Colca Canyon Tour – 2 days
Company: Booked through Wild Rover Hostel
Cost: 115 soles (not including: entry to park – 70 soles; entry to thermal baths – 10 soles; buffet lunch – 25 soles)
|08:40-09:40||Cruz del Condor (watching Condors)|
|11:00-14:00||San Miguel Pampas – San Juan de Chuccho (walking / lunch)|
|15:00-15:30||San Juan de Chuccho – Cosñirhua (walking)|
|15:30-17:30||Cosñirhua – Sangalle, ‘Oasis’ (walking)|
Total time in the car: 5:30 hours.
|05:15-09:00||Sangalle – Top of hill (walking)|
|09:00-10:20||Top of hill – Cabanaconde (walking / breakfast)|
|12:00-13:15||La Calera (thermal baths)|
|13:30-14:45||Chivay (buffet lunch)|
|15:00-15:30||Patapampa (highest point)|
|15:40-15:50||Stop to see llamas|
|18:00||Arrive in Arequipa|
Total time in the car: 3:50 hours.
The mini-bus forgot me, leaving me stranded in the reception at 3:30am in the morning with just the receptionist to talk to. I still hadn’t really practiced talking since leaving Buenos Aires so we mostly exchanged looks that said ‘this is an awkward silence so I hope the bus turns up about now’. Fortunately it did, and I was deposited in the front seat of the minibus, with ample space for my legs and more than enough room to turn back and make out the shapes of other gringos slumped over in various positions, eyes closed or lids half-drooping like zombies, squeezed in between the lines of chairs.
Feeling rather self-satisfied, I decide to chat with the tour guide, lodged into the space between me and the gear stick, in the hope that if we can become best friends she’ll be loathe to give up my seat to anyone else in subsequent journeys. And to see if I can still talk.
She’s called Patricia and is about half my size. We talk in Spanish and I’m not sure she understands everything I say, but gives the impression of doing so by smiling widely and warmly, especially in the moments when the conversation threatens to break down. She’s only been a tourist guide since March, which explains why she still bubbles with energy and happily opens up about her family and her fears and her dreams; not at all like the somewhat jaded, always guarded guides who I will later encounter.
It’s a 3-year course to become a tourist guide, obviously a serious undertaking, although I can’t help wondering what exactly they teach on the course. Do they teach practical skills like first aid? Rope skills? Must you be able to tell the difference between a male and a female Blue-footed Booby? And of course you must know the very detailed history of Machu Picchu, the funny stories, the Inca culture, the controversies, the name of Hiram Bingham’s dog. After a short while I realise that the Tourism degree must be about the broadest and most detailed course one could possibly do.
Patricia’s whole family is from Arequipa and she has no immediate plans to move; although she does confess that one day she could see herself in another part of Peru, maybe even in another country, maybe even… but she cut herself off before she could get too far away: “probablemente en Peru, no más”. I teach her some Argentine expressions and she teaches me some Peruvian expression involving avocado that I’ve subsequently forgotten. No other Peruvians seemed to know anything about it, so it may be something that only exists in Arequipa, or in Patricia’s head.
Eventually she advises me to sleep and talks to the driver, who it turns out lived and worked for a decade in Italy and speaks the language fluently. I wonder if all my drivers up till now have secretly been multilingual long-term travellers, and if it’s a common step to go from long-term traveller to bus driver. My future flashes before my eyes – the big steering wheel, the beer belly, the harassing of waitresses in the soulless stop-off restaurants, the bright lights passing through the night…
I awake and we’re in the desert amongst mountains, above which the fragile blue of early morning is scarred by a slash of orange. It’s all rather beautiful, and made better by the fact that I feel surprisingly sprightly for someone who hasn’t really slept in the last 100 hours.
Breakfast is a curious affair that involves olives, small cubes of butter laid out conscientiously on a plate, spam, jam, bread, and a warm quinoa drink. Our setting is a low yellow house in the middle of a low village, Chivay; if you stand up straight you can pretty much see clean out of the village to the fields beyond. It was cold, but by the time we’d finished breakfast the courtyard was soaked in morning sun and an alpaca stood there contentedly ruminating, occasionally sucking milk from a baby’s bottle, all the while wondering why on earth his brothers the guanaco and the vicuña decided to stay in the wild.
Our next stop is Cruz del Condor, so called for obvious reasons: there’s lots of Condors. Despite the crowds of cameras attached to tourists’ faces, this place is special. Even in the cliff-lined valleys of Patagonia a Condor sighting was rare, a moment of gliding beauty silhouetted against the sky and then gone, disappeared down into the depths or round some corner. But here, here the Condors come in twos and threes and fours, sometimes playing for the crowds, sometimes sitting on a rock ledge and puffing up their chests for the cameras, sometimes soaring right there, almost within reach, blocking out the sun and caressing the sky with their finger-like wings. They are so close I can see their ugly vulture heads and the distinctive white collar. I remember someone once being described as a BOBFOC: Body Off Baywatch, Face Off Crimewatch. The Condor must be the bird kingdom’s equivalent.
(Apparently in the States they say Butterface, as in ‘everything but her face’ which is rather good, except that it’s sexist (there’s no Buthisface) and it casts butter in a negative light, which should be against the law as a form of hate speech.)
After the Condors we were soon at the trailhead at San Miguel Pampas. The trail cut along the right side of the Canyon, with cliffs above and a long drop below. Colca Canyon is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, but obviously isn’t marketed as well, evidenced by the fact that almost every American I’ve met assumes the Grand Canyon is the deepest. If it wants global recognition it should change its name: ‘The Grander Canyon’, or ‘The Twice-as-Grand Canyon’.
