and enjoying every minute.
The canyon is located a couple hours northwest of Arequipa, that White City I spoke of in a previous post. It is 3270 metres (10,730ft) deep making it one of the deepest in the world and it is about 70 km long. It is a beautiful and colourful valley with pre-Inca roots and towns that were founded in Spanish colonial times. It is still inhabited by people of the Collagua and Cabana cultures and the local people still maintain some of their ancestral traditions and continue to cultivate the pre-Inca stepped terraces, called andenes. (These are stunning!)
My morning began like I said, very early! I had only just arrived in Arequipa the previous morning after my extra long night bus trip. Going on 5 hours sleep in the past 48 hours had me feeling a bit like a zombie when my alarm went off, but up I got, finished packing my bag (I had to fit 3 days worth of stuff in my teeny tiny 25L day pack. This included water and snacks. It was snug but I love my Deuter bag, it’s tough as nails and was up for the challenge! And no they do not pay me to say this. (Maybe one day tho!)
A Sprinter van (my dream van!) picked me up. I was the first one to hop in and then we toured around town picking up more zombie like creatures along the way. Thankfully the bus had blankets and reclining seats and we had a three hour drive before breakfast so I was able to get a few more zzz’s. That is until we started to hit some serious altitude. I was feeling good, feeling good, feeling good then OH MY GOODNESS I thought I was dying! I started to sweat buckets, I was nauseous, my head felt like it was going to explode, everything was spinning and I was sure I was about pass out. Taking some deep yogi breathes I willed myself to stay conscious and that this would pass soon. I hoped!
our guide had warned us we would pass 4900m elevation (just over 16000ft) so the altitude may have an affect on us. It sure did! It’s amazing how it affects some people and not others. I was not the only one afflicted with altitude issues, as one of the other passengers actually passed right out which scared the crap out of all of us flat landers. We stopped the bus and our guide came around with something called Agua de florida (flower water, not water from the state of Florida). It’s some kind of mixture of alcohol and different flowers that you pour a little into your hands, rub together and then take a couple big whiffs, it helps open things up so you get more blood and oxygen back to your head and organs. Another trick to help with the altitude that the locals use are coca leaves. You take a little handful of dried coca leaves and chew them (deliciously bitter, but not too bad if you pair it with a little stevia) and then pack them into your cheek and sort of suck on them. Coca tea is also helpful. This practice is centuries old, there is really no scientific proof that this helps but anecdotally I will say it sure helped me! Once we were all conscious and feeling slightly better we were on our way to a little lower elevation for breakfast.
After breakfast we took a drive over to a lookout where you got a great view of the canyon and we were able to see some Condors. Famous for being the land bird with the largest wingspan (over 3 metres) I actually thought one was a person who had climbed out to the edge to get a better look. They are beautiful to watch as they climb the thermals of the canyon up to the high plains of the Altiplano searching for some unfortunate creatures that have died to have for lunch and then return back to the sides of the canyon to their nests for the evening.
We arrived just in time, there were about 6 condors floating about in the canyon that morning. I later learned from other travellers who arrived just after us that they did not see any of the majestic birds.
We jumped back on the bus and headed to the trail head for our 3 day adventure. Day one would be A LOT of downhill. We would be hiking all the way down into the canyon. We stopped at a small rest spot where we could use the facilities (note: have some cash on hand, many toilets along the hike need a small donation for their use). I also grabbed a bamboo walking stick to try and save my knees heading down. And then we were off. Zig zagging our way down the trail to the valley of the canyon took us a little over two hours. The trail had loose rocks so every few feet you’d slide a little, say a little thank you to your bamboo walking stick for saving your life and carry on down the trail. The views were stunning! You could see zig zag trails all over the canyon where mules have been used to get goods in and out of the valley. Mules are a mix between a horse and a donkey. They are used heavily in the colca canyon for their ability to carry heavy loads. They will even carry you up the canyon if you don’t think you can manage the journey.
We met at a bridge at the bottom of the canyon where a local woman was waiting with the freshest avocados you will ever eat, plus some other fruits and Coca Cola for thirsty trekkers. We took a rest here, enjoyed the views and marvelled at how far we had just hiked down. From here it wasn’t much further to our lunch stop, which would be where we would be staying for the rest of the afternoon and night.
