Colca Canyon, Peru

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April 24th 2015
Published: May 8th 2015
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After seeing the floating islands, we left Puno the same day we arrived. There was not much else to do there and we wanted to spend some time near Arequipa before we had to be in Cusco for the Inca Trail. Arequipa is quite a nice town, with a beautiful main square (often called Plaza de Armas in South American cities). Most sights in the city itself are museums and churches and you get some views of the surrounding volcanoes. Arequipa is at a relatively “low” altitude of 2400m.

For most backpackers, including ourselves, Arequipa is not a place to spend much time, but as a transit point to Colca Canyon. Though some people and guidebooks make comparisons to the Grand Canyon, we found it to be quite different and beautiful in its own way. We took the regular bus from Arequipa to Cabanaconde, which lies at the edge of the Canyon. The bus ride was quite an adventure in itself. Half an hour into the ride we stood still aside the road for no apparent reason. After a while we decided to ask, and found out that the road was blocked by protesters which had set up camp in the middle of this major road. They were protesting against mining in the area, and wanted to protect agriculture. After half and hour to an hour the bus driver decided that things wouldn't change anytime soon, and so he took a road around it. Not easy, since not all these roads were suitable for big buses, and we passed a bus that had gotten stuck trying to round a sharp curve on an incline. We made it through alright and eventually managed to leave the outskirts of Arequipa into the surrounding highlands.

The last stretch of the ride, from Chivay to Cabanaconde is the most beautiful. The highland slowly makes way for the canyon as the Rio Colca digs deeper and deeper into the earth. Imagine this surrounded by agricultural fields on terraces with all shades of green. Some red from quinoa ready for the harvest, light green from young plants and darker green from grass in unused fields. Everywhere in between flowers of many different colors. With all these fields came the farming people that got on and off the bus with the musty smell of earth and animals. Beautiful people, with their hands hardened by the hard work, and their faces worn by the elements. That the bus took 2 hours more than planned was not really a problem, as we really enjoyed the views in and outside the bus.

We did two things while we were in Cabanaconde: hiked into and along the canyon and went to Cruz del Condor. The “Condor Cross” is a cross next to a steep part of the canyon cliff. Probably because of the morning thermal winds it is possible to see many Andean Condors here. These birds are up to one meter high when standing upright and can have a wingspan of 3 meters. Together with the snake and puma the condor is one of the totem animals in Inca mythology, it is a symbol for the heavenly. At Cruz del Condor we saw the condors flying in the distance, at first, and later very close by when some settled on a rock close to the viewpoint and flew over our heads. Seeing them like that makes you understand why the Andean people are so impressed with this animal.

The hike into Colca canyon was also quite nice. 1000m down and 1000m up in the same day, but with a relaxing break in between. At the bottom of the canyon is an oasis with a small hotel built around it. For a small fee we joined for lunch and a swim in the pool. Back at the top we found that the owner of our hostel has a baby alpaca as a pet called “Nieve”: very cute!

The way back to Arequipa was unfortunately quite frustrating. The public buses that were supposed to go from Cabanaconde to Arequipa did not show up, and the tourist minibuses were all booked full by the time we found out. After some waiting and confusion about what options we had, we ended up paying too much for a “collectivo” to Chivay with some other tourists that got stuck. Just outside Cabanaconde we passed a large tourist bus, which we could have taken all the way to Arequipa, but by then it was too late.. In any case, after some wait in Chivay and another minibus we still ended up in Arequipa quite fast. Some days are good, and some days are bad. In the end you realize it is mostly a matter of perspective though; for example, the way back was a lot faster than the way there, and we had a pretty good view from Chivay to Arequipa since we were sitting in front. I guess what was different is that we had a night bus in the evening from Arequipa to Cusco, so that did increase the pressure a bit.

But: we got the night bus and ended up in Cusco the next day!

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