The path provides easy walking and slopes gradually downhill before becoming a bit steeper and falling to a bridge. A man checks your ticket and then it’s a steep uphill climb to lunch at San Juan de Chuccho. Ours was lomo saltado accompanied by rice and some avocado.
An hour and a half later and after another steep climb you reach the resting point at Cosñirhua. It feels like you’ve achieved something, and the proprietors expect you to celebrate by giving you the opportunity to buy 750ml bottles of rum and every label of cigarette imaginable. I can only think that they’re relying on someone turning up so exhausted that the purchase of an enormous bottle of rum seems like a logical idea. A woman is skinning a guinea pig and we watch her, trying to work out exactly where the meat is located.
From the resting point it’s about two hours to the ‘Oasis’ at Sangalle. From quite a distance you can see the tiny blobs of blue, swimming pools supposedly heated by thermal springs. You can also see the next day’s path, which winds up from the Oasis to the top of the gorge, 1000m above the Oasis. On the way you pass through a small town called Malata where there’s an obligatory group photo. Patricia shouts something that we laugh at like ‘sexy llama’ or ‘llama vagina’. We descend and cross the river again at a point where stark rock walls glow orange from the dusky sun.
At the oasis I strip down and lower myself timidly into the swimming pool. If it had any heat it’s now disappeared, and I manage about one length before deciding that if I’m going to get hypothermia I should at least wait until I get to the big mountains in the Cordillera Blanca. There’s no electricity in our set of bungalows, which lends the evening a rather romantic and exotic glow, as if we really were out there in the wild on a serious adventure. By candlelight we eat something that seems to be a modernist version of lomo saltado (same ingredients, but put together slightly different) and then head to bed at around 21:00.
It’s strange that the tour agencies sell this tour as an easy trek, because on the second morning, before breakfast, you are expected to gain 1000m in altitude on a steep relentless path. It’s really quite quite a bugger. We wake at 5am and I take the wise decision to eat something, a packet of biscuits, before joining the group mingling around in the cold of the early morning darkness. Up on the path we can already see headtorches lighting the path. I don’t have a headtorch, in fact only about three people in our group do, which means that the first hour or so is spent bunched up behind one of the people who had the sense to bring one, trying to remember how the path looked when it was lit up.
It’s not too serious, since soon a thin light washes away the darkness of the night and the path becomes readable. Our group spreads out, Patricia tells us to wait at the top, and I soon find myself passing slower groups and moving relatively quickly. I was using the climb as a kind of test: if I did it fast and felt ok at the top then I’d probably be ok to try one of the big volcanoes around Arequipa: Misti or Chachani. If I died before reaching the top… well, that would be that.
About three quarters of the way up, having passed most of the other groups, my legs start acting like whining toddlers, screaming at me to stop and threatening to pull me down the mountain if I don’t listen. I take a break and watch a few similarly lonesome walkers catch up. A burly bearded man from Italy, from South Tyrol, passes me near the top and offers the sage advice: “you can go slowly, but you should never stop”. When I reach the top he congratulates me and then lights another cigarette; he’s now halfway through his celebratory 20-pack – it seems the rum-and-cigarette-themed rest stop of the first day was on to something after all.
It’s 7:15, and up at the top I am surprised to find a group of middle-aged German hikers who, much to my annoyance, scaled the path quicker and seemingly with less problems than I did. Most of them are carrying ripe bellies and completely grey hair. It’s around then that I decide that the big mountains will have to wait, that I’m just not that fit.
Over the next 90 minutes the rest of our group arrives, in twos and threes and fours. We cheer them as they approach, sweaty and exhausted, and the Brazilians open their sacred pot of peanut-butter and offer it around as a form of celebration. We still haven’t eaten breakfast, so the offering is well-received. When we do eat breakfast, in a village close to the top of the trail, it’s a bit disappointing. I was expecting a recently killed wild boar to be bronzing on the spit surrounded by an array of crispy guinea pigs, freshly-congealed cheeses, rice, cakes, scones with cream and jam, porridge, peanutbutter and jam sandwiches, and every variety of potato that Peru has to offer (around 4000). I wanted something worthy of our early morning struggles. Instead we were given a petridish of scrambled eggs and some crap bread.
Our walking for the day was done, and so we squeezed ourselves back into the minibus and moved onto the next spot, a viewing point hanging onto the edge of an especially beautiful part of the canyon. Then on to a market town geared towards tourists. There you can buy Pisco Sours, Colca Sours (the same but made with Sancayo, a splendidly sour local cactus fruit), you can pose with an eagle on top of your head if you have no moral objections, and you can buy ‘artisanal’ pieces probably made in a factory in Ecuador.
Before lunch there’s time for a soaking in the thermal baths at La Calera. These are not the best thermal baths you’ll ever go to: the view down the river is hidden by a wall and there is no effort to make the baths seem part of the landscape; instead they look like two suspiciously blue swimming pools. That being said, it’s always nice to loll around in hot water for an hour or so, imagining ourselves sea lions lazily flapping water over our sprawled-out bodies. There are simple changing rooms and a few showers.
Lunch is not included in the price of the tour (25 soles) but is worth it, solely because it’s a fairly superior buffet, and if you can’t get your money’s worth from a buffet then your either stupid or have a small stomach. There’s also dodgy wifi for those who like to be anti-social during meals.
The final scheduled stop is the high point at Patapampa (4910m). Although this is quite high, no-one in our group showed any signs of altitude sickness. We are there for so little time and there’s no exercise required, just pushing a finger down on the shutter of the camera, so there’s really little chance for the altitude to get you. It’s a desolate landscape populated by small cairns and wind.
From there we only stop once before Arequipa, around 2 and half hours later, when the driver spots a passing herd of llamas and alpacas. We fall in and out of sleep while someone’s ipod plays through the Black Eyed Peas back catalogue.