My trek into Peru’s Colca Canyon exceeded expectations! The canyon’s beauty is indescribable and experiencing the magic of its isolated grandeur was the best. February is off-season for trekking in the canyon but actually it’s a great time since the weather is cooler and the vegetation is green and flourishing.
I shared the trip from Arequipa with a fun Australian couple – Tasha and Aaron. Our adventure began at 6:00 a.m. driving with guides through high patapampa plateaus surrounded by the magnificent Cordillera de Chila. We passed rivers, volcanoes, mountains, and national reserves with grazing “camelids”. Still have trouble distinguishing between llamas, alpacas, and guanacos, but now I recognize vicuñas.
As we passed through Chivay the terrain changed and became more like Cusco and Machu Picchu. We stopped in Yanque, a small village outside Chivay. For our first outing my Peruvian guide, Patty, and I hiked the surrounding area, including the Uyu Uyu pre-Incan ruins. Tasha and Aaron explored on horseback. We met for a lunch of Peruvian cuisine, enjoyed the hot springs, and stayed overnight in Chivay.
The Yanque hike lasted about 4 hours through varying terrain. The altitude (11,000 ft.+) was apparent and I had some shortness of breath. Patty shared interesting details and stories about the history of the area and Quechua people, who were conquered and oppressed by the Spaniards during the 16th century.
The first part of the hike was sunny and hot. During the last few hours we suddenly got strong wind and the temperature dropped drastically. I had stripped down to my base layer and thought the breeze felt wonderful until I realized my body temperature was dropping rapidly and I was beginning to chill. It took a soak in the hot springs, hot soup and tea, and two wool blankets that night to warm up.
The local people in Chivay were enthusiastically celebrating Carnival and their merriment lasted all day and into the early hours of the morning – loud music and dancing in the streets and main square. Tasha and Aaron danced and partied with the locals who showed no signs of stopping any time soon. It was a special experience being in Chivay during Carnival but I retired earlier than the others knowing there was a long challenging day of hiking ahead.
At 6:00 a.m. the next morning we drove to Cruz del Condor, a condor viewing point between the small towns of Pinchollo and Cabanaconde. The morning sunrise creates warm thermals from the canyon enabling the condors to fly from their nests and search for food. It was disappointing to find the area fogged in with almost zero visibility. We finally gave it up. Aaron and Tasha left for Puno and Patty and I continued on what ended up being a 10+ hour trek deep in the Colca Canyon.
Our trek was on terrain only passable by two- and four-legged animals. There are no roads for vehicles. The first four hours were zigzagging downhill. It was absolutely gorgeous. Miraculously when the fog cleared we saw several Andean condors! They are incredibly huge birds! One group of several flying gracefully together must have found food. Condors and eagles are the main birds in the canyon and both are scavengers. Other canyon animals include foxes and puma.
We ran into a few other hikers and locals who were carrying supplies back and forth to a series of tiny inhabited villages deep in the canyon. Life for the villagers is hard but they are surrounded by incredible natural beauty. They grow their own food using irrigated, terraced fields and raise sheep, llamas, and chickens. The only way to get supplies in and out of these remote villages is by donkey. Loaded to the hilt, the somber-faced donkeys seem to fly up and down the trails with little difficulty. It’s amazing!
The trekking trail led down the deep canyon to the Colca River which begins high in the Andes and drops to the Pacific Ocean in stages. The name of the river changes from Majes to Camana to Colca where it flows between the tiny mountain villages where we hiked. The scenery along the trail is exquisite! It’s a tough hike but experiencing it solo with a guide was perfect. Patty is 22 years old and has hiked the canyon for about 4 years. She was great company and an endless source of information about the indigenous culture, vegetation, birds, animals, and terrain.
We made our way deep into the canyon and crossed a small swing bridge over the Colca River. On the other side we climbed up to our lunch stop, a tiny village at 16,000 ft. called Malata. When we arrived I was tired and famished. One option was staying at a small hostel in Malata for the night and continuing to Cabanaconde the next day or keeping to our scheduled stop – Oasis Sangalle.
Because of the terrain and altitude, some trekkers find the distance to the oasis in one day too much. After lunch and a few cups of coca tea I felt energized and opted to continue to the Oasis Sangalle. I was slow and at that altitude had to stop often to catch my breath. Knowing my age (probably beyond ancient to her) Patty was patient. In addition to the downhill, the second half of the day included steep climbing and took us another 5+ hours. The scenery was worth the pain but we were about 2 hours behind schedule.
The scariest part of the trek was the last hour of hiking to our overnight stop at Oasis Sangalle. The trail switched again from uphill to downhill and we used headlamps to see where we were hiking. The area is extremely isolated and there are no roads for vehicles, so if anything happens, you’re on your own…. Several village dogs accompanied us along part of the trail. As we approached the oasis they began howling back and forth with other dogs already deeper in the canyon below – very primitive. Apparently the stray dogs live in the area and like to follow trekkers and hang out with them until they get bored and return to their villages.
We finally made it to Oasis Sangalle by around 7:30 p.m., checked into our rustic cabins, and ate dinner. The cabins and food were basic – no heat, no hot water – but the bed was actually comfortable. I was so exhausted a bed of nails would have seemed cozy! A hot shower would have been nice but a cold one was good too. The next morning we had to hike back up to the top of the canyon and the small town of Cabanaconde by 9:00 a.m. to catch a bus to Chivay. The steep uphill stretch of trail was similar to the downhill we did that morning and I knew I could not hike make it back up in three hours. I decided to hire a donkey instead – a two-hour ride out of the canyon.
It will take time to absorb the ride and experiencing first-hand donkey etiquette, chain of command, and poo. Basically, I was at the mercy of the donkey. My donkey’s name was Pepe.The owner runs his donkeys up and down the canyon – bringing supplies to the village and transporting heavy trekker backpacks. He makes the trip almost every day.
There were four donkeys in our caravan and we started the climb at 6:00 a.m. I was half asleep and stiff from the long 10+ hour day before. The donkeys go straight up the steep trail and often come perilously close to the rim. I hung on and hoped for the best. At certain points along the trail the donkeys seem to get a sudden rush of energy and take off with a spurt of speed – not fun if it catches you by surprise.
We passed some young German tourists on donkeys with their mini camcorders videotaping the whole thing. I needed both hands to hold on and keep from falling off into the canyon.
An hour or so into the trip the donkey owner – a handsome Peruvian named Raphael – talked to me a little. He seemed to enjoy his life, and with all the tourists must be doing well. He had a great sense of humor and was constantly scolding one of the stubborn young donkeys who was naughty and wanted to go his own way.
The last few hours were euphoric and I felt very relaxed enjoying the donkey ride and splendid 360 degree vistas. It’s one of the most unusual and interesting experiences I’ve ever had – loved it! Unfortunately no pictures except for the sweet ones in my memory. Patty and I met at the top, had breakfast in Cabanaconde, and then caught a bus to Chivay. I had less than 30 minutes to shower, change, and get aboard the bus for Puno – a six-hour ride.
Now in Puno, I’m taking a few days to relax and will begin exploring Lake Titicaca soon. It was raining when I arrived last night but it cleared this morning and is crisp blue-sky beautiful outside. The lake is stunning!