El Condor Pasa y mas

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South America » Peru » Arequipa » Colca Canyon
September 19th 2011
Published: September 20th 2011
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As the more alert of my dear readers will be aware, this blog is a few days overdue. This is not down to forgetfulness or lack of interest by your correspondent – nay, it is down to the fact that my muscles are only starting to work again!!!

Oh the pain, the pain. Oh the agony, the agony, oh the…..

Oh well, I suppose that I had better start at the beginning. Bloody hell I was in agony. Not just normal pain but really sore, ouch type of pain.


This tale starts and ends in Arequipa. ‘tis the in between stages that I mean to entertain, educate and inform you with.

Very early on a Monday morning (2.30am), we were up and dressed and sat in the hostal lobby awaiting a bus that was to take us to our destination. This, I find, is always a good way to start a trip. In true South American style it arrived at twenty past three instead.

The plan was simple. To visit El Mirador de Condors (a place to see condors !!), then a three day trek in Colca Canyon. What could be simpler than that?

Possibly not having to trek up and down a damned canyon twice the depth of the Grand Canyon would be simpler – but I get ahead of myself – oh the pain.

After a few hours (local time) the bus arrived at a small town called Chivay, where we were treated to breakfast. A few cups of coffee reinvigorated interest in life – the road to here was long, with many a winding turn, so sleep was impossible. I did try but I was sat beside an American who got car sick and spent the whole journey fighting down bile. Lovely! Anyway, after breakfast we set off again.

The bus passed through the Colca valley which I did not think looked very deep at all. This was because it was not the canyon – that was another 50km along the road !!!

We stopped at a few touristy type places along the way. One village had nothing to show for itself apart from young and old ladies in traditional costume holding up decorated llamas for photographs. I laughed out loud as our bus stopped about 50m past all these ladies, so we were treated to the sight of them picking up their llamas and running as fast as they could to be first at our door !!! It was like the Grand National except not in Liverpool, not with fences and not with horses – apart from that identical.

More time was spent/wasted visiting a small church outside of which there were more vendors selling tat, than there were people living in the village. I was getting impatient. Condors were finishing their breakfast and waiting for me. Thankfully, we did not tarry too long and set off to the mirador.

The viewpoint (this is what mirador means) was perched at the beginning of the canyon. Suddenly the shallow valley transformed into a ravine of 700 metres. For the elder amongst us (you know who you are) a metre is just under three feet, so as you can see, I am talking about a long way down.

Our guide on the way had been putting out several disclaimers that he could not guarantee that we would see any condors. We were told that it depended on the temperature, thermal updrafts, the time and whether they could be bothered flying. Your correspondent has to admit to feeling quite concerned about this. Condors, as has been mentioned previously, were a driving force to travelling in this continent.

A few words about condors. Bloody big!!!.

They grow up to 3 metres long and weigh up to 14kgs (about two stone). They do not fly by flapping wings, but merely glide on the currents for hours on end. They mate for life and will live up to 60-80 years.
With the depressing words of the guide in mind we arrived at the mirador.

Did we see any? Was I a happy camper? Oh yes. We were treated to the sight of a dozen of them, old and young, soaring around us. They would disappear into the canyon, only to reappear a few feet above our heads. The first thing that you would notice was a huge shadow blocking out the sun and then hear an almighty WHOOOOSHH as it swept right over you. The only movement that you could see was as they regally moved their head from side to side, almost as though picking out which tourist would do for lunch. At one point I was quite unsettled as this huge bird focused on me – thankfully in situations like this I always carry a small puppy or kitten as a suitable replacement!!!

If I had my way, I would still be stood there just now. It wasn’t just because I had watched a programme on the BBC, but because there was a serene beauty about them which seemed to sum up exactly what nature is about. We have some pictures on here, but they cannot do justice to the extreme beauty that we were watching that day.

As it was, I had to be moved on (kicking and screaming) as I had a date with the Colca Canyon – oh the pain !!!

