Running Down the Way Up (Part 1)

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October 7th 2008
Published: December 28th 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

Running Down the Way Up (Part 1)


"Listen. You hear that?"

Anna - seated cross-legged on her bed - looks up from her notebook and pauses.

"No. Hear what?"

I get up, walk over to the door, and open it a crack. I listen to the conversation in English downstairs in the hostel lobby for a moment and look back at Anna.

"It's almost exactly like last time!"
"Last time what?" she asks.

I poke my head out the door and wait for a lull in the discussion.

"English go home!" I yell down the stairs.
"Ah, hang on," says one of the voices. "Good morning, Tony!"

Ross comes bounding up the stairs to shake my hand.

"Ross!" squeals Anna, jumping up from the bed to give him a hug.

This isn't a chance meeting. Ross had been in Buenos Aires while Anna and I were wandering around Lake Titicaca. But due to complications he has yet to explain, he became a bit jaded and decided to head to Perú. As luck would have it, he notified us of this move and we were able to convince him
Weird CactusWeird CactusWeird Cactus

Photo by Anna
to come down to Arequipa to join forces with us and do a trek through Colca Canyon.

Anna herself had been planning on going directly from Titicaca to Cuzco. But after listening to me go on about the canyon, she decided she needed to see it, too.

So here we are - all together, again.

After Anna releases him from her clutches, Ross drops his pack to the floor and looks around at the four beds in the room.

"Right, mind if I join you lot in here?"
"Nuestra casa, tu casa," I say. "When did you get here?"
"Let's see, its 11am now. About half an hour ago? Caught the night bus from Lima. And you?"
"We got here from Puno at around 4:30. Just got up."
"Good, so we're all completely knackered?" he asks crashing down onto one of the beds.
"Absolutely shattered," I reciprocate in my own English slang.
"Brilliant. So we'll do the canyon tomorrow?" he asks.
"Yep. But first, what the hell happened in BA?"
"Oh, God, well...."

After we parted ways in Bolivia, Ross headed south across the border into Argentina. he then made his way east to Iguazu Falls on the borders with Paraguay and Brazil. From there he took a devastatingly long bus trip to Buenos Aires. Arriving early in the morning, he went to a hostel and checked in. He then went for a walk around San Telmo - a lovely historical district on the south end of the city.

Sleeping on a bus is far superior to sleeping on a plane. You usually have more leg room. The seats lean back much further. The gentle vibration of the engine and sway of the vehicle trigger some latent connection with being rocked to sleep as a baby deep within the subconscious.

But being stuck in a reclined - nevertheless seated - position for 23 hours is still not ideal. It leaves you groggy.

Bus Lag.

In such a state, Ross found himself resting on a bench under the mid-morning sun of Buenos Aires. It was at this point and in this condition that our hero fell for one of the oldest tricks in the BA book.

In the midst of the seemingly constant flow of foot traffic in this city, Ross looked down to discover a long line of ketchup or some other sauce extending down his shirt and onto his pants.


A middle-aged couple also noticed the mess and stopped to help clean it up. And of course after a few months immersed in South American hospitality, who would be surprised? They had him stand up. The woman produced a wad of napkins to clean the shirt. She lamented the "thoughtlessness and carelessness" of so many people in this city. "Oh look up, love, you have a bit on your collar, too."

He looked up, allowing her to dab away the crimson crud from his shirt, while the kindly gentleman tended to the stain on the side of his trousers.

The lady had a bottle of water that aided in the cleansing. But alas, it was nearly empty.

"Hang on, young man, I have more water in the car."

She and her friend rushed to the car parked on the street to collect the reinforcement water.

But Ross is a smart guy. Just as they climbed into the car, he began to pay attention to that nervous itch at the back of his sleep-deprived mind. He reached down to his pocket to scratch the itch, but it was too late.

The car was gone.

Passport gone.

Bank card gone.

Roughly $100 in cash gone.

"God, I wish I had warned you," I say to Ross. "That's the most common scam in Buenos Aires."
Ross slaps his hand to his forehead, "That's the worst part! I knew that! I had heard all about it. But they were so nice, and I was so out of it that I thought it was genuine. I felt like an idiot!"
"So wait. How did you get to Perú? With no passport?"
"Easy. I went to he UK embassy and got a new one."
"They gave you a new full passport?" I ask.
"Yeah, takes a few days, but yeah."
"Well that's nice. If I lose mine, the U.S. embassy will only grant me an emergency passport which is good for getting back to the States from the country where the original was lost. No more travel. Trip over," I say.
"Happened to me in Ireland, " adds Anna. "Lost my passport, but the Polish embassy got me a new one, no problem."
"Well that's not fair," I complain. Then I look back to Ross and smile. "Oh, but I've still got it easy. But dude, your bank card?"
"Had my brother wire me some cash to keep me over in the meantime. Still waiting for the bank to send him my new card. Then he'll have to send it to wherever I happen to be. So still a little anxious about that."
"Man, that sucks," I say in wonder. "Look, if you need cash or anything, you know you can always count on Anna."
"Hey!" protests Anna.
Ross laughs, "No, I should be good until the new card comes in. Such is life. Can we please go eat?"

