Colca Canyon, which starts a few hours drive from Arequipa, is the deepest canyon in the world. It is home to over 20 traditional villages spotted among the mountains, connected by an intricate maze of paths that can only be traversed by foot or mule (there are no vehicles!) Our route was to see us hike down the canyon and stay in the home of a local family, and then head back up the canyon to stay in the more bustling market town of Cabanaconde. Our small group of 8 included 4 other Canadians (family members from Quebec), an Austrian and our Peruvian guide, Carlos.
We began our first day with a 3:30am pick-up at our hostel. We sleepily climbed aboard, tucked ourselves into our seats and napped fitfully until we got to our first stop at the deepest part of the canyon - Cruz Del Condor. This stop was the reason for getting up so early - it is supposedly a good viewing point for Condors, but only in the morning. We have seen condors many times before on this trip, but never up close, and so we leapt out of the bus with our cameras ready. Our early morning effort was in vain however, as we managed to only see one condor, again from a distance. Glad we got up so early for THAT!
Back onto the bus for another hour to the outskirts of Cabanaconde, where our bus could go no further. After a quick explanation of the town and a hearty lunch of alpaca, rice and potatoes, we were anxious to get on our way before the desperate need for an afternoon siesta set in. Little did we know what we had in store for us! First, I will start with the positives...
We were but small dots on the vast, multi-colored canyon. We would walk with nothing but the sound of the roaring river below and the spellbinding views of the mountains around us. I have never experienced such grandeur, and felt so small against something so immense and beautiful. It took my breath away every time I looked up from the path to take it all in. We had no camera lens big enough to capture all of this, but it didn't stop us from trying:
For the next 2 days, we would be walking along the mountains on a rocky and narrow path, dipping down to the lowest level of the canyon, and then would have to make the climb back up the 3,600ft. That last part of the hike, to be done on the afternoon of the second day, scarily hung over my head the entire way before. I have never done anything like that before, and we hadn't done any kind of hiking in quite awhile - myself and a couple others were obviously nervous that we would not have the stamina to do it.
Little did we realize either, how hard the hike down was to be. For the first three and a half hours, we went down, down, down. If climbing up is a workout for the heart, then going down is one for the entire body - there are several muscles used going down that aren't used often otherwise. The path was a mixture of soft sand, pebbles, and sometimes big steps that made it very challenging to traverse. We felt quite accomplished when we finally made it to the milestone of the bridge to get us over the river. And then the "good" news came (which wasn't in the brochure!), we had another 1 1/2 hours to go to get to our village - mostly uphill.
Our first milestone
The last hour of hiking for the day was a steep push uphill, a little foreshadowing for the longer hike up expected the following day. Exhausted from the minimal sleep the night before and in pain from all of the downhill done earlier, the hike up probably took us a little longer then it should, but we made it. Finally, we had arrived at our village for the night. And when they advertised to us that the accommodations on the first night would be "basic", boy, were they right:
Looks good, right??
Our mud room
Our dinner was made by the cutest little Peruvian woman over an open fire. When we thanked her and told her it was "muy rica" (very delicious), she said "yummy?", showcasing the little English she knew!
Our group having dinner
Up at 7am the next morning and we began our second grueling day by filling up on heaps of pancakes. Carlos pulled no punches this time, our second day was going to be more difficult then the painful first. We were spoiled with a fairly flat trail for the first half hour walk to another village, stopping several times so that Carlos could offer explanations as to life in the villages, the flora and fauna surrounding them, and some history.
And then, the tough part began. Another 2 1/2 hours of downhill, but this time the image of a crystal blue pool beckoned us. We did this section much faster then we had the day before, and were rewarded with the "Oasis", a large complex built by several tourist agencies complete with pools, kitchens and cabanas. After comparing blisters and bruises upon our arrival (my whole left big toenail is bruised underneath from my toes hitting the end of my shoe on the downhill), we quickly changed into our swimsuits and dove in.
Pete was the first to jump in!
We had three hours to kill here, so after a refreshing dip, we all relaxed under some shade while Carlos made lunch. For me, it was also a time to contemplate the final stage of the trek - the dreaded ascent of 3,600ft. For 50 soles (~$16), I could hire a mule to carry me up the entire trek. Or, I could put my tired, wrecked body through one more challenge. I had to make the decision now.
We dined on soup and spaghetti and as a group we discussed our options. Rather than hire a mule to carry any individual one of us, we instead agreed to split 2 mules, and they would carry up our packs. Shedding those 5-6 extra kilograms of weight would make a big difference, and turned out to be the best $4 each of us ever spent!
We were scheduled to leave at 3pm, but with some ominous looking clouds rolling in, we decided to leave earlier. And so, at 2:15, we were on our way. Painful uphill step after painful uphill step, we began. We checked with Pete's altitude watch every so often to see how far we had come, and calculated what pace we were on - after about a quarter of the way, we figured we should finish in 4 hours.
I quickly learned for myself to go against the old adage of "don't look down" as we walked along the cliffs - I found that I preferred to say "Wow, look at how far we've come!" instead of "Holy shit, look at how far we have to go!" But when we reached the halfway point, I actually felt pretty good, and ready to make the push for the top. Even though my stops for rest became more frequent (the higher altitude we got, the harder it was to catch my breath), I was determined!
And then, the rain began. It had been drizzling slightly since about a half hour in, but it started to get a little harder. We all zipped on our rain jackets and vowed to endure, the clouds were not going anywhere. Fog rolled in such that we could no longer see the valley below us, we were right in the middle of the rain storm.
