Exploring the Colca Canyon


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South America » Peru » Arequipa » Colca Canyon
April 2nd 2011
Published: April 20th 2011
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The bus slowed, the wheels span, the back of the bus slid sideways and we stopped. I pressed my nose to the window and my eyes strained to make out something in the darkness. The famously beautiful Colca Canyon was a black emptiness. I could just make out a darker line of a roadside bank and a few stars overhead. We sat in uncomplaining silence. It had already been an eventful trip.
I left Arequipa from the bustling bus depot in the company of a student-now-friend. I excitedly squeezed into my seat watching my colourful companions, a motly collection of locals with several bright traditional costumes amongst the plainer jeans and t-shirts. My friend set about pointing out different costumes which differ mainly in the styles of hat worn by the women. There are two main groups from the Colca Canyon, the Collawua and the Cabanas, two indeiginous groups who have inhabitated the area for more than 2,000 years. The Collawua women wear plain hats, traditionally white although I saw other colours, with a band of intricate embroidery and sequin decoration. The Cabana women wear rounded hats covered in intricate embroidery. Then we saw the plain dark coloured hats of women from Puno as well and with all these different styles of hat I decided it is a great pity hats aren't really in fashion in England.
I also saw how the women carry their babies. I am quite familiar with shawls and slings and carrying children around on the back, but this was the first time I have ever seen babies wrapped up sausage-like and strapped horizontally behind the women, without even the top of their heads poking out. I cast a few worried glances at the indestingusihable bundles but my friend assured me his mother had carried him in the same manner and since he apparently got enough oxygen to grow to adulthood I assumed the babies were fine.
We set off along the bumpy roads and for the first time I really got to appreciate the sheer size of Arequipa. The procession of streets and houses passing the window seemed never ending and even when they thinned and faded there was still the odd little farm or factory which is part of Arequipa. Beyond the city were scenes of changing coutryside, views of the mountains and wild vicuanas and alpacas grazing in groups.
The scenery became less interesting as it faded into mist and cloud. We stopped to change a tyre at one point and sat for a while before deciding to get out to see what was happening. The cold air hit me as I stepped off the bus and found myself standing in cloud, unable to see more the a few metres ahead. We were near the highest point of the Colca here. At its highest point the Colca has an altitude of over 4,000 metres. I stood awhile in the cloud, hearing the sound of an invisable waterfall and breathing the chill air. Strangely I felt better than in Arequipa despite the high altitude. The air had that cool freshness to it and felt clean which makes me wonder if my problems in Arequipa are due to pollution rather than altitude. Back home I have a ground floor room and a kitchen three flights of stairs up which never fails to make me out of breath. We stood a while longer in our misty world until the chill soon became uncomfortable and we retreated to huddle in the warmth of the bus.
We stopped in Chivay and I hurried off to find the toilets while my friend saved our sats from the large queue of people waiting to get on the bus. I walked back towards the bus and was hit by the stares of the locals. 'Mira! Mira a la Miss!' Ok so maybe standing in the Colca night in a t-shirt was a little sily, but I was overheated from the bus and the winter coats of the locals was taking it a bit too far, it wasn't that cold. One young man at the front was soon intent on pushing the silly foreiger back into the warmth of the bus and I got on ahead of the crowd and took over seat guarding duty, having a momentary panic at one point when the engine started and I thought we were about to leave. My friend arrived back grinning and saying he had a surprise for me. Squeezing back into his place he produced a plastic bottle and cup. The yellow liquid with dark green leaves soaking at the bottom was coca tea. As the new people on the bus squeezed into the standing room and hung over us I was presented with a flimsy plastic cup of steaming liquid. Two seconds later the bus jolted to life and while my friend eagerly watched to see my reaction to my first taste of coca m brain was occupied with two thought 'moving bus... boiling water'. Fortunately being English and with years of practise of gulping down too hot tea I swallowed half the up quickly to avoid the danger of the water sloshing over the sides of the cup. The tea was good and far better than caffeine at waking me up. Having fallen into a half slumber on the long cramped bus ride I suddenly felt wide awake and was back to chatting and peering into the night to try and see things.
