Conquering Colca

After being chauffeured around and fed on an indulgent four day trip through the desert, Gill and Will decided they needed some exercise. We didn’t want a little day hike or a guided trip so we went all out: a two day trek through the world’s second deepest ravine, Colca Canyon.

From Arequipa we bused to Cabanaconde, a little cliff-side town that would serve as home base for our hike. We stayed at Pachamama, a quaint backbacker’s home with incredibly friendly and helpful staff. After devouring an enormous salad and wood-fired pizza we hit the hay to rest up for our journey on the morrow.

Terraced land in Cabanaconde overlooking the Colca Canyon

The following day; rested, inspired, and full of energy we woke up at the crack of 11 and headed toward the ravine. Traveling with a day pack and lots of water we descended 300 meters into the canyon. On our way we saw many hikers of different nationalities including a rare ‘canyon beagle.’ These short-legged dogs are surprisingly adept at maneuvering over the rocky terrain of the ravine. Feeling slightly depleted by the ease at which the long-eared hound bolted past us we kept our heads low and trekked onward. Once we reached the bottom we crossed the river on a questionably-sound hanging bridge. For safety’s sake we went across one at a time and stuck to the middle.

Gill with one of many sketchy bridges we crossed

After asking directions from a local selling water and soda near the bridge, we started our ascent toward Cosnirhua– a small town nestled on the hillside of the canyon (many questions were raised about the threat of rockslides). From the base of the ravine it’s a 500-or-so meter change in altitude (up of course) to the town. About half way up we were utterly exhausted. Thankfully, a wonderful woman waved us over, and sat us down for some home-cooked food. What followed may have been considered a miracle. To start, we were served a large bowl of quinoa soup. Quinoa is the miracle grain that is grown locally around Bolivia and Peru. It’s a huge source of protein and vitamins and is a perfect comfort food. Afterward, to fill that empty rumbling space in our stomach, a huge plate of potatoes, rice, and unidentified meat in an unidentified (but delicious!) sauce was placed in front of our then wide eyes. We’re not sure if a single grain of rice survived the encounter.

Our lunch lovely spot

Will getting directions onward across the rickety bridge

Quinoa soup and potato curry for lunch. So energizing.

The re-energizing powers of that meal were unbelievable. The climb to Cosnirhua was supposed to take 2 hours, but we reached the top in 40 minutes. We were greeted by a friendly shop-keep and bought some juicy mandarinos from him. Strolling through the agricultural town and its neighbour Malata we saw many cactus fields (for harvesting prickly pears) and a variety of strange plants. One even tried to pick up Gill.

Being picked up by a giant cactus

Will in front of the church in Malata

From the cozy towns was yet another ascent, our original plan was to stay the night here and hike the rest the next day, but we had some serious energy from our lunch and decided to keep marching. Up and up we went until we reached another hanging bridge and a wall of switchbacks (trails that zig-zag up the side of a mountain). Up it was. We reached the summit and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the surrounding landscape and our destination for the night – the oasis. We had to descend to the base of the canyon in order to reach the jungle-like peninsula. Waterfalls, cacti, and increasingly rainforest-like flora greeted us as we hiked to the bottom.

Approaching the Oasis where we spent the night

Upon arriving we shopped around for a bed to sleep in – the décor takes first place in the oasis and fashion definitely supersedes function here. Our little hut’s straw roof was held up by bamboo walls and a dirt floor. Rustic. We met a Swede named Leon whose plan is to travel from Ushuaia to Alaska over the course of three years – lucky guy. Once we retired for the night we realized we weren’t the only inhabitants in our “matrimonial suite.” Little bugs were crawling all over the floor and a very large-eyed mouse was running around on the bamboo. Luckily he was shy and kept his distance.

Our stylish 'matrimonial suite'

In the morning (we woke up early so as to leave our mouse friend as quickly as possible) we had breakfast and began the final ascent to Cabanaconde. This monstrous trek was a whopping 1000 meter climb. Feeling courageous and bolstered by our speedy trek the day before, Gill and Will – foolishly – decided that 1 liter of water would be enough for the two of them to share for the next three hours…at noon…up.

Taking only little sips to ration our water, and breaks only when supply donkeys took up most of the path, we trudged upward. Slowly we climbed focusing mostly on the next step. When we did pause we were rewarded with some of the most spectacular views of the trip. Our eyes followed the river at first, curving through the valley, and then up, climbing the walls of the neighbouring mountains, until they focused on the horizon, a mélange of peaks, sky and clouds. We prayed for rain. At one point we saw a condor, effortlessly floating on a thermal (a pillar of warm wind that birds use to gain altitude without expending energy). We paused reflectively for a moment to watch as the bird spread its wings and climbed the air – a beautiful moment was quickly overtaken by jealousy. We prayed for wings.

Will sweating out the ascent

This flag was a false peak that gave us hope about reaching the top. Luckily the orchid was there as comfort.

Three hours later, on our then leaden legs we reached the summit of the canyon, Cabanaconde was in sight and it was possibly the greatest feeling in the world. Living on short-term rewards we bought the coldest looking ice cream bars from the nearest shop and limped toward our hostel in the afternoon sun – life was good.