We find a simple little restaurant that offers a lunch of soup, rice, chicken, potatoes, and a glass of juice for 3 soles - $1 USD. After strolling around the center of Arequipa, we return to the hostel and gather around my laptop with a map of the canyon to double-check the trajectory of our hike.

Colca Canyon is located about 100 miles from the city of Arequipa in southern Perú. It was formed by the Colca river which originates high in the Andes. Although much more narrow, it has a depth twice that of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. There are a few small towns along the rim of the canyon, and several tiny villages strung along the footpaths that lead down the walls. Most of the area did not become easily accessible to outsiders until the 1980's when roads were built along the rim as part of government projects to develop hydroelectric power generation.

There are many agencies that offer one, two, three, and up to ten-day hikes around various parts of the canyon and surrounding volcanoes. But due to the proximity of villages throughout and the well-established paths that connect them, it is feasible to visit the canyon without a guide. I'm sick of guided tours, and I had spent some time back in Brazil putting together a plan for doing it all solo.

Assuming I've done good research, the plan I have will take us to some of the more beautiful parts of the area - although not the deepest. We will start by taking a bus to the small village of Yanque on Colca's rim. Here we can spend half a day seeing pre-Inca ruins and some hot springs. On the following day, we will take a bus further up the rim to the town of Cabanaconde. From here, we will spend half a day winding our way down the wall of the canyon to a place simply known as "The Oasis". There we will have lunch and maybe do some swimming. Once rested, we will climb up the other side, cross through a string of small villages, and back down to a village called San José for the night. The third day will involve an early and grueling climb back up to Cabanaconde.

In the evening, the three of us sit in our room and play cards. We pass around a bottle of wine and listen to The Clash on the only laptop that matters.

The Road to Yanque

We jump out of bed early in the morning and take quick showers in which the hot water works only in 35-second intervals. We toss our large packs into the hostel's storage room and grab a taxi to the bus station.

We wander around the bus terminal for ten minutes trying to find the tiny company that is running a morning route toward Yanque. The station is a bit crazy, so this proves to be more difficult than one might think.

We finally find it and run to the platform with only minutes to spare before departure time.

Then the bus sits there for another twenty minutes.

About three hours later, the bus stops in the small town of Chivay. I am bored out of my mind. Anna and Ross are starving. The next stop is Yanque, which is only about eight kilometers away.

After a quick discussion, we agree that we will probably run out of things to do today, anyway. So we decide to hop off the bus and just walk from Chivay to Yanque.

At the Chivay terminal, we buy a few sandwiches and hit the road.

At first, the highway between Chivay and Yanque is not terribly interesting. For the most part, the terrain resembles much of the desert we saw in Bolivia and Chile. Rocky hills and plateaus are sparsely populated with various clumps of shrubs and stubby cacti. The occasional micro (known as "combis" here in Perú) passes us from behind and beeps an offer to give us a lift. We wave and decline.

After half an hour or so, we see the beginnings of Colca Canyon as little more than a rugged ditch on the side of the road. Little by little, the ditch widens and deepens into a large crevice.

But we are still a long way off from the real spectacle of Colca.

Ross stops at the roadside for a moment to inspect one of the oddly shaped cacti.

"I hadn't seen them so crooked like this yet. And the needles are huge!"

He reaches down to pluck one of the thick, three-inch needles from one of offshoots of a cactus.


He pulls his hand away and the small lobe of the infant cactus comes with it. The needle is jammed into the tip of his forefinger, and the lobe hangs from it.

"Well that was smooth," I say, as Anna and draw near to inspect the situation.
"Well I didn't mean to get stuck. And I didn't know it would pull half the cactus away! Hell, I can't get a hold of the needle to pull it out without getting stuck by another."

The needles are huge - they look like porcupine quills. And he's right, getting a grip on the one stuck in his fingertip is going to be complicated.