We fortunately lost the majority of the other passengers at the next stop and continued in the half empty bus relieved to be able to stretch our legs out a bit.
It was a while later that the bus slid and stopped. We soon discovered it was because it had apprently rained a lot recently and the road was a mud slide. The bus strained and groan, rolled forward and slid backwards. A few people got out to investigate and I saw my friend clambering up the slopes at the side of the road trying to get signal on his phone. Soon most of the men were outside, talking and discussing the problem and shining torches at the bus. The bus rumbled into life again and then the engine sputtered out and the bus slid backwards a little further. A few more people got off. The driver started the engine again, the bus moved forward and then suddenly the back of the bus slid sharply to the side, shouts were heard outside from the presumably near squished spectators and we stopped again. A couple more peple left the bus. Suddenly glancing around I realised I was only person on the bus and hurried to get off too. For all I knew out there in the darkness was a steep drop and the next time the bus moved I'd go sliding off with it. I yanked the door open and stepped down, my foot sinking into mud. I stood close to the other two women in their long embroidered skirts, the beautiful material hanging just short of practical, mud covered shoes. I squelched around a bit to discover that my trekking trainers have fantastic grip! So fantastic that within a few paces I had collected large amounts of mud on my shoes and my feet were twice as heavy as before. I futilely kicked at rocks and clumps of earth trying to remove the sticky mond from the sole of my shoe.
My friend found me and we stood in the darkness, the headlights of the bus illuminating the road a short way ahead but otherwise we were in complete blackness. We took to looking upwards at the skies, our eyes adjusting and the stars slowly appearing to wink at us. I searched for a familiar constellation but was unsuccessful, the night sky here seems completely different. My friend pointed out the Southern Cross and told me how his grandparents used it to find their way home at night whent hey'd been out too late with the animals. 10 minutes later he pointed out that he could see several other crosses and maybe I shouldn't trust his astronomy skills after all.
Eventually two men who'd walked back to the last town reappeared up the muddy slop bearing torches and spades. People set about moving the mud from around the wheels and throwing gravel and dry earth down on top. The driver climbed in, started the engine, and we all hastily backstepped in the mud as the bus slid too close for comfort.
The men went back to work and the second time the bus drove some way up the road before stopping. After clearing around the wheels again we were all ushered back onto the bus, each off us hurriedly trying to kick off the worst of the mud on the steps of the bus but ultimately dragging half of it on board and treading it along the centre aisle. We were all shooed towards the back seats which was apparently going to help the bus move uphill. I couldn't quite work out the theory behind this but we did finally seem to start moving and not long after arrived in town.
Stepping out into the dark, cold plaza we hefted our bags across the street to the only hostel. As basic as hostels come we found a room with beds lying under a spectatular damp patch and a bathroom down the hall which consists of a semi broken toilet and a shower which is a broken pipe leaking freezing water... I intend not to wash for the next few days!
We woke early in the morning, even indoors the air felt fresh and clean and the sun was shining through the window. We started the day with breakfast at my friend's grandparent's house. We trotted across the plaza and onto the streets of the town - each one a tiny track, part earth and part pebbles. The town is small and simple. The streets unmarked and most houses surrounded by plots of land and a few animals. We arrived at his grandparent's house, a few cows and donkeys peering at us over a stone wall as we walked in, stepping over a large branch which serves as the front gate. We stood in a square space surounded by three little buildings made of adobe which is resistant to earthquakes. My friend called out and his grandmother appeared, a tiny old woman in bright clothes, ducking through a dim doorway into the sunlight. After a collection of hellos she shooed us off while she prepared breakfast.
