This is the story of two wandering nomads that made their way into the Colca Canyon, hiked for three days in the heat, made some friends, loved the scenery, but ate way too little food. After three days of hiking, our nomads found themselves happily tired, starving, and ready to hike up and out of the canyon. While they loved their time in Colca, their stomachs were rumbling with desperate cries that said “Feed me! Feed me! Feed me!” With the promise of a buffet lunch ahead, they gather their strength and kept the pace up to summit just after sunrise. This is also a story of awe, natural beauty, Incan mythology, and a canyon that houses many different worlds within its cliffs. The story ends with Douglas shocking a group of four Chilean women by eating 5 over-the-top-FULL plates of food. We laughed, we got drenched in sweat, we walked under the moonlight, we painted our faces with bugs, and we would do it all over again (but with snacks this time).
We flew into Peru on August 31st for three more Peruvian escapades before heading south to Bolivia. After spending three weeks with my family in Mexico, we were ready for some more backpacking adventures. Initially we had only planned to spend three weeks in Peru, but we fell in love with the country and we had to go back one more time to see Arequipa, the Colca Canyon, Puno, and Lake Titicaca.
The direct flight from Mexico City to Lima was a breeze and could not have gone any smoother. As we exited the airport, we realized we had been there 7 times in total. We felt at home! We knew the customs procedure, the way out of the parking lot, and exactly where to go to get a cheaper Uber. If that wasn’t enough, we knew where we were going afterwards, our favorite hostel “Condor’s house.” After more than half a year on the road, feeling somewhat rooted was a welcomed sensation.
Our first stop was Arequipa: The White City. Arequipa is the second most populated city in Peru after Lima and it houses the Constitutional Court of Peru. The beautiful historic center is a UNESO world heritage site, and we loved spending a few days walking around it. This is not a stop to be missed if you are visiting Peru for two reasons: First, the city is walkable, beautiful, affordable, safe, a history-geek heaven, and it has great food. Second, Arequipa is very close to the Colca Canyon, which is a must-see for any adventure traveler. Because of its proximity, Arequipa is the best place to book a hiking tour of the canyon.
We spent a couple of days in the city to acclimatize to the altitude and researching tour packages. We wanted to make the most of our time in the canyon, and we had also heard that the two-day tour was pretty a grueling experience, so we decided to do the three-day hike down and up the canyon. Big shout out to the barista at Starbucks for suggesting that the three-day tour would not only translate to a better bang for our buck, but also be less strenuous and allow us to spend more time with the local communities.
The Odyssey Begins:
Our trip started at 4:30 am when we were picked up at the hostel. Like two little zombies, we got in the van, were given blankets for the ride, and immediately passed out. I woke up once during the two-hour ride to reclaim the blanket my beloved neighbor had stolen but passed out about a second after my victorious re-conquering. We came back to our senses a couple of hours later to a completely different setting. The city lights had been replaced with sharp drops in scary cliffs, buildings were replaced with boulders larger than ourselves, and our tiredness was replaced with big smiles. We were SO excited to explore the canyon every traveler had told us we could not miss.
The first stop in the tour was Pampas San Miguel, where we had a small breakfast before beginning our hike. The size of the breakfast should have been the first warning sign, but we were too tired to put two and two together and trusted (stupidly) that lunch would be more substantial. The second stop came about a half hour later at the “Mirador Cruz del Condor” (Condor’s Cross). This viewpoint is famous for being the perfect place to see the Andean Condor. Our tour guide kept talking it up and my un-caffeinated self kept thinking he was probably exaggerating a little bit. He wasn’t. No words could have prepared us for the spectacle we were about to see. One after another, condors soared above us. I was surprised to learn that condors don’t actually fly. They glide using air currents, and they are mighty elegant at it.
Have you ever seen a condor fly? I never had. Before our trip to the Colca Canyon, I had seen a condor in a zoo once. I remember the bird sat quietly on a branch and observed visitors from the corner of its aviary. While its size was impressive, I didn’t give the zoo condor much thought. Quite frankly it seemed unimpressive. The birds I saw in the canyon were nothing like the one in the zoo. They were magnificent in the sky. The Andean Condor, with its three-meter wingspan, is one of the largest flying birds, and certainly larger than any bird I had ever seen. As I stood on the edge, looking down the cliff, I understood why this splendid bird plays such a large role in Incan cosmology. Seeing a condor fly above you is a lesson in awe and humility.
