My trek into Peru’s Colca Canyon exceeded all expectations! The canyon’s beauty is indescribable and experiencing the magic of its isolated grandeur was the absolute 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 Chila. We passed rivers, volcanoes, mountains, and nature reserves with grazing “camelids”. I still have trouble distinguishing between llamas, alpacas, and guanacos, but now recognize vicuña.
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 Yanque 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 the indigenous Quechua people, who were conquered and oppressed by the Spaniards during the 16th century.
The first part of the hike through the ruins was sunny and hot. During the last few hours a strong wind developed 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. To warm up, I soaked in the hot springs, drank hot tea, and used two wool blankets that night.
The local people in Chivay were enthusiastically celebrating Peruvian Carnival and their festive merriment lasted all day and into the early hours of the morning – loud music and dancing in the streets and square. Tasha and Aaron partied with the locals who showed no signs of stopping any time soon. It was a special experience being in Chivay during Carnival and celebrating with locals, 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 majestic condors to fly from their nests and search for food. It was disappointing to find the area fogged in with zero visibility. We waited for the fog to clear, but finally gave it up. Aaron and Tasha headed for Puno and Patty and I continued on what was to be a 10+ hour trek deep into Colca Canyon.
Our trek was on terrain only passable by two- and four-legged animals. There are no roads or vehicles. The first four hours we zigzagged effortlessly downhill. It was absolutely gorgeous! Miraculously, when the fog cleared we saw several Andean condors! They’re 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 fox and puma.
We ran into other hikers and locals who were carrying supplies back and forth to tiny villages deep in the canyon. Life for the villagers is hard, but they’re 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, somber-faced donkeys seem to fly up and down the narrow trails with little difficulty!
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 as it flows between the tiny mountain villages where we hiked. 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 Colca Canyon for 4 years. She was great company, a patient guide, and 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 Colca River. The River is popular with rafters. On the other side we climbed to our lunch stop, Malata, a tiny village at 16,000 ft. We were tired and hungry. The options were staying overnight at a small hostel in Malata and continuing to Cabanaconde the next day, or keeping to our scheduled overnight stop at Oasis Sangalle.
Because of the terrain and altitude, some trekkers find that the hiking distance to the oasis in one day is too much. After lunch and a few cups of coca tea, I felt energized and opted to continue to Oasis Sangalle. I was slow, and at that altitude had to stop 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 behind schedule.
The scariest part of the trek was the hour of hiking in the dark before reaching 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 isolated and there are no paved roads for vehicles. If anything happens, you’re on your own…. Several village dogs accompanied us along the trail. As we approached the oasis they began howling back and forth to other dogs deep in the canyon below – very primitive. Stray dogs often follow trekkers and hang out with them until they get bored and return to their villages.
We made it to Oasis Sangalle at about 7:30 p.m., checked into our rustic cabins, and ate dinner. The accommodation was basic – no heat or hot water – but the bed was 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 to be at the small town of Cabanaconde by 9:00 a.m. and catch the daily bus to Chivay. The extremely steep uphill stretch of trail was similar to the downhill we hiked the previous morning. I knew I couldn’t hike back up it in three hours. and 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 donkey’s mercy. My donkey’s name was Pepe ;o). The owner runs his donkeys up and down the canyon – bringing supplies to the villages and transporting 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. sharp. I was half asleep and stiff from the long and difficult 10+ hour hike the day before. The donkeys go straight up the steep trail and often come perilously close to the rim. I hung on for my life 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 mini camcorders videotaping the whole thing. I needed both of my hands to hold on and keep from falling into the canyon below.
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 hour was euphoric and I relaxed enjoying the donkey ride and splendid 360 degree views. It’s one of the most interesting experiences I’ve 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 the bus to Chivay. I had 30 minutes to shower, change, pack, 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 is clear this morning and it’s a crisp, beautiful blue-sky day. Lake Titicaca is stunning!