The house lies at the edge of town and beyond are earth terraces covered in tiny plots of crops and beyond the mountains. We walked to the end of the path and into the fields, picking our way between plants and over stones and walking up the running stream and climbing over low stone walls eventually clambering up to sit on some rocks in the sunshine and look back at where we had come. The town was sleepy and peaceful in the early morning. The dew soaked land sparkled in the sunlight, insects hummed by the cheerful yellow flowers while birds sang interrupted only by the odd donkey brew or cow lowing. Eventually we returned for our breakfast, soon discovering that with no obvious path to follow it wasn't so easy to find our way back even though the house was still in sight.
We stumbled through the little fields, briefly having to return after a field of corn snatched my cardigan from around my waist. We arrived back at the house and entered one of the low buildings. We sat at the table, surrounded by colourful posters and calenders hanging of the natural walls. His grandmother returned and bent down to look at our wet, grass covered shoes and slap at the sodden legs of our jeans muttering in Spanish or Quechua as she scolded us like children who've got their clothes dirty before the day has begun. She disappeared, coming back from somewhere with a pair of clean dry trainers which she tried to foist on me. Thinking my own shoes would ultimately be more comfortable for trekking in I politely refused meeting with dispproving resignation as she again left still muttering. I had to smile. No matter how different the culture grandmothers everywhere are reassuringly familiar, trying to take care of everyone at once.
We settled down for a breakfast of bread and home made cheese washed down with cammomile tea. My friend's cousin was amusing himself at grandma's house, playing with a plastic digger he was forceably using to make holes in the packed dirt floor. The grandfather came by to say hello and when breakfast was done we wandered back out into the sunshine to see the animals.
As the grandmother was starting to milk the cow I found myself getting a lesson to. First she let the calf suckle a little to get the milk flowing and then tied the calf by his mother's head and squatted down with a large plastic bucket. My friend helpfully relieved me of my camera and grinning pushed me towards my morning chore. I watched my teacher and copied her managing successfully to milk the cow, but nowhere near as efficiently as the professional! It'd probably take me all morning to get enough milk for drinking and making cheese!
Eventually we said our goodbyes, briefly returned to the hostel and then set off across the plaza, buying bottles of water to take with us. We walked along the tiny streets, soon following a road that led between beautiful countryside. A few local people were out, herding their cows or sheep along the road to better grazing pastures. One little boy was riding a pony alongside his father and their sheep. We walked on down towards the river, the scenery surrounding us so perfect I couldn't stop gazing at the views. The fields around are lush and green, patches of bright yellow show where flowers are growing or rapeseed is being cultivated. The mountains form a comforting solid and majestic ring about the town, a few snowy peaks touching the whispy white clouds which also sink low enough to form ribbons around the tops of the hills.
Down at the river we detoured a little to view tombs in the cliff face. Dark little squares show where tombs have been cut into the rock, many of them high up and so difficult to reach they have never been explored. We continued along and paused again by the next bridge, sitting in a small shelter with beautiful views of the surrounding hills, and munching on coca leaves before beginning our ascent. After nearly an hour and a half of walking began the upward part of our trek. It wasn't long before I had to admit the altitude was affecting me. My legs felt heavier than normal and I suddenly realised how slowly I was walking. My friend was soon ahead of me and as I watched my own lazy legs I realised my normal long stride was reduced to just barely putting one foot in front of the other.
We stopped at another small shelter and sat soaking in the patterns and colours while munching on mandarins. Upwards again and I sadly had to keep asking to go slower which was very frustrating. The steep pathway was also giving me problems with my knee which I have hurt badly due to one of the dogs at home deciding to snatch my slipper from my foot as I walked upstairs carrying plates. For a brief time I was really concerned I wouldn't be able to do it and was really upset that I might ruin the day by having to turn back.
