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Published: April 4th 2006
Wow what a week. Exactly a week ago I left for Colca Canyon for what is considered one of the hardest, but most rewarding, hikes in South America. Here is the breakdown of one of the most amazing, exhausting, and trying experiences of my life.
Ohad, my Israelli hiking partner, and I woke at 2:45 to catch a 3:30 bus to Cabanaconde, the starting point for our hike. Although we were both very nervous about this hike (we had both read that it is extremely hard), I was especially nervous because I was starting the whole thing with a bad case of diarrhrea, which is especially worrisome because of the scarsity of water in the area. So, arriving at 10:30 am, I was already sweating from nerves even before being slapped by the extremely hot sun beaming down on us. Sarting the hike at 3200 meters, the first day would turn out to be the easiest, although somewhat long. We weaved our way down a narrow road leading to the bottom of the enormous multicouloured canyon whose bottom refused to be seen until the very end of the day. The canyon was the most beautiful, awesome (in the
literal sense) sight I have ever seen, begging to be stared at open mouthed. The unbelievably steep, large walls were several colours strung together like a rainbow, with everything from deep purple to bright orange, and the tops were frosted with shiny white snow. Under our feet were coloured rocks worn whitish from years of trekking and driving (not that we saw any cars...) giving the impression that they were disposed-of pastel crayons used to colour the canyon walls. The aura was pleasant, as was the weather, making me all the more nervous that we were in for a big surprise in the coming days - how could THIS be a hard hike?
After six hours of walking the road ended abruptly and was replaced by a narrow, winding path that would be the norm for the rest of the trip (if there was a path at all...). After another hour, and with the sun tucked behind the impressive canyon walls, we found a cave at the bottom of the canyon and set up our sleeping bags for the night's sleep (we decided against the tent, who needs it?). Outside the cave was the roaring brown river which provided
the soundtrack for the night, a kind of loud silent white noise that made us completely sure that we were in the middle of nowhere. Once we saw two youngish kids walk accross the same suspension bridge that we used to cross the canyon carrying large sacks of animal feed, surely on their way to Chaco, our next stop. After a small peanut butter dinner we fell soundly asleep only meters above the river nestled happily in our sleeping bags. This would be the last time we would enjoy a downhill in five days.
Waking with the sun at 6 am, we were hiking by seven after a quick breakfast. Short on water we were slightly apprehensive, me especially since I had had a few interruptions in the night to use...the bathroom (I stepped out of the cave). Although the sun was weak there was little to help us from sweating buckets from the steep uphill that lasted the whole of the day before arriving at Chaco. With mighty, massive condors circling above we spent four hours hiking uphill along a narrow ledge on a well beaten trail on the way to the village of Chaco. The
canyon continued to be the most amazing sight I have ever witnessed, purple on green on blue on yellow. The steepness of the walls is hard to explain, but let's just say that you could easily toss a penny from the top of the walls (at 5100 meters) to the river winding at the bottom, at 1800 meters. After three and a half ours we found a small man-made river channeled off the main river in the traditional incan style, providing water for agriculture and animals. After a tortursome half hour of waiting for the purification to complete (by this time I was quite severely dehydraded) I downed three letres of water before quenching my thirst. A nice Quechuan man met us and gave us some apples to eat as well as a comforting pat on the back. Dressed in slacks and a collared shirt he didn't seem to notice that the day had grown increasingly hot to the point where we were darting from shadow to shadow along the path. Half an hour later we arrived at Chaco, perhaps the most surreal thing I have ever seen. Nine hours hike from another human being, the town was maticulously organised
and unbelievably developed. Complete with electricity (produced by a generator in the river we had been following all day), satellite telephone access, running water provided by an ingenious, ancient method developed by the Incans (this town is older than the Incan empire, by the way), and the most amazing breed of people I have ever encountered, we were both happy to call it a day and to explore the amazing village. Although only 150 people large, they had stores complete with refridgerated beer, milk, and shelves stacked with all the goodies you would find in any small village. All these things had been transported on the backs of people and donkeys from Cabanaconde, 9 hours away, by convoys of 25 local people once a week. The town had the feel of an incredibly prosperous place, cleaner than most places I have been in south america and better organized and planed than just about anywhere I have been on earth. Every block or so you find a whole in the road where water ran to allow for drinking water and a place to clean dishes. There was a doctor's office which looked modern and advanced enough to be in a small
city. There were stables made of cleanly stacked stones and mud. There was a school with a very well kept soccer field. There was a concrete basketball court, complete with bleachers and lights for night games. There was a music hall. There were countless concrete bound rivers feeding the clean, kempt houses. This was paradise. Nine hours from another living soul, tucked into the valley created by the majestic walls of the deepest canyon on earth. I was speechless.