At this point, Pete had dropped back to walk alongside with me, instead of up ahead with the others who were more in shape. He knew I would need his encouragement to get through the last little bit, and a few minutes later, I was so glad he was there. WIth about 600 ft left to go, we were startled by a scream coming from behind us. Three members of the Quebec family were just making their way up the incline we had just passed when mud came streaming over the side of the cliff above, landing right on top of them. They quickly jumped back to the edge of the cliff that wasn't being hit. A guide from another group who was close to us came back around the corner and yelled at Pete and I to get to the side and hug the wall of the mountain while he continued down to help the other group. And then we could hear it - water came rushing around the corner and engulfed our path. What was once our trail was now a stream of mud and water. Panicked, Pete and I held tight to the wall until our guide had made his way back down and told us it was safe to move to the corner and begin climbing again.
Our muddy path, seconds after the water hit
With images of devastating landslides happening in other ares of Peru coming to mind, our adrenaline kicked in. We barely stopped for breath and worked our way upstream - trying to avoid walking directly in the water and stick to the drier edges (not always possible), and always mindful of being close to the edge of the cliff that dropped off into the fog. One wrong step, or an unexpected rush of water could have been perilous. It took every remaining ounce of energy we had to focus on how to get up that mountain safely. The rain continued to pound hard, but we pushed our way hard to the top, gaining time and actually finishing the entire trek in under 3 1/2 hours.
When the top of the mountain was just a few feet away from us, we stopped. One of the ladies from Quebec started crying, and I started to hyperventilate and cry alongside her. All of the adrenaline, fear and lack of oxygen caught up with me such that I was overwhelmed by the fact that we had made it. There were no high fives, no round of celebratory hugs for having finished the climb. We were scared, freezing cold, and tired. We had another half hour walk to make it to our hotel, and we couldn't do it fast enough.
When we were finally in the comfort of our hotel room, I quickly got into a warm shower while Pete wrung the water out of all of our clothes and hung them around the room to dry. I put on everything dry that I owned and crawled into bed. I skipped dinner, and didn't emerge until morning. It took me a couple of hours to stop shivering, but I slept a good solid dozen hours before getting up in the morning. A warm bed had never felt so comfortable to me.
And now, a couple of days later - I am dry, warm, and relaxed. All of the scariness of those last few hours has passed, and looking back, I feel pretty good. There are many of my friends who could do that trek without problem, but for someone who is not used to that, hiking up that 3,600ft section of mountain is a big accomplishment. Not bad for someone who just turned 17 X 2. I'm pretty proud of me. High five.
(P.S....but NEVER again!)
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO MEEEE!
Or, so I had hoped!
Being the brainiac planner that I am, I thought I had it all figured out! A few hours after our return from Colca Canyon, I booked us on a cushy overnight bus to Nazca. In the morning, we were to get off the bus and head straight to the airport for a 30-minute flight over the bizarre Nazca lines, and then back onto the bus for a short ride to a small town in the middle of the desert known for it's relaxed atmosphere. Sounds like a decent way for a girl to spend her birthday, right?
When we got off the bus from Colca, we were still pretty exhausted and sore from our experience and in hindsight, could probably have done well with another night in a bed in Arequipa. The buses in Peru are not near as cushy as in Argentina, and Pete and I put together only a few hours of sleep between us. We were pretty cranky when we emerged and were shuttled off to the airport.
Didn't help our situation that when at the airport, our tour group made us wait 2 1/2 hours before our plane actually took off. We watched people shuttle in after us and get on their flights directly, yet we had to wait for some other walk-ins to come in and complete our group (they wouldn't take off with just 2 of us on the plane, not economical). We were not happy.
Finally, we were in the air in our small Cessna with 4 other passengers. The pilot took us over one of the great mysteries of South America - the Nazca Lines. They are a series of bizarre geoglyphs of animals and shapes marked in the sand from over 1,000 years ago. Some are up to 200m in length and are created in a single continuous line. There is much debate over why they were created - some believe they were to mark underground water resources, others believe they were astrological signs - the most popular theory is that they were made for religious ceremonies.
Nazca Line - The Monkey!
I made it through seeing most of the shapes before the bumps and turns of the small plane got to me. I vomited. And then again. Oh, and one more time, for good measure. I spent the last few minutes of the flight with my head between my knees, which is the only thing that kept me from wretching again.
We landed and rushed out of there. Back to a hostel where our bags were being held, and I quickly brushed my teeth before we made our way to the bus terminal of Nazca for our 2 hour ride to Ica. The trusted, comfortable, and air conditioned bus of Cruz Del Sur was booked solid - we had a choice to either wait 3 hours for the next one, or hop on the more economical (less reputable, less comfortable and non air-conditioned) in 30 minutes. We chose option B, and made it to Ica safely. I actually don't even remember much of the ride, as I was passed out most of the time.
Finally, a short cab ride from Ica and we made it to our destination - our oasis in the desert - Huacachino. It is a very small town just over a sand dune from Ica, and is a tourist destination for sand boarders. Our hotel room has a comfy bed, private bathroom and a pool outside our door. After what we've just been through, that is all we need. In fact, we just added another night to our stay in order to really enjoy these comforts.
Oh, and to re-celebrate my birthday. I call DO-OVER!! For 2010, February 21st is going to be my birthday. The 20th sucked! Nobody should have to puke on their birthday unless it's from consuming too much cake, alcohol, or a combination of the two! I plan to make good on that today.