"How the hell is it not just falling out from the weight of the rest?" I ask.
"I don't know! it's like it has a barb or something on the end to keep it in. Where is your knife? Need to cut the rest away so I can pull the needle out."

I reach for my knife attached to my belt and swing one of the blades out.

"No, I mean with scissors."
"I know, but mine doesn't have scissors." I look at Anna. "Does yours?"
"No, it doesn't," she says.
"Ok, well, try with yours. But be careful."

I lean in to see where I can possibly slide the blade in between the vicious little lances and cut at the needle without wriggling the tip around inside Ross's finger. I really have no idea how.

Fortunately, before I can do more damage,, the needle loses its hold on the rest of the cactus, which falls to the dusty ground. Only the long needle remains hanging from the flesh.

"Ah, there we are," says Ross with relief as he carefully takes the shaft of the needle and wrestles it free from his finger. A small bead of blood wells up around the entry/exit wound.

"Bastard," Ross says and throws the needle to the side of the road.
"This isn't the English countryside, gotta be careful," I say.
"Hopefully the poison won't take affect for a little while longer," says Anna.
"No!" I protest. "The sooner the better. I'm not dragging his lifeless corpse up out of the bottom of a canyon."
"Oh shut up," Ross says, slinging his pack back over his shoulder and starting down the road.

Eventually, we reach the outskirts of Yanque. The paved two-lane highway narrows to a dusty avenue made up of pre-fabricated concrete hexagons. The hexagons fit together in an ever-repeating pattern to form the smooth surface of the road. You see this method all over Latin America - a 21st century cobblestone street.

Either side of the avenue is lined with concrete buildings and houses with low, tin roofs. The wooden window-shutters and doors of these places are all shut tight. No one walks the street. Somewhere, something rattles in the wind.

I feel like we're a trio of outlaws in a Sergio Leone film. The men of the town are standing just behind those shutters and doors, peering at us through the cracks. They grip the stocks of Winchester 12-gauges as beads of sweat roll down their nervous temples - waiting for the right moment to ambush.

The eerie mystique of Yanque is ruined when we finally reach the main plaza. It is a large square with several people milling around and a micro orbiting in search of passengers.

We turn and walk up a different street until we find a sign for a hostel. A woman in her mid-thirties opens the large tin gate and lets us into the courtyard. This is a family's residence which has had a few rooms constructed at the back for travelers. We agree to 15 soles each ($5 USD) and the woman shows us to our room. She then gives us directions to the ruins and hot springs.

We walk out of town on a wide dirt road and eventually get to the large bridge across a narrow part of the canyon that the woman told us we would find. We cross it and make our way down a steep, grassy slope to a vantage point. Far below near the bottom of the canyon and embedded in the opposite wall, we can see the colcas. In addition to being the inspiration for the name of the canyon, colcas are large holes dug into the side of the canyon by Incan and pre-Incan societies. These holes were used for storing grain and potatoes. In some cases, larger ones were made to construct tombs for important individuals.

After climbing back up to the main road, we walk a mile or so down and find a path that leads up a hill to where the ruins are. A stray dog that had been tagging along several yards behind is now trotting alongside us. The more the merrier.

We eventually make it through a maze of footpaths and up to the top of the hill to find the ruins which consist of a group of houses and short, weathered walls. At first, the ruins don't really seem like anything built by a pre-Colombian civilization. The walls of each house are designed to support a triangular roof - much like what one might expect to see on a fairly modern cottage or cabin. But this is the way houses were built by people in that era. More convincing is the worn and curved angles of the stone walls that show just how old they are. A few of the roofs have been partially reconstructed by running logs from one end to the other and being covered with long, brown grasses and reeds.

The dog appears to be a tourist, as well. He wanders around to inspect the abandoned houses. But he never strays far from his new friends.

After exploring the ruins for a while, we sit down on some rocks to drink some water and open a package of crackers - sharing them with the dog.

Back down on the main road, we continue along the edge of the canyon. After an hour or so, we can see some natural pools surrounded in stone a little ways down inside the canyon. The pools are surrounded by several wooden cabins and a few larger buildings. A small parking lot in front of the largest building houses a handful of cars and a few micros.

"Well those are definitely spring pools," says Ross. "But it looks more like a fancy hotel."
"Yeah, I had read that there was a hotel around here somewhere," I reply. "That must be it."

It is getting late in the afternoon, so we walk down some stairs to the hotel to ask directions to the public springs. Once inside, we can see that it definitely is the lobby of a nice resort. A group of three or four Dutch tourists are at the desk asking about their room. They then leave through a door that leads to a series of boardwalks and the complex of pools. I ask the clerk how we can get to the public springs.

