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 absolutely the best! February is off-season for trekking, but actually it’s a great time since the weather is cooler and 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 mountains, volcanoes, rivers, and nature reserves with grazing camelids. I have trouble distinguishing between llama, alpaca, and guanaco, 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 spent the night in Chivay.
The Yanque hike through varying terrain, lasted 4 hours. The high altitude (11,000 ft.+) was apparent, and I had shortness of breath. Patty shared interesting stories about the area’s history and 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 the breeze felt wonderful – until my body temperature began dropping rapidly and I felt a deep 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 celebrating Peruvian Carnival enthusiastically, and their festive merriment lasted all day and into the early hours of the morning – there was 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 happy 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. The scenery was gorgeous! Miraculously, when the fog cleared, we saw several Andean condors! They’re incredibly large awkward-looking 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 met other hikers and locals who were carrying supplies back and forth to tiny villages deep in the canyon. Life is hard for the villagers, but they’re surrounded by incredible natural beauty. They raise sheep, llama, and chickens and grow their own food using irrigated, terraced fields. The only way these remote villages get supplies is by donkey. Loaded to the hilt, somber-faced donkeys seem to fly up and down the narrow trails easily and without hesitation!
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 – Majes to Camaná 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 an endless source of information about the indigenous culture, vegetation, birds, and animals.
We made our way deep into the canyon and crossed a small swing bridge over Colca River. Colca River is popular with river rafters. On the other side, we climbed to our lunch stop, Malata, a tiny village at 16,000 ft. We were hungry and tired. The options were staying overnight at a small hostel and continuing to Cabanaconde the next day, or enjoying a brief rest in Malata and heading to our scheduled overnight stop at Oasis Sangalle.
Because of the terrain and altitude, trekkers often find that hiking to the oasis in one day is too much. After lunch and a few cups of coca tea, I was 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 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 seriously behind schedule.
The scariest part of the trek was an hour of hiking in the dark before reaching our overnight stop. The trail switched from uphill to downhill and we used headlamps to light the path. The canyon is extremely 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 deeper in the canyon below – very primitive. Stray dogs often follow trekkers and hang out with them until they get bored and return to villages in the canyon.
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 steep uphill trail was similar to the vertical downhill we hiked the previous morning. Knowing I couldn’t hike back up in 3 hours, I decided to hire a donkey – about 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 ferrying village supplies 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 difficult 10+ hour hike the day before. Donkeys go straight up the steep trail and often come perilously close to the rim. I hung on for dear life and hoped for the best. At certain points, the donkeys get a sudden rush of energy and take off with a spurt of speed – not fun when it catches you by surprise!
We passed young German tourists on donkeys with camcorders videotaping everything. I needed both hands to hold and not fall into the canyon below.
An hour into the trip the donkey owner – a handsome young Peruvian named Raphael – talked to me a little. He enjoys his life in the canyon, and with business from tourists is doing well. He had a great sense of humor and constantly scolded one of the stubborn young donkeys who was naughty and wanted to go his own way.
The last hour was euphoric. Feeling relaxed, I enjoyed the ride and splendid 360 degree views. It’s one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had – loved it! 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 thirty minutes to pack, shower, and get aboard for the six-hour bus ride to Puno.
Now in Puno, I’m relaxing for a few days and will begin exploring Lake Titicaca soon. It was raining last night but is clear this morning – a crisp, beautiful, blue-sky day. Lake Titicaca is stunning!