For your information, here are a few words about the Colca Canyon. At it’s deepest point, it is 4100 metres to the bottom. The Grand Canyon is roughly 2000 metres. There are four deeper canyons in the world, mainly in Nepal, but the Colca is the deepest inhabited one. The part that I stupidly agreed to trek down and then back up was only 1500 metres – only.

Lee (a friend from Watford – bless him), Wendy and I were dropped off at a point and met our guide. She was from Arequipa, was about 5 feet tall and was like a spritely mountain goat – except a lot prettier. Her name was (and probably still is) Patti. She spent a while explaining the history of the villages at the bottom of the canyon, pointed out our route and then spoke about the physical characteristics of the canyon. “It is damn deep” I thought. So, being fully equipped with knowledge, a rucksack, a bottle of water and a blazing sun, off I set.

Patti was good company as we started the trek. I spoke to her at length about our travels so far and about beer and football. She complimented me on my very good Spanish, but she hadn’t realised that was the extent of my conversation, so I shut up then and dropped back to the other two.

Walking a kilometre and a half along a straight road would not even be a difficult task for your correspondent, but sadly this was not straight – except for down. The path we followed zig-zagged it’s way down the (at times sheer) side of the canyon, and at times the path was merely a few feet wide. It required great concentration unless you wanted to take the quick way down.

I think I lost my concentration after about 5 minutes. I was looking up at the sky wondering if I could see any more condors. The answer was no, but I then saw the dramatic drop on my left as I tripped over a rock and lost my balance. I will leave it to your imagination if I survived or not.

While Patti was talking to us before starting, she had explained some rules of the mountain. These were very important and could possibly save your life. Sadly, neither Lee nor I were listening at that point, so missed the part about mules. Apparently, if you meet mules coming up or going down the mountain, one is supposed to lean against the side of the mountain, rather than stand at the side of the drop. This is due to the fact that mules can be mulish and push people over the edge. So, when we met a mule herder and his mob of mules, Lee and I stood on the wrong side. Patti shouted at us, Wendy shouted at us, the mule hereder shouted at us and the mules looked at us as though they really couldn’t be bothered one way or the other.

The trek down was arduous and at times quite dangerous. The readers who know us well, will be surprised, nay, astonished by the next piece of information. One of us fell three times on the way down. After the third time, this person was very shaky and had to proceed slowly. “it must be Gordon” you all shout, but no, it was……Wendy !!! Yes, I was as sure footed as a sure footed biped can be, while W showed me how I usually walk down the side of a canyon.

After a few hours or so, we made it to the bottom and stopped for a breather at a bridge before crossing over the Rio Colca. There are many lists of things to do before you are dead. I would like to add trekking in The Andes. A big WOW is the only way to describe the experience.

Stopping for the aforementioned breather was not good for your correspondent. Due to the fact that we had walked down the side of the mountain, it made sense that we would have to walk up a short way on the other side to our accommodation. Sadly, all my muscles had seized up (it is always more difficult walking down than up methinks), so the “little climb of 20 minutes” promised by Patti took me about an hour !!!

Suddenly though, a thought hit me. I glanced to my left at the mountain I had walked down and the realisation that I was going to have to walk back up the thing made me feel dizzy and I had to sit down. It was monstrous with no escalator or lift to assist. There was no easy tourist path either, only the trace of a path snaking up the way. This distressed me, and so, when we reached our cabins to spend the night, I decided that drinking beer was the best answer – Lee agreed. This means I cannot give you a detailed description of the hamlet where we stayed. I do remember, however, that this was our wedding anniversary (indeed I gained points by searching out an anniversary card in Arequipa to present to Wendy) and that after we told Patti, she decorated our bed with a big heart made out of flower petals. It was certainly an adventurous way to spend our special day from 13 years ago.

The second day of the trek was more relaxing, except for having to climb a gorge first thing in the morning that nearly killed me and the constant view of the nightmare trek awaiting me the next day. Our path took us through a few small villages, where we saw the local school (one class of 6-12 year olds) and a hospital. The hospital had a slight problem. There were no roads in the canyon and no access by helicopter. Indeed, if you had to get more serious treatment, you were strapped to a stretcher and carried up the side of the mountain that we had come down. I made a mental note to stay safe and healthy – although it would have saved me having to walk up the next day.