That night we ate dinner with the mayor of the town at his home. We brought a nice bottle of wine purchased at one of the local stores. He told us about the amazing amount of planning that went into the town, the high literacy rate (100 percent, in fact), the short working days, the tranquility of it all, the lack of rain, the amazing irrigation techniques passed down through the centuries and practiced unchanged today (except for the enhancement of the concrete). The man knew more about Israel than I did (he read up on it at the local library!) and discussed Canadian politics and law with me in a way that made me feel ignorant and inspired. Just
before leaving for bed, he warned us about the difficulty the next day was to present: the river we were to follow to the next village, Mina, was very high and strong from strong rains up river. He expertly drew a map in the sand in front of us and informed us that we had to cross the river six times. Little did we know just how hard and downright scary that would be. Saying goodnight, he left to go check his email.
Waking at six we returned to the mayor's house for a nice breakfast consisting of eggs, rice, onion and coffee. Leaving the town to the north we followed the bank of the river for an hour, glancing back ever so often to make sure the village had not been a dream. Soon the path disappeared and we grew nervous. Then we saw our first river crossing. This day was going to be miserable. Waist deep and white capped the water was painfully cold and daunting. Going first I nearly fell and ended the trip there and then (we could not dream of going on with wet sleeping bags). Making it across I did a
happy-dance and screamed from exhiliration. Ohad wasn't so pleased. Barely making it across he was shaking from fear: this was not what we signed up for. The path had completely vanished and we were left to guess our way up the valley. Exactly five more river crossings tested our nerves and our leg muscles, one crossing being especially frighteningly deep and fast moving. I was an inch from falling over. Ohad, badly shaken half way through the cross, jumped and got his shoes and the bottom of his sleeping bag wet. The day that was supposed to be 3 hours long in the dry season turned out to be an excrutiating, cold, and miserable six hours and cost Ohad his titanium walking stick (cold and scared he didn't manage to throw it back accross the river to me and it was quickly swept down river and over a steep waterfall into the abyss). I will never forget the feeling of relief we got when sighting the first farm on the outskirts of the Mina where we found a man who would turn out to be our guide for the next day, the day of the 5100 meter pass. We built
a fire, tried to dry off and warm up, and counted our blessings: we were alive. It as the first time I have ever had ever seriously had that thought. After another hour of an exhausting uphill we arrived at the mud-city of Mina, a village at 3600 meters, and slowly and painfully setup our tent on the schoolyard and went to sleep early. The view was still amazing, although tainted by our bad moods, with a thick cloud tracing the line of the river we had followed that day like the ghost of a larger river.
We never took the time to appreciate that we had climbed 1100 meters that day. At least, we thought, it could not get any harder....
Our guide woke us at 3:30 AM, donkey in tow, ready to start what would turn out to be a twelve hour, non-stop hike lasting until almost sundown. Apparently the river was as cold as it felt and I awoke with a sore throat, a cough, and a runny nose. Great, I thought. Strapping our donkey (named Flavio) up with our bags in the pitch dark and total silence, we were on
the trail by 4:15, reluctantly throwing one leg in front of the other between sneezes. This, it would turn out, was the hardest day of my young life.
From the first step it was a steep uphill. Mina quickly disappeared in the darkness and fog and we were soon very much alone on the steep side of the canyon wall, zig-zagging wildly up and up and up. At about 5:30 the sky began to turn a deep blue and, like mother nature's orchestra conductor slowly but steadily raising her arms, the sound of birds, cows, pigs, llamas and other miscellaneous animals sprung to life and filled the air. I was suddenly filled with a first wind and picked up my pace, sneezing, coughing and wheezing all the while. The mood was spiritual, with the deep blue fading to a brightish blue and clouds slowly filling the canyon like a trough. The sillhoute of the canyon made it look deseivingly benign and the high altitude stripped the ground of all but the most resiliant of plants. Taking breaks periodically, as much to take in the amazing view as to rest we arrived at the first pass at 4700 meters. The
air was becoming more and more thin, making the hard climb almost impossible. Every step had to be willed seperately, the silent voice in my head crying out "just one more step, just go". My throat was getting more and more hoarse and we were becoming more and more appreciative of Flavio and Martin, our guide, who lazily staggered up the hillside like he was just fooling around. He walked a good deal faster than either of us. We felt almost silly: here we were, each in almost $2000 worth of gear each, being outdone by a wee man in sandals and a paper thin sport jacket. This guy was hardcore. We were weak gringos out of our league.