We perserved and everytime we found a level stretch of path I was fine, slowing down again at every new upward stretch. The views were always perfect and it wasn't only tiredness that made me stop, every turn brought a new perspective to the scene before us and I was constantly reaching for my camera. An hour later we had made it nearly to the top. We paused by a large stone carved seat and another nice view point. We also found a cactus fruit on the ground and carefully using a penknife to avoid the sharp spikes carved it open and ate the soft insides off the edge of the blade.
Round the corner we saw the place we'd come to visit, a pre-Incan fort built onto the hill and so well camoflaged it took me a minute to realise I wasn't just looking at the next hill. We followed the path downwards and then climbed the steps to the fort. Fortaleza de chimpa is an entirely stone creation built by the local Collawua people, and carefully restored. It consists of a surrounding wall and lookout point, and a few tiny stone huts, possibly for sentries to sleep in.
We walked inside and squeezed up a tiny staircase to a large flat expanse above surrounded by a low wall and affording the most majestic views of the canyon. After taking photos doing condor-impressions while the wind buffetted us we returned through the tiny staircase sitting down and crawling and walked on, clambering past the main wall and down a tiny track leading to an even better view point. The little track led downwards on a small outcrop filled with flowers and narrow steps led around a large rock at the edge. Climbing these steps we found a small platform, recently constructed wooden barriers lashed together with strips of animal skin marking the edge, although my friend stated that last time he'd climbed further. The wind was strong and cold but the views were incredible. We took turns to climb to the highest point of the rock but the view couldn't really be improved. The steep slopes of the mountains ran down to a deep point, different shades of green and grey overlapping each other in a spectactular scene.
Eventually we returned the way we had come, following the same paths downwards. Going down was far easier and I found I could walk at normal speed without tiring or losing my breath. Over by the farthest town storm clouds were gathering and we could see rain in the distance. We paused briefly at a little cave we'd passed on the way up, joking that if the rain came too close we could move in especially since someone had even built a traditional oven in the shelter.
We took one more detour on the route down to view an ancient burial site. The human skeletons were probably uncovered by an earthquake but the more recent desecration is sadly very human. We picked our way along a tiny half hidden trail and found the skeletons by some rocks. A skull stood on a rock and another behind, laughably dressed in a modern hat. Other bones and half broken skulls lay scattered around the area. I was tempted to rearrange the poor broken bodies but wasn't entirely sure where to start. We eventually moved on wanting to return to town just in case the rain came our way.
Crossing the river we returned to the little shelter hut just as a few drops of rain began. A group of sheep began follwing us, making their way home. I packed away the camera safely and we sat watching the river and listening to the quiet sounds of nature. The rain never really grew any heavier and we were able to walk home relatively dry. The route back seemed longer than I remebered. The sheep persistantly followed us all the way to the next bridge. As we returned to the town we had to walk up a very steep slope and the simple act of going up wore me out completely. I stopped half way and collapsed on a grassy noll. We were sitting relaxing again when I noticed a dog approaching, tongue lolling out and tail wagging. Before I could give a warning the dog was on us, enthusiasticly leaping around us, between us and on us. Laughing we staggered to our feet and moved on.
We finally arrived back in the town, some 5 and a half hours after leaving, no doubt due to my pathetic trekking ability today as I was told at the stat we'd be about 3 hours.
For dinner we went to the house of my friend's aunt. We met the little boy on the street who led us up and down the street pretending he'd lost his house. Not so funny after five and a half hours walking! We were let in the back gate and into the main room where we perched on a bed, the one opposite occupied by a sticky child with yogurt on her face and an indulgent father. We were well fed. I was given a large bowl of rice and vegetables and on finally finishing was confronted with a huge bowl of boiled sweetcorn and more homemade cheese.
We eventually left for the hostel and passed the rest of the evening playing half remembered word games on a piece of scrap paper pulled from my rucksack, me in Spanish and my friend in English. I gave up after I failed to name a country beginning with 'B' despite the fact I'm hoping to visit Bolivia soon!


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