Colca Canyon

Everything in Arequipa seems to be either very expensive or dirt cheap. There is no middle ground. They appear to be catering to a very polarised tourist market, either “we’ve got so much money we don’t care” or “we’re so skint we can’t afford more than the absolute minimum to survive”. So far I have found this with food, shopping (I wanted to buy a scarf today – I didn’t bring one – there was the choice of baby alpaca or awful) and tours to Colca Canyon.

The options for a 3 day/2 night trip to Colca Canyon were a) 295 US Dollars (about £180) or b) 125 Peruvian Soles (about £27). The more expensive option seemed a slightly better trip but not that much better. They had a mini-bus with logos on it and stopped at a couple of extra places on the way there. I’d have liked to see the petroglyphs, but not at £150 extra, so it was the cheap tour for me!

It takes about 3 hours to get to the Colca Valley. We had to be ready to be collected from our hotels at 3am on Tuesday morning. As usual, the pick-ups happened in Peruvian time, so it was around 7am when we stopped at Chivay, the main town, for a quick breakfast. We, like everyone else, then continued up the valley to the Canyon, stopping at the Cruz del Condor viewpoint for an hour on the way.

The guide books tell you that the condors are there every morning because the thermals are good then etc. Some suspicious member of our group later questioned why the condors are to be seen at that exact spot every day, and whether the rumours they’d heard were true. It turned out that yes indeed, it is true that when the locals happen to have a dead donkey to dispose of, they chuck it off the cliff at the viewpoint. The condors learn over time that it’s a good spot to look for dead donkeys, hence when the thermals are right first thing in the morning they pop over from their nests on the other side of the canyon to take a look……

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We then drove for another 15 minutes along the top of the canyon before starting out walk down, which took about 3 hours. The place we stayed on the first night was a bit further along the canyon to the right of the picture, on the opposite side.

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Here’s a photo of the first night’s “bungalow”.

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The room I had on the second night was pretty similar. The food was ok: alpaca stir-fry and rice for lunch (though the bits of alpaca were so small I can’t really say what it tastes like) then a veggie combination of rice and potato cake with cheese for the cheese-eaters (so rice for me). On day 2 we got (dairy-free) pancakes for breakfast, rice and alpaca for lunch (well, a bit of bone with a tiny quantity of hard meat glued to it; we did our best to knaw it off but the dog did well) and spaghetti with tomato sauce for tea. Some saw fit to whine, but when you pay less than £30 for transport, guide, accommodation and food, what do you expect?

The next day, we walked along the far side of the canyon, down one side of the little gully you can see on the photo above. We then had a 250m climb up before continuing along a path past the two little settlements on the picture then dropping down right to the very bottom of the canyon to a green part called, unsurprisingly, “the Oasis” (right at the very bottom in the photo below).

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It quickly became clear that I was by far the slowest walker uphill of the 8 of us. The group consisted of 5 young backpacker types, none of whom could have been beyond their early 20s and a couple in their early-mid 30s (who were the next slowest after me). When the guide started going on about how we’d have to go quicker on the 3rd day and get to the top in 2 hours, 3 hours absolute maximum (he was fretting about his schedule, clearly wanting to get back to Arequipa early) I decided that it wasn’t going to be a pleasant walk slogging up a 1000m climb with him right behind me telling me to go faster, so I made arrangements to set off earlier than the rest of them. They were leaving at 5am so I decided to set off at 3am so that I wouldn’t have to give any consideration at all to how fast I was walking.

It was pitch black for the first couple of hours. I stopped for a bit after an hour and a half to look at the stars. Orion was very bright (you could see a lot more of the stars than you ever see at home) and the Pleiades were easily visible with the naked eye. Unfortunately I didn’t have a bowl of water with me to try my hand at long-range weather forecasting as they supposedly did at Chavin de Huantar.

Shortly after I set off again, I was overtaken by the ubiquitous local in sandals. They could even have been Ao Nang- style flip flops, I couldn’t tell.

The bad thing about canyons is that you can see how far you’ve got to go right from the bottom. The good thing about walking in the dark, of course, is that you can’t see a thing. By the time it started to come light, I could tell I was well over half way up. I watched the first light on the snowy mountain tops opposite (very pink, but the colours never come out well on pics). When it got properly light I decided to take a picture looking down and a picture looking up. The top was by the trees.

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As I clearly had loads of time, I really dawdled on the last bit, stopping for a while to watch a hummingbird flitting about. It was much bigger than the cloudforest hummingbirds I saw when I went to Ecuador.

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I then had a nice sit down at the top watching the sun hit the canyon while I waited for the lunatics to catch up.

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There must’ve been at least 50 people who set off at 5am. The first, a young french lad, made it to the top in an hour and 45 minutes. Most of the group I was with were much slower, though the last two were still a good 30-40 minutes quicker than me (although they hadn’t been looking at stars, sunrise, or hummingbirds and looked half dead when they crawled over the top followed closely by the guide, whereas I’d sauntered up in peace and quiet and enjoyed myself).

On the way back to Arequipa we saw some 13th century terracing (there are 66,000 hectares in the valley; only about 12,000 are in use nowadays as there isn’t enough water nowadays for all of them) and stopped off at a village to keep the tat sellers happy. I took a picture of the local church, which is built from sillar, the characteristic white rock of the region.

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