After the first pass was a river where we filled our water and I got a shoe wet after slipping off a rock while trying to tip toe accross. The view, however, melted our worries away. This was some of the world's most amazing scenery, with green fields, maroon lagoons, red eared llamas and breathtaking condors (flying BELOW us). If it weren't for the fact that all my liquid was being used for sweat I think I would have cried...
At this point, somewhere around 4800 meters, Ohad and I had to stop every few minutes to catch our breath and let our hearts return to a healthy rate. Martin, however, jogged - yes, jogged - ahead to check how much snow was waiting for us on the pass. Luckily the answer was not much and the weather continued to be perfect. Nine hours in we made it to 5100 meters and stopped to breathe, eat lunch, and part ways with Lance Armstrong and Flavio. It was the best $20 we could have ever spent. I don't think we could have done the day without the donkey. We almost couldn't do it with him.
After the pass, backpacks strapped to our sore backs, we weaved down the knee-deep snow to the plains below on a very steep descent. Soon, though, the view was completely obscured by a thick fog and we were left to our instincts to guide us to the "road" (I almost laugh calling it that: it was really a wide path made of rocks and, occasionally, rivers). Visibility at about 2 meters we would around the road towards our agreed upon camping spot, a village consisting
of two houses and lifestock three hours away and all uphill. At one point we were convinced we were in the wrong place and almost turned back to the plains three hours back. I, however, convinced Ohad that we should keep going. Not a minute later we saw the village... it was the greatest sight I could ever have imagined: we mustered some shouts of joy and cut accross the field to our next camping spot, at 3900 meters. Arriving at 4:30 we slowly ate dinner and fell asleep. I have never appreciated sleep more, at this point absolutely exhausted and quite sick. I distinctly remember thinking "at least I am alive".
Waking at daybreak we were greeted by clear skies and the most magnificent view of the valley you could ever ask for. In one eyefull you could see rocky-green fields stretching downward towards af blue lagoon, flanked by orange blue walls of the valley stretching vertically into perfectly snowcapped, cloud free tips. After four hours of hiking down the valley wall on a worn, centuries old path (we were walking on the same path as the incans, it occured to us, and have been the
whole trek) to a small village a half hour from our final stop, Chachas. When arriving in Chachas we were told that at 1:00 pm the "bus" (what turned out to be a rickety, old cargo truck stuffed with people and various things to sell at the Andaguan market) was leaving for Andagua, our final stop before the 10 hour, overnight bus trip back to Arequipa. It was then we realized we didn't have enough money for the bus... but, we thought, nothing could stop us now.
After taking the truck for 15 minutes we all piled out and took turns taking a creaky boat accross the lagoon to the waiting buses on the other side. Dangerously cramming as many people in the small, worndown craft as possible we slowly made our way across the lagoon, the engine kicking out sever times on the way. After climbing into the waiting school bus on the other side we waited a painful 2 hours for the rest of the people to make their way accross the lagoon. Finally making it to Andagua we found out the bus was full and had to wait overnight. Fine with me, I thought, and we
checked into the shabbiest hostel yet (I will spare the details) and I went immediately to bed for the night, not even bothering to disrobe.
The next day we caught the 4 pm bus and were told that we could pay the fare in Arequipa after the 10 hour trip. This time the bus was like any other coach bus on earth, although the road was nothing but dirt and rock, making the trip bumpy and slow. Weaving back and forth up and down th sleep slopes gave the distinct impression that we were on a boat in a rock-sea without someone manning the wheel and thus having it spin back and forth sporatically, causing violent back and forth motions that, if we didn't know better, would make you feel like we were very much out of control. Thank god the driver was in control, because one wrong move and we would plummet hundreds of feet to a fitting end to the trek.
Two Jean-Claude-Van-Damme movies (they are obsessed with crappy beat-'em-up movies with two bit action heroes) and ten hours later we were back in Arequipa at 2 am and soon back at our hostel
for a good night's sleep. Which brings me to today, still sick, still tired, but completely satisfied. This is a week that will never be forgotten... for both its amazing highs and its terrible lows. I feel two years older and 20 pounds lighter. One thing is for sure, though: that canyon will forever be a fond, inspirational memory... even if its river will not be.
Next stop: Machu Picchu and the Inca trail
Ciao for now
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