Colca Canyon is one of Peru’s main attractions, the second deepest canyon in the world (over twice as deep as the Grand Canyon!). It was originally settled by Quechua and Aymara-speaking cultures, until the Incans arrived and absorbed them through intermarriage in the 14th century. Hundreds of years of agriculture and terrace-farming in the steep terrain make the landscape both beautiful but also fascinating.
The condor population is as revered here as in Chile, and we purposely booked a ride to the canyon with a tour bus that left Arequipa at 3:00am in order to arrive by 9:00am at Cruz del Condor, a spot within the canyon where the condors like to congregate. We stood, fascinated, for 40 minutes watching the condors take lazy figure-8s around this small area, seemingly for fun. Hundreds of other tourists crowded into the viewing area, but the whirring of cameras clicking and the gasping of excited Frenchmen weren’t enough to dampen the beauty of the moment. There is always a sort of sympathy when watching wild animals, but in this case, sympathy was replaced by pure envy. What a life!
Then–the descent! After experiencing the steepness of Torres del Paine, my knees were slightly more prepared thanks to some $1 knee braces I found at a street market in Arica. Fortunately, however, Peruvians understand the concept of switchbacks (probably because these trails have existed for hundreds of years!), and although long, difficult, dusty, and hot, our hike down to Llahuar Lodge, sitting on the edge of the Rió Colca, wasn’t as knee-wrenching as we thought it would be. Our route was: Cabanaconde to Llahuar, then to San Juan de Chuccho, then back to Cabanaconde.
After the first kilometer, Craig and I didn’t see a single soul until we were almost to the bottom, where some workers were doing construction work on the road (yes… there’s a road!). It was very surprising, considering how MANY tourists were at the condor viewpoint area, but we supposed that Llahuar was actually not a common destination for people visiting Colca. Which is a shame, because as soon as we arrived at Llahuar, we wanted to stay for forever.
We immediately jumped into the hot pool (they claimed 100 degrees F, which I believed) and luxuriated in our newfound love of glamping. For $10 per person, we got our own private bamboo cabin with a queen-size bed, plus a delicious breakfast included. For an extra $4, we could add a hot meal. Uhh… yes and yes! In Torres del Paine, we paid $8-12 per person just for the privilege of setting up our tent. So you can see why we’ve suddenly become the least-hardcore Seattleite trekkers… don’t judge us! You would probably do the same!
Llahuar was, in fact, so amazing that when Craig broached the subject of staying another night, I readily agreed. This would make our final day more difficult, since we would have to both hike out of the canyon and then take the 6-hour bus ride journey back to Arequipa, but that’s how amazing this lodge was.
The next day, we had a lazy morning, and then set out for some “geysers” with our new friend Ahmed, a Bengali-American from Austin, Texas. When we reached the geysers (impressive but not really geysers…), we sat and had a long discussion about the motivations and philosophies behind long-term travel and life itself.
At one point in our conversation, Ahmed said, “There’s no place I’d rather be.” And you know… we felt exactly the same! Travel is at times exhausting (especially when you’re hiking through a very deep canyon), but on the whole, we feel incredibly lucky and privileged. Every day, we do exactly what we want. We don’t have to go to work, we don’t have to worry about rent and bills, and we can sit for an hour or more at the edge of a turquoise river, drinking in the beauty of nature while chatting with a new friend. I’m constantly aware of how awesome, despite the many small difficulties and worries involved with it, travelling has been. And we still have such a long way to go!
The next day, we started out for San Juan de Chuccho, which our map stated was only 9km away (we’re skeptical of this, though, since it took us 6.5 hours). We were heading up the other side of the canyon, and had to climb to the road (which was also under construction), which cut its way east at a relatively flat angle after that. We passed some extremely small villages (less than 15 structures–and one football field!) before walking through two larger villages, Malata and Cosñirhua.
While in Malata, we took a break on the cool patio of a tiny store where a very old Quechua-speaking woman wove colorful straps and minded her 11-year-old granddaughter (we think?) and 1.5-year-old grandson. When Craig was pulling out our water sterilizer, the woman mistook it for a camera and started to get very agitated before we explained what it was. Apparently, a tourist had walked past and snapped a picture of her without asking, in fact, without talking to her at all. Disgusting. Yes, it’s incredibly interesting to get pictures of local people, especially if they’re wearing the intricate clothing of their culture (as this woman was), but how rude to treat them like they’re roadside attractions! It was a shame, because the kids were super cute, and it would have been fun to have had a picture of them enjoying the nutella+tortilla we made them, but after what had happened with the earlier stupid tourist, we didn’t even want to ask.
The path started to descend back down towards the river as we got closer to San Juan, which was a common stop for hikers who did the Colca with guided tours. We passed a hostel that was full of tourists having lunch, and were happy to skip that madhouse for the Hospedaje Roy, which was recommended to us by the staff at Llahuar Lodge. When we arrived, we were given our own private room WITH a private bath (ahhhh!!!) for only $8 per person. And the private bath had hot water in the shower! Can you believe the luxury?! Needless to say, Craig and I were incredibly happy and spent the rest of the afternoon lounging in our room with this amazing view of the canyon out of our window:
We attempted to start early the next day, since we were trying to avoid doing the steep hike out in the blazing heat, but our laziness got the best of us and we didn’t end up getting on the road until 7:30am. As we slowly crawled our way up at about the same elevation as we descended on the first day, about 3,600 ft in 4.3 miles (we calculated our rate at about 1 mph), familiar thoughts of “Why the hell are we doing this?” ran through our heads. We certainly paid for all of our enjoyment at Llahuar and San Juan the previous three days on that hike!
As we neared the top, we began passing all of the hikers who were just beginning their tour. Fresh-faced, clean, and chipper, they all underestimated the time it would take for us to reach the top, thereby incurring our ongoing wrath. There’s nothing worse than an underestimated ETA, let me tell you! However, when we passed a local man running down the trail (in sandals!) with a 30-lb sack of flour on his back, we felt a little mollified… for a few seconds. But finally, we reached the top and were able to catch the noon bus back to Arequipa.
The bus ride was your typical Latin-American public transportation–no seat belts, no air conditioning, and a lot of dust! But we passed some incredible views, and I took several pictures out of our window as our bus wound its way back. Craig’s legs felt like noodles, my calves felt like somebody had sledge-hammered them, and I’m pretty sure we both inhaled a large portion of donkey-poo in all of that dust, but it was a really great trek! After acclimatizing in Arequipa for a couple of days, neither of us felt the elevation too terribly, and I would say that we had a great time, even though we didn’t have a guide. A better time, perhaps, since we got to change our plans and stay an extra night soaking in a hot tub!
After getting our legs back in Arequipa for a couple of days, we’re now headed to Cusco! Our plan is to stay for a couple of weeks (we waited too long to book our Machu Pichu tickets and they weren’t available until mid-May), taking in the local sights and hopefully doing some “volunteering” for discounted dorm beds. We’re also hoping to meet up with some friends, both from Seattle and from Frutillar, so we’re both looking forward to this little break from constant travel.