A Few Words on Incan Cosmology: the Three Realms of Existence:
For the Incas and other Andean communities, existence is divided into three worlds, or levels, of consciousness: Uku Pacha (world below), Kay Pacha (this world) and Hanan Pacha (world above).
The underground world, or Uku Pacha, is represented by a snake. This is the world of the dead ancestors, the source of life, and both the beginning and the end of cycles. Just like a snake changing its skin, in death spirits shall face their darkest sides in order to leave them behind, evolve, return to life wiser and prepared for a new cycle.
The world of the living, or Kay Pacha, is where the present life in our planet interconnects. Humans, animals, and nature mingle together to create reality. Every living being has a purpose and energy. According to Incan mythology, we are transient beings in a larger cycle. Our souls come to this planet over and over again to learn and evolve. The guardian or representative of this realm is the puma. The puma is the leader of both the Amazon and the snow-covered Andes. Its courage, strength, and ability to adapt to any climate make him the natural guardian of this world.
The last realm is Hanan Pacha, or the world above. Hanan Pacha is the home of god Viracocha, the sun god Inti, the moon goddess Mama Killa, thunder, lightning, rainbow, stars, constellations, and spirits. The guardian of this realm is the condor with its three-meter wingspan. The condor observes the world from above while connecting Kay Pacha with Hanan Pacha. Condors were believed to be messengers. They communicated between the realm of the living and the realm of the gods. After death, condors were believed to transport one’s soul to the skies and to the realm of the divine.
Hiking Down to the Oasis
After visiting the condor’s cross, we drove 20 more minutes to reach the trail head at the rim of the canyon, where we met the rest of our group: a German couple who we liked quite a bit. After introducing ourselves and playing a short name game, we began our walk down the canyon, but we were interrupted by an unexpected spectacle. Military helicopters were doing training landings for search and rescue. Although not as impressive as seeing condors fly, the whole operation was quite interesting to observe.
After our small distraction, we walked for about four hours to reach San Juan de Chuccho, a village close to the bottom of the canyon. The walk down was beautiful, hard on the knees, and HOT. The hardy vegetation was sparse, and you could tell we were at the tail end of the the dry season. We had been told that we would be able to buy water in the canyon, but the prices would be high, so we brought 9 liters of water with us. Boy were we happy about that! The sun left us drenched in sweat and we were going through our water supply much faster than anticipated. The heat was not only draining our energy, but also made it hard to stay hydrated. Arriving at San Juan del Chuccho felt like a complete relief. The village has a somewhat tropical vegetation in comparison with the rest of the canyon. For hundreds of years the walls of the canyon near the village have been modified into terraces for agriculture, and the streams that originally ran down the canyon’s drains have been re-directed to canals that run through the village in a spider-web fashion. San Juan del Chuccho is a little piece of heaven amidst arid land and even the temperature felt more welcoming. The canals that surround the community made it seem like a sub-world within the canyon with farms, crops, colorful clothing, and modest buildings. I enjoyed leaving the world at the rim with its highways and street vendors and transitioning to the world down the cliffs with little vegetation, the occasional donkey bringing down supplies, and sometimes no one for miles, and finally reaching the world at the bottom where the canyon had been transmuted to a more hospitable and fertile farming community. Although the Colca Canyon is longer and has bigger towns within it, it felt familiar and similar to the Copper Canyon in northern Mexico in terms of climate, vegetation, and the presence of communities within the canyon. There, too, one can find many worlds between two canyon walls.
The second day we started our hike around 8:00 am. All in, we walked for about 5 hours, but stopped to visit two towns along the way. First, we stopped at Cosñirhua, known for its honey production. Second, we stopped at the town of Malata, a larger and more modern town. There, we tried some traditional chicha and visited a museum about the traditions and ancient inhabitants of the canyon. Along the way, our guide shared his knowledge on Incan cosmology, medicinal plants, local traditions, and popular beliefs. It was a pleasure to get to know him better, and to have such a knowledgeable companion.
