The Colca Canyon

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August 15th 2011
Published: August 28th 2011
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The 3am start is a bit brutal but necessary if we want to avoid walking in the dark tonight. We try to get some shut-eye on the 3 hour drive. Iv agreed the ground rules with our fellow trekkers the previous day that there would be no early morning chatter but he is startled from a semi-sleep by a nightmare that takes him back to that first trot on a horse. It has been prompted by the crazy shaking of the bus as it tries to navigate the mountain dirt road. We have never been on anything so bumpy. We try protecting our bum cheeks by sitting on layer upon layer of jumpers, fleeces, towels......anything. But it is to no avail. We ponder whether the ´white finger´condition can affect the whole body. How the bus stays in one piece we´ll never know. So we´re so pleased to arrive at our first stop. It takes a while for the view of the horizon to settle but, when it does, we find ourselves staring into the depths of the Colca Canyon.

The canyon is twice the depth of the Grand Canyon in the U.S. We are stood on the cliff edge above it´s narrowest section. As the canyon narrows the wind is funnelled into ever-greater speeds, making this spot the perfect place to find a condo of condors soaring high on the thermals rising from the depths (yes, we did google the collective. Good one, eh? Wonder if it applies similarly to others...a mul of mules? a rabbi of rabbits?). Condors, like vultures, feed on the discarded prey of other beasts, and its evidently feeding time. There are seven or eight in sight when we stop, swooping over the hundreds of tourists beneath whose eyes and lenses follow them as if it were a wimbledon tennis match. We´re confident of not being mistaken for prey as we´re still vibrating from the journey. After half an hour of gawping and trying to take photos of each other with a condor in the background (very tricky) we head back to the bumpmobile.

The next stop is for breakfast, where we are encouraged to get a good fill in readiness for the exertions ahead. The bus then drops us off for the final time beside a couple of mules standing at the roadside, who will be charged with the unenviable task of bearing all of our backpacks during the trek. Their guardian, Ronald, woke up at 3am this morning to meet us with his mules from his village deep in the canyon. We learn from our guide, Carlitos, that Roland's village will be our target today, and we will be spending the night with his family.

A short walk from the drop off takes us to a vantage point from where Carlitos outlines the trek itinary. Far away in the distance, at the bottom of the canyon, we can just about make out some villages. He points out the places on the other side of the canyon which we will be aiming for, and explains how mountain spring water, channelled by human intervention, opens up possibilities for fruit growing and for the keeping of lifestock. Locals evidently think nothing of popping between the villages spread across the cliffsides to trade produce, greetings and gossip, but the six hour trek ahead seems daunting to us. It looks a long way down. There´s a poignant moment as we´re about to head off when we talk to a beautiful elderly couple who are sat silently on a bench contemplating the canyon below. After they have smilingly enquired where we are from and where we are going, we ask the same of them. They tell us that they are from one of the villages below, but that their old legs are now too infirm to walk up and down the steep canyon sides, so they have just come to sit and be still and be close to what was once their home. We leave them to their memories and make our first tentative steps along the winding dirt path which will take us to the canyon floor.

Our group is made up of us, an American family of six, our guide Carlos, his helper Jaem, two mules, and their guardian Ronald. Carlitos leads the way. He´s fantastically enthusiastic - a little ball of energy and fun. He´s a very short man - something he evidently has a complex about. He doesn´t really help himself by continually singing the theme tune to The Smurfs. But we´re quickly endeared to him and his mannerisms. His responses to questions are usually threefold. ¨Sure, sure, sure¨, being a favourite we soon find ourselves instinctively adopting. His tendency to say ¨take your time¨ three times in quick succession always has the opposite to the desired effect, and it´s not long before we´ve built up a good sweat, our legs are wobbling from walking steeply downhill continuously, and we´re joining the family´s younger children in asking ¨how much further?¨every thirty seconds or so. After an hour or two we see the bridge we need to cross on the canyon floor, but we worry that it may be a mirage - however many zig-zaging u-bends we make, it seems to remain a stubborn dot in the distance. Carlitos encourages us with ¨only half an hour more¨every 30 minutes or so.