Day two was highlighted by our accommodation. It was an area right at the bottom of the canyon (1500m down, but still 2500m above sea level) and called El Oasis. It was (and probably still is) a collection of huts with a dining room and a bar, but, and I mean a big BUT dear readers, there was a fantastic swimming pool. As you can imagine Wendy’s eyes glazed over and before Lee and I had the chance to drink beer, she had gone to our hut , got changed and plunged in to the pool. Surrounded by mountains and a deep blue sky, she was in her element swimming back and forth. For the readers concerned about Lee and I – fear not !!! We got our beer.

That night, I found out that one could hire a mule for the climb the next morning. I was seriously tempted. I had been looking at the route I was going to have to take and was truly very worried. I did not think I would manage it and although the thought of sitting on the back of a mule all the way up was not appealing, it did seem like a better option for me. I had visions of collapsing rather badly and hurting myself. I make no bones about it – I was scared.
In the end, Lee and I had drank so much beer that we had no money left to hire a mule, so walking it was. Patti told us that we had to start at 4.30am as it would get far too hot for climbing later.

At 4.30am on the third day we set out. It was pitch black, so we all had torches to see where we were going. It required concentration to follow the path which didn’t help me as I was too busy looking at the stars in the dark sky and concentrating more on breathing. I think I went through a whole ventolin (ask an asthma sufferer for details) this day.
Your correspondent had discussed the climb with Wendy and Lee the night before. It was decided that I should just take my time and stop whenever I wanted. This was great advice to me, although I do not think they imagined what I am capable of when it comes to taking my time !!

Even in the darkness, I could see the outline of the top of the mountain way, way above me. I gritted my teeth, put my best foot forward and stopped for a rest – this could take sometime. Patti had estimated that it would take us about 3 and a half hours to complete the climb. “More like seven or eight” I said between gasps.

As the climb and morning went on, the route became steeper and steeper. We were overtaken by many people and by the mules with their passengers. How I looked longingly at those mules (only as a mode of transport of course) but , I reckoned, we must be half way by now. Sadly, this was not the case. Only a quarter of the way was completed.

At this point we must thank Lee who could have raced up the canyon in a much quicker fashion, but he waited for us patiently and always kept an eye on us.

I kept plodding along, making up new swearwords and curses as I went. Then to my horror, the sun started to come up. Okay, it meant we had beautiful views of the mountains, but it meant that the temperature suddenly rocketed. To travel lightly, I had kept the same clothes on for three days which was lucky as the amount of sweat I was now producing had no effect on the already rancid smell coming from me – I think that is why so many people rushed past on the way to the top.

With W’s help and encouraging words we got closer and closer. She would wait for me at corners of the path and let me catch my breath and tell my legs that there was not too far to go, when suddenly after only three hours and forty minutes we were at the summit !!!!

There was no collapsing to the ground. No bursting in to tears. Only the purchasing of a twix bar to share and look down at the path that had been conquered . Our legs hated us, our lungs were burning, but what a three days.

Having just read what G has read I would like to add that although I’d like to think I was being the supportive and encouraging wife he has described me to be, I was struggling too!!!!

Additional photos below
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20th September 2011

El Condor Pasa y mas
Well all credit to you both, it certainly looks horrendous. Mind you the mules dont look a safer option, but I suppose they would have saved some calf pain! x Taffy
20th September 2011

What a fantastic journey you two are having and I\'m really enjoyed the photos of the condors, having seen \'that programme\' on the TV. I think you two should take up travelling full time as your blogs are fab. Look forward to hearing of further adventures and take care. Jo x
28th September 2011

I must be the elder you refer to (or one of them anyway)
A metre is just over 3 feet (not under) - 3'3" actually. I'm putting my anorak away now.
29th September 2011

that is the last time I try self effacing irony

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