"Go back up to the main road and keep going," he says. "You'll see a bridge crossing the canyon - don't take it. Around the bend, you'll see another. Take that one and you'll see the springs there down in the canyon. Then you can leave to the other side to get back to Yanque."
"Great, thanks," I reply.

The three of us turn to leave.

I turn to the clerk again. "Yeah?"
"Was that your dog?"
"The dog that came in with you. He just went out the other door with those other people."

I turn and look out the picture window to where our dog is now frolicking around in a luxury resort. I guess he preferred the company of vacationers to that of a few scruffy backpackers.

"Well he was ours for about an hour. But it turns out he was a traitor."

The guy chuckles and wishes a good evening.

We reach the first bridge where the walls of the canyon take a turn. Not far beyond that, we see the second bridge. The bridge is actually more of a natural formation of the canyon which has a walkway fitted onto it. It leads out to a large outcrop of stone in the middle of the canyon where we see a building. We walk down to this building where we buy tickets to enter the pool house. There are two pools - one covered and one uncovered. Ross heads to one of the dressing rooms to strip down to his boxers (he left his swimsuit in Arequipa) and do some swimming. Anna and I left ours as well, but a quick check of the water's temperature convinces us we wouldn't want to swim, anyway. It is warm, but not warm enough to compensate for the temperature of the air, which is falling rapidly along with the sun. But as we know, Ross is impervious to the cold.

Anna and I sit on a bench with some apples and chuckle at the obvious paleness of Ross swimming around in a pool full of Peruvians. A few of them chat with him and ask where he is from. He makes a noble attempt to converse in his fledgling Spanish.

With the pool house's location inside the canyon, it gives a beautiful view through the windows. It almost feels as if we are all floating halfway down between the walls and over the river which flows below us.

After a while, I catch Ross's attention and tap my watch. We have to be back at the hostel by 7pm, where the owner is preparing dinner for us. He scrambles out, changes, and we head across another bridge to the other side of the canyon.

The sun has set and it is quite dark. There are no lights out here, so we can see the stars very well. Luckily, the road on this side is covered with a generous layer of white gravel, so it is well-illuminated by the light of the half-moon hanging low in the sky.

Back at the hostel, we sit down to a table in a small room off the side of the house. The room is separated from the rest of the home by a large curtain. We can hear the family in the next room talking over their own dinner.

We are joined by the only other guests staying here - a French guy from the Alps and his friend from Belgium. The two are ski bums that work in an Alpine ski lodge. They have been traveling around for the past few months, and will be returning to France soon - just in time for ski season. As it turns out, they will be taking the same bus in the morning to Cabanaconde.

The woman who runs the place brings out bowls of soup which we devour. I hadn't realized how hungry I was until just now. After the soup, she brings us plates piled with rice, fried potatoes, salad, and alpaca steaks. An alpaca is nearly identical to a llama - only a bit smaller. Anyone who has seen how adorable llamas are may get more than a little upset at the idea of eating them. This is understandable, but Andean people have a way of doing so that is probably far more respectable than the way the rest of us eat anything else. Llamas and alpacas are both used for their hair as well as their meat. The hair, sheared from the animal much in the same way as wool is taken from sheep, is used to make all sorts of products like pullovers and blankets. These products are so profitable and necessary in the region, that killing a young alpaca or llama for its meat would be economically foolish. So they are only slaughtered and eaten when they are very near the end of their life. This means alpacas and llamas enjoy their roughly 20-year life grazing on peaceful hillsides and in undeveloped valleys.

Anyway, the dinner - especially the steak - is delicious and not a bad deal for an additional 8 soles (~$2.66).

After dinner and a few cups of coca tea, the five of us leave the table and head to our rooms. The bus will pass by at around 5am tomorrow, and it will be a long day of walking. Sleep is vital.

We make a pact with the two guys to make sure everyone is up in time for the bus. This will be difficult as none of us have any kind of alarm. Ross and I left our mobile phones in Arequipa, and Anna's travel clock is on the fritz.

"No worries," says Ross. "I don't sleep much. And I can usually will myself to wake up at a certain time. So I'll just wake up at 4:30 and we're fine."
"Well, ok," I say. "Can't be any less reliable than my possessed Motorola."

We climb under the blankets and switch off the light. Outside, a few donkeys start hee-hawing in that ludicrous manner that only donkeys can. It sounds more hilarious every time I hear it.

"Sounds like a donkey orgy going on out there," laughs Ross.

A few more of them join in the chorus to complete the image. We giggle like idiots and soon fall asleep.


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