After about four hours of walking, we do finally reach the floor of the canyon and make it to the bridge. We´re baking under a fierce sun - it´s like a midsummer´s day on Mercury. So we find a spot of shade under which we wimper for a while. It is not long before Carlitos is up and about saying, ¨Take your time, take your time, take your time¨, so we assume it must be time to get moving. He breaks into another rendition of the Smurfs theme tune as he scampers up a steep traverse. Walking uphill is less painful on our poor knees, and the landscape has changed for the better, providing spots of shade here and there. The walk down was almost entirely on scorched ochre sand and stone, and we´re caked in dust. We have had to navigate around sheer drops and taken care not to rest under precarious overhangs. Iv wasn´t sufficiently thorough in his application fo the factor 50, so the very tips of his ears have turned to crackling. We can't seem to drink enough water to stay hydrated. Goodness knows what it would be like to do the trek in the height of Peruvian summer. But now we find ourselves in the lush greens that have been nurtured by the high mountain water. And before long we make out the mud huts, corrugated iron roofs, and terraced orchards of the first village. We come across an elderly, traditionally dressed lady who has a jolly big bucket of refreshments. ¨Cervaza?¨, she enquires through a gappy-toothed smile. ¨No, no, no Señora, we´ll have that 5 litre bottle of water please¨. We stop for lunch. It´s three o´clock. Carlitos breaks the news to us that it´s another hour or two uphill to the next village, where we will be spending the night. We've been so fixated on the reaching the bridge, that we hadn't appreciated we'd have much further to go. Bollocks!

Knowing we´re on the last leg of the day somehow spurs us on up the hill, and after a couple more hours walking, we find ourselves being introduced to Mauricio and Rufina - Roland´s parents and our hosts for the night. Their welcome is warm. We get a similarly enthusiastic reception from Ricco the dog, whose primary role is guardian of the chickens. The family have a running battle with the dastardly fox, who preys on their humble collection of livestock (four hens, a cock, an ewe, a lamb, and some soon-to-be-eaten guinea pigs). As the smiling Rufina warms our soup over her fire, Carlitos draws our attention to the stuffed fox nailed to the shed. He tells the tale of how Rufina spotted the fox in a field one morning and struck it dead with the throw of her first stone. A formidable lady. We won´t be leaving here without paying our bill, that´s for sure.

We take our showers in an outbuilding, eat our rustic suppers, and make our way to our very basic beds by torchlight. We´re distracted briefly by the stunning night sky, completely amazed by the abundance and clarity of the unspoilt twinkling canvas above us. But we're exhausted and can barely keep our eyes open. We stumble to our shack, where we crash out. It´s 8pm!

The comparatively leisurely start of 7.30am the next day is welcome, as are the sweet breakfast pancakes conjured up by Carlitos. Our sleep was not completely uninterrupted - the crackly sound of a male voice booming over a loudspeaker at 4.30am woke some of our party. Carlitos explains over breakfast that is was the village mayor announcing the date and time of a forthcoming meeting to discuss new irrigation proposals. The time of the rallying call was in recognition of the fact that most of the village inhabitants would be up and out working the land by 5am.

We spend a relaxed morning picking fruit in Rufina's orchards - avocados, oranges, lemons and limes - which we put into the traditional llacllia tied to Iv´s back. Kate is then invited to try on the Peruvian traditional dress - layers of vividly-coloured, embroidered fabrics, complemented by a hybrid bucket/cowboy hat. Iv is poised with camera to capture brilliant future blackmailing material when a chicken is also thrust into Kate´s hands to complete the pose. Classic.

We pack up the mules and make the two hour walk towards the oasis, where a beautiful cold swimming pool await us and where we will spend our second night in the canyon. We arrive and have a late lunch after a blissful swim and then have a quick rest before dinner. It´s dark and we find our way by torch or candlelight. It´s another moonless night and we spend longer tonight admiring the night sky. The hazy band of light that is the Milky Way arches over our heads, capturing the light of everything that twinkles between us and the edge of the galaxy. It´s magical and we spend some moments thanking these lucky starts for all that is precious to us. We go to bed happy.

The rest is brief. Iv is up at 4.45am to climb, by headlamp, out of the canyon, before the sun is up. Kate has wisely opted to ride a mule rather than walk, an option which has the added bonus of an extra hour in bed. The climb for the boys is hard work - heads down, little talking, lungs exploding. An hour or so in and the sun begins to rise, throwing long shadows over the rugged peaks, and we reach the top within two and a quarter hours. The ladies arrive about half an hour later. It's amazing how sure-footed the mules have been on the narrow, steep paths. It's pretty alarming when they insist on taking the very outside edge of the hairpin bends, leaving their riders leaning over 100 metre drops without reigns to clutch before stepping back inside the turn and continuing the climb. One of the ladies suffers from vertigo, so Carlitos has gallantly walked/jogged alongside the mules to provide extra reassurance. The poor guy can hardly breathe by the time they reach the top - the mules have lived up to their stubborn billing by refusing to stop all the way up.

After a satisfying rest and photos up top, we all head for brekkie (which involves a brief and rather exciting chase by a bull on the way across the fields at the top) and then get back on the bus that will take us back to Arequipa. There are random tourist stops on the way home - we enjoy resting our tired limbs in the mineral rich waters of the hot srpings, and donating a sol or two in exchange for photos taken with llamas and eagles. But we´re soon over it. We´ve loved the trek but are in desperate need of a shower and a decent bed. Get us back, get us back, get us back!


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