We found about a zillion tour companies in Arequipa that offer hiking trips to the Colca Canyon. We tried to pick one that claimed to be eco-conscious and socially responsible, etc, and cost a bit more (hopefully to good end). We had to leave Arequipa at 3:00 in the morning! to reach the Colca Canyon by 8:30-ish. First stop, the high lookout point at Cruz del Condor, where we were rewarded with a spectacular view down into the canyon below, and saw a few enormous condors gliding casually overhead.
Then we headed on to the town of Cabanaconde for lunch, and met with our group of fellow hikers, seven in total. We were lucky to be there for the start of a big four-day holiday, and we caught a really bright parade marching through town with a brass band and a big float covered with millions of fresh flowers and fruits. Mischief and throwing water on people are part of the holiday too – we saw at least a dozen little kids armed with water guns and water balloons (luckily we missed getting soaked) and saw a shop-keeper lady run out of her store and empty a whole bucket of water over some guy’s head and run away, laughing crazily.
Like all the small towns around Bolivia and Peru, there were lots of ladies wearing beautiful and bright traditional outfits. Even more so here because of the holiday, I think. In this area, skirts, blouses and especially hats are covered in finely detailed bright embroidery. Our guide, Pepe, explained that since pre-Inca times, the Colca Canyon has been occupied by two distinct indigenous groups, the Kollawa and the Cabanas, and they are still easily distinguished by different styles of hats – the ladies of one group all wear rounded, brightly embroidered hats; on the other side, they wear white hats, with a more squared-off shape. In pre-Incan times, each group deformed the skulls of their infants to create a distinct cranium shape – the hats they wear now still reflect the different skull shapes traditional in each group.
After lunch we headed out of town and Pepe got us a quick ride to the canyon’s edge with some dumptruck drivers who were headed our way.
From the edge of the canyon, we peered down, down, down to the river far below… and we could see a few towns perched on the steep canyon sides opposite us.
The path down started out gentle, and then got steeper and rockier as we went down. I think it took about three hours of steady, often pretty steep descent to get down to the bottom. It was a narrow path, covered in loose gravel, and next to the path, just… straight down… so it was a bit scary, and tiring on the knees!
My legs were all shaky by the time we finally made it down to the river at the bottom. We crossed a hanging bridge, and then had to scramble up a really steep bit before we got to sit and rest under some trees.
It had started to sprinkle rain on the way down and by the time we stopped to rest it was really raining. The opposite side of the canyon was kind of a whole different world. We’d been descending through dust and gravel, surrounded by rocks and cacti and brush… the other side of the canyon was green and lush, with peach trees and avocado trees, terraced farmland and rushing irrigation brooks. We had a nice hour of gentle climbing through thick green forest, past waterfalls and terraced farms. Then crossed another hanging bridge, and then straight up up up up, and the rain turned to a downpour, and it was all a little intense.
We were very relieved (and wet) when we finally got to our destination, a little farm in the tiny town of Cosñirhua. We all stayed in a few adobe rooms owned by an older couple, Mauricio and his wife, who helped Pepe cook up a delicious dinner for us. Hearty sopa de sustancia, delicious fresh avocado salad, and sweet potato fritters! They had a tiny little store with some packaged snacks and beer, we asked for a bottle of wine and they didn’t have any… but Mauricio said “wait, I think I might have something in my house for you.” He came back with a giant jar filled with brown stuff, the label said Strawberry Marmalade, but Mauricio said it was homemade peach Pisco! Inside there were a half-dozen small brown pickled-looking peaches floating around… At first I thought “Is that safe to drink?!” but Mauricio offered us a free sample and we thought it tasted just right, so we bought the whole jar and shared it round with all the tired hikers. Perfect.
In the morning, the sun was out again. We breakfasted, did the ritual sunscreen-slathering, and headed back out on the trail. Pepe stopped along the way for a few show-and-tell stops, explaining the different cacti and their uses (the Tuna cactus has delicious fruit and the plants host Cochineal bugs which are widely used for natural dyes; the San Pedro cactus is used to create a hallucinogenic drug used in shamanic rituals) and pointing out different crops, picking strange fruits from the trees and sharing them with us. He seemed to know everyone in all the towns, and stopped to chat or hollered greetings as we walked past. In the next town over, the plaza was littered with charred firecracker papers and remains of the previous night’s Virgen de Candelaria festivities. We stopped to visit the health center and a small museum, and Pepe explained lots of details about local life in the small canyon towns.
Then down, down, down again, back down to the river bottom and across another hanging bridge. During the descent we could see the crazy path zig-zagging up the opposite side of the canyon, where we’d have to climb up after lunch. It looked intimidating.
On the other side of the canyon we stopped at a touristy little oasis and had a glorious splash in a swimming pool and sunned ourselves on a huge rock while Pepe cooked up our lunch. He’d warned us that the ascent would be really intense and tried to talk all of us into renting mules to ride up the canyon! He said “I don’t know why you pay money to hike and suffer! Peruvians never walk up the canyon, they ride mules. Only foreigners come here and pay to suffer, climbing up in the hot sun!” Eventually Mike and Marthe were convinced, and agreed to rent mules at the oasis to carry them up. The rest of us were either gluttons for punishment, or too scared to imagine riding up that steep path on the back of a mule. Maybe both.
After all that, it wasn’t so bad. Just a long, slow, steady, hot climb. Luckily the sky was cloudy so the sun wasn’t burning. The second half was pretty spectacular, with the sun sinking, Andes all around, and the canyon below. Pepe somehow got the idea that we were crazy daredevils, and asked “Do you want to take a detour to do some rock-climbing?” Our first response was “nononoNO!” but somehow we agreed to it. We took a 20-minute “shortcut” that was super intense, we were just scrambling straight up these rock faces, hand to rock and foot to rock and it took complete focus to just pay attention to where to find the next hold. I looked down and there was nothing there! and I got all dizzy and had to just think about going up. When we finally got back on the path, we were all pumped with adrenaline and realized that for 20 minutes we had totally forgotten we were tired and hot and had heavy packs and all that. So it was kind of an awesome detour.
At the very end of the trail, the sky turned crazy orange and red and we got a spectacular sunset show as we came over the top of the canyon.
It felt like a celebration of our arrival! I was seriously SO tired by the time we got there but SO excited and exhilarated about having made it. A high point of the whole trip, in every sense! Walked back to town in the pitch dark and enjoyed some excellent hot showers, roasted fish, and soft beds.