There are two options for the Colca canyon trek, a 2-day or 3-day hike. I had read that the two day was pretty intense. You hiked one day down the canyon and across and the next day you hiked up, so I decided to take my time and opted for the 3-day trek. This meant that the other group with us who was doing the 2-day trek had another 10km to hike that same day after lunch, and it had started to rain. Poor guys. The rest of us in my group were very happy to have a leisurely lunch and stay under the protection of the outdoor roofed dining space at our accommodations. Now, these accommodations were not luxurious. They were 100% basic, no hot water in the shower and I was a little worried our roof would leak, but it did the trick, I don’t need much.
Since it was raining and chilly most of the group just stayed in the dinning room space. We chatted and got to know each other. It was really fun. There was a great mix of people. A few from the UK, a couple from Belgium, a girl from Germany, another couple from Australia and me the lone Canadian.
Our meals were all included on the trek and the locals who hosted us were wonderful. The food at this stop was pretty good, and dinner started with a lovely warm soup. For anyone with food allergies you can be accommodated, but don’t have your expectations too high. Gluten free means you just got a lot of rice or potatoes (no complaints here!). After dinner we chatted a bit more but then everyone turned in pretty early since we’d all been up since 2am. The bed was comfy and warm and I was out like a light.
The next morning we were greeted by a giant turkey! This dude was feisty! He was stomping his feet as he walked and you could feel the vibrations. Once we had breakfast we set off for the day’s journey. It was pretty easy going for the most part, a few ups and downs, but nothing too strenuous. We walked through a small village and enjoyed the views of the terrace fields. It was definitely hot as we hiked around in the valley. The promise of an “oasis” for our accommodations that night kept us moving! We had a nice easy decent and we could see the green coming closer and closer with each step. We crossed a bridge and came to a beautiful waterfall that didn’t look real with all the green plants that were surrounding it compared to the mostly dry rocky landscape we’d seen.
We continued on and when we arrived to our home for the night we were excited! The pool looked wonderful! And since we arrived a few hours before the 2-days trekking folks we were able to enjoy some quiet time lounging in the pool with less people. We played a game of Uno, and chatted again until the new folks arrived, and then the place was packed! Dinner was in shifts because there were so many people. After dinner it was off to bed because we had another extra early wakeup the next day to start our accent back to the ridge of the canyon.
We started our hike around 4am. It would be a gruelling almost 3 hour journey up, up, oh, and more up! I was happy we started when we did, we got to enjoy a beautiful sunrise and avoided the hot mid day sun.
Once the sun was up you had to pay attention to the trail, the mules had started to do the trek as well. They were carrying humans or luggage up the trail. Safety note always be sure you are on mountain side of the trail as the mules pass, their bags take up a lot of space and they don’t particularly care where you are as they pass by and you could be knocked over the edge if you are standing cliff side. That would hurt!
We continued our journey taking small breaks as we went, but I almost found it was easier to just keep going. With the altitude the more I stoped the more I felt my legs turn to jelly as I started to walk again. A slow steady pace is best in my opinion.
As we approached the top you could hear people talking, but because of the switchbacks we were not as close as we thought. However, the voices were definitely encouraging. Finally! We came around the last switchback and could see all the people who had already finished, and what a view to finish with. The canyon looked amazing! It was only 7am at this point so the sun was just up, the breeze was cool on our sweaty backs, and it felt so good to take off our packs and grab a cup of coca tea.
Once the rest of our group finished we had another 20 minutes walk (flat thankfully!) to our breakfast spot for some well deserved eggs and bread. On our way home we had the option to stop off at hot springs to soak our weary legs, but we were all so beat we decided to skip it and head back to the city. We made a couple pit stops along the way to check out the amazing Inca terraces used for farming, and another stop to check out a few volcanos, one of which erupted for us which was pretty awesome to see (from a very safe distance!)
I was a bit nervous about the drive back since we would be passing over that 4900m mark once again, but I was prepared this time with a cheek full of coca leaves and they must work because I had zero effects from the altitude this time.
Once we were back in the city we were dropped off at our respective hotels and hostels before meeting up as a group one last time to go for dinner. We went to a great place for pizza, they even had a gluten and dairy free version! Another night of great conversation before we all went our separate ways. At least for now. I would arrive in Cusco first, but happily everyone else was going to arrive there too at some point. We even lucked out that one night ALL of us were there at the same time so we got together once again, this time in Cusco at Green Point (a super awesome vegetarian restaurant, literally everything is delicious).
This is one of the things I love most about travel, the people that you run into along the way. What a great group of humans.
Stay tuned for more about my time in Cusco.