I’m not sure how Cara heard about this Colca Canyon trek. She showed it to me, and I was in. The photos other people had taken looked beautiful, and it sounded great. We checked out a few tour companies from a Google search, and checked out TripAdvisor and LonelyPlanet to see what other people had to say. We wanted to do a 2 day/1 night tour into the canyon. Eventually we decided on Peruvian Colca Trails, as it was the most affordable, and didn’t look like a big tourist/party vibe. Andres, the guide, also agreed to accommodate us as vegans.
The Colca Canyon houses the Colca River in Peru. It is one of the deepest canyons on Earth, with some parts being more than double the depth of the Grand Canyon.
Andres met us outside our hostel in Arequipa at 3am the next day (23 November). This was when I realised that Peruvian Colca Trails was just him, and that it was only Cara and I going. I was pretty happy about this. We picked up a few other people in a collectivo (a shared bus), and drove to Chivay, where we had breakfast. Next we were driven to the Condor’s Cross view point. This is where you get to see how massive this canyon really is; you are looking at a mountain-side higher than the Drakensburg mountains from the ocean – over 3500m. One of the highlights of the trips for me was seeing an Andean Condor for the first time, which was incredible; their wings can span up to 3.2m.
We were then dropped in Cabanaconde, where we started the hike down to the bottom of the canyon. Before you start descending, you walk past pre-Inca terraces of potato and maize, which is a site worth seeing on its own. Andres explained to us that Peru introduced the potato to the world, and that they have over 3500 varieties! They also have about 35 varieties of maize.
Condor’s Cross view point.
On the way down, we got to talking about the history of both Peru and South Africa, and it was really interesting to hear Andres’ reactions and opinions on our country (some that would probably not be warmly accepted by the more conservative). He grew up in the Andes, and it was really interesting drawing parallels between the histories of the people of the Andes, Peru, and South Africa. It only reinforced my realisation that people go through similar struggles all over the world, and face similar tactics of oppression by authorities, colonisers, and those who deem themselves, their beliefs and and their ways of life superior.
On the way down we passed other hikers, locals leading mules carrying heavy loads, and amazing geological features. I think some of the photos of the canyon are a bit misleading; the canyon is really dry, hot and dusty, with almost no plant growth. The geological formations are incredible though; beautiful and at the same time, very intimidating. The hike was steep as hell, and I found it punishing on my knees. It took us about 3 hours to get to Oasis Sangalle, a weird, but cool, lush oasis at the bottom of the canyon, right against the Colca River. I say weird because you walk straight from a dry, dusty path onto grass with palm trees, swimming pools etc. There is no transition. I was dead tired, overheating, and wasted no time jumping into the closest swimming pool. I think I was also suffering from a bit of altitude sickness, and my body was covered in sand fly bites (so uncomfortable and itchy), so I was probably not in the best of moods. After a swim and a great lunch though, I was feeling a lot better.
Andres gave us the option of walking another 2.5 hours to another place to stay the night, so that we could hike out of the canyon a different way the next day, but we really liked the oasis, so we decided to stay there and hike back out the way we came in. We spent the afternoon just relaxing, walking around, and recovering from the hike down. Andres made us an incredible Peruvian-style vegan dinner, and we hit the bed exhausted and full. Pro tip: take a bunch of water down with you if you go. The water from the oasis is about 5 times more expensive than everywhere else. Andres took us for a walk down to the river, and showed us how huge it gets in the rainy season. We also took a walk to a footbridge overhanging the river, where we would see a beautiful waterfall pouring out the side of the valley.
The next day we started hiking at 4:30am. I enjoyed the hike up so much more than the hike down; we were hiking in the cool of morning, and didn’t have the sun on us until we arrived at the top. My sand fly bites had started going down, I had adjusted to the altitude and my body temperature was manageable. My legs felt strong, and I had a great hike back up the canyon. We passed a few mules again on the way, some with tourists on who couldn’t walk back up the canyon. I felt sorry for them; the mules, that is. Andres told us that there have been a few accidents in the past where people riding mules have collided and fallen down into the canyon; not a great way to go.
We had breakfast at Cabanaconde, then drove to various towns and viewpoints on the way back to Arequipa. Some of the highlight stops were: a field of alpacas, the volcano view point, Patapampa (about 4900m above sea level with views of the volcanoes Ampato, Sabancaya, Hualcahualca and Mismi), and driving through a million year old volcanic crater.
All in all, we had a great time. It was humbling to be surrounded by such incredible natural beauty.
Use Andres (Peruvian Colca Trails) if you do the tour! Not only was he a great person and had a good sense of humour, but he also made sure that we were always comfortable and fed. He made us some of the best food we’ve ever eaten; authentically Peruvian and vegan.
Andres told us that about 80% of Peruvians believe in a mix of Catholicism and traditional beliefs.
Animals eres mi amigos. Yo no como mi amigos.
The Colca River
That’s the oasis on the left
Check out the sand fly bites on my elbow
Words by Pete, photos by Cara