Climbing In and Out of Colca Canyon (by Nathan)
Waking up at 3am is never easy, when traveling it is sometimes a necessity. But when the plan is to hike in and out of the deepest canyon in the world we were excited. A van picked us up at the hostel in Arequipa and we cruised through the darkness of the night and into the mountains. By sunrise we had crossed the high mountain pass at 5,000m (16,500ft) and we descended to the cliff’s edge. Our destination: the Colca Canyon with winding cliff trails, historic villages and expansive, gorgeous sights.
The andean condor had already mesmerized Carmen and me on that exhausting day in Argentina, but along the Colca Canyon the condors have survived and flourished for thousands of years. At the Cruz de los Condores we watched five giant birds soar majestically through the air. With minimal effort they utilized the wind and the rising heat to pull themselves thousands of feet above our heads.
Our hike began mid-morning and nearly two-thirds down into the canyon. The canyon is huge, but much less drastic than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The Rio Colcahas cut through a volcanic mountain range with summits at 5,500m (18,000 ft) and the river below rests at around 2,000m (6,600ft). Our descent was rocky, loose and steep. Our knees and feet ached after dropping 900m (3,000ft) in the first two hours. A quick jump in the river and I was refreshed and ready to continue.
The villages in these mountains have a remarkable history. Tribes of people have lived here for thousands of years. They farmed the steep hillsides by notching terraces, called andenes, into the slopes. Each terrace was irrigated by local springs and the vegetables were optimized for the microclimates. Thousands of potato varieties exist in Peru as well as primary crops of corn and quinoa; each crop was planted and harvested to the heat, moisture and soil that varies from terrace to terrace. The people here survived before Inca times. They flourished with Inca civilization and now the communities hang on to difficult lives that are locked high into the mountainside.
The villages house several families and many of the towns take over two days to walk to. There is one poorly kept clinic that provides meager guidance and healthcare to the people. This was probably the most upsetting part of the hike because we spoke with and observed people that were brutally poor, yet we paid an entry into the park of $26. This money did not go into roads, which were dirt, or signage, that did not exist, or residents, who did not even know that tourists pay over $100,000 per day to the region. In this way, the hike was a cultural experience in addition to a natural one.
Our lunch spot was San Juan de Cucho, which was 1,000ft of ascent from the river. Our guide cooked us some lomo saltado and we enjoyed a conversation with our new friends. While the rest of my group napped I hiked up the steep mountainside. I followed a narrow path that tightly cut through the brush and grass and I switched back and forth up the mountain. I peered through the bushes to find another village, or at least the remnants of a village. Beautiful stone walls peeked out of tall grass and trees grew from the foundations of former buildings. I returned to our lunch spot and the group was assembled and ready to go.
Our dinner and lodging for the night was in a town a few hours hike along the mountainside. In Cosñirhua we were welcomed into a small dwelling ran by two women and a five year old boy. The boy kicked a soccer ball with us and then laughed at my Spanish in our conversation about his front yard garden. In the kitchen a small pen housed fifteen guinea pigs, but we would not get the chance to try this Peruvian delicacy until Cusco. We slept in a room that crudely resembled a hostel but the room was warm, the bed clean and there was running water so not much more was necessary.
The next day was an easy hike with little change of elevation. It went quickly because we were all excited to jump in the pools at the oasis. Sangalle El Oasis is a cluster of buildings and huts that were built for the many tourists. Each group of buildings includes a beautiful turquoise pool. We jumped in the cool water and baked in the sun. The mountains rose in all directions and quickly blocked out the sun and invited cold winds to howl through the canyon.
Our third day was challenging. We needed to climb out of the canyon. We started walking at 5am and pushed ourselves up the steep trail. Each of us walked at our own pace and in 1.75 hours I was at the top after climbing 1,100m (3,600ft). Forty-five minutes later, Carmen arrives claiming that she did not even break a sweat.
We hiked with an international group of people from the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and France. Each arrival of one of our new friends was a celebration. Both out of breath from the hike and from the beautiful views we congratulated each other on the three wonderful days of hiking. We picked up breakfast in Cabanaconde and lunch in Chivay that included a welcomed sight of a baby alpaca and young girl dressed in the traditional fabrics and hat of the region.
It was an exhausting couple of days, but for Carmen and I this was only practice for the six days of hiking that we had planned to Machu Picchu. First we needed to get to Cuzco…