Our last stop on the second day was the Sangalle village, or Oasis. The village lies at the bottom of the canyon at an altitude of 1,900 meters above sea level. The trail there felt like a good rollercoaster going up and down ridges more times than I cared for. The extreme heat and steep hills proved to be a bit of a challenge to the legs and stamina but were fun nonetheless. When we arrived at the Oasis, I was ready to find a flat surface to lie horizontal on. My body felt like an overheated car about to smoke. Much like San Juan del Chuccho, the efficient use of the scarce water resources indeed made the village feel like an oasis. A portion of the river was diverted into canals that ran through the town supplying water for small pools and bathrooms. From talking with our tour guide, we learned the Oasis had historically been an agricultural town, but as the years passed and tourism increased, most of the land was re-purposed for homestays. Tourism, according to our guide, has injected a new form of life and energy into the canyon. Towns and villages that are seeing their younger generations leave in search for better opportunities remain alive. In times when agriculture would not be enough to provide sustenance to smaller villages, tourism has helped fill the gap bringing not only money, but also a bit of the outside world with it.
We found a couple of hammocks to lie in at the oasis. The people we met and the beauty we saw had inspired us to journal. As I attempted to draw a bit of what I saw from the shade of a tree, I reflected on how many worlds we had found inside Colca. Towns differ from each other not only in size and trade, but also in traditional dress and climate. What’s even more mind blowing is how close and far Arequipa is simultaneously. Despite it’s remoteness, Colca’s wilderness is not pristine and is a fairly hostile place in terms of weather and water sources. People live from supply runs to nearby towns, but just a couple of hours away a vibrant Arequipa awaits. You could live in the city and never interact with the worlds inside Colca, and vice versa. We were sure glad to have had the opportunity to see both places.
The last day we started our trek uphill at 4:30 am. We hiked up from 1,900 to 3,300 meters above sea level as the sun came out over the canyon walls. At first, we were a bit unhappy with the start time, but as we hiked up we were glad to be doing so without our dear friend the sun. The hike was grueling enough without the added heat.
I have intentionally failed to comment on one of the most important aspects of our hike: food. But I will do so now because it will help paint the picture of two starving hikers making their way uphill. Everything on the tour was perfect. We met kind people, our tour guide was knowledgeable, the accommodation was simple, but comfortable and clean. The only less than ideal part of the tour was the quantity of food. Our stomachs rumbled for a good hour before every single meal. The worse part was that after every meal we were still hungry. The cries our stomachs let out kept getting louder and louder with each passing hour. On top of that, the difficulty of the trails and the amount of walking kept increasing with each passing day. This brings me to the last day and the hike up, we were STARVING! We had had a small dinner the previous night at around 7:00 pm, and just a single banana each before the hike. I felt like kicking myself in the ass for requesting the vegetarian menu (food safety concerns) because I could have seriously used some protein on day three.
As we made our 1,400-meter ascent, our hunger was reaching critical levels. I felt a bit weak and tried to find solace in filling my stomach with water. Near the end, the promise of breakfast was the only fuel that kept us going. Step after step, we knew we were getting closer to that plate of scrambled eggs at the top. I daydreamed about whether or not I would have coffee with those eggs. Maybe they would have juice or toast. And if they had toast, would they have jelly? Doug had also reached a critical level. He got to the point were his brain becomes a bit dumb and can only focus on the single goal of getting nourishment. We rarely reach this point at the same time.
We reached the rim around 8:00 am. We took a couple of photos and the adrenaline masked our hunger for about 5 minutes. Our guide then shared the news that food was actually still a 20-minute walk away. Thank god the walk was flat(ish). We arrived at the little restaurant and were swiftly given our promised scrambled eggs, toast, and sweet lord baby Jesus: JAM! The only problem was that after eating we were STILL HUNGRY! Our guide told us we would go to a buffet restaurant for lunch (which was out of pocket and a bit expensive), and we were so looking forward to it.
After breakfast, we drove to the town of Chivay. Our first stop was the natural hot springs. Our tired muscles were in heaven. The hot springs were quite hot, and the mineral/salt content had an almost narcotic effect. If my legs could smile, they would have done so from ear to ear. Doug and our new German friends decided to take a dip in the freezing river water, I opted to watch from the comfort of warmness. We had an hour and a half allotted for the hot springs, but it felt like 5 minutes. As we left, I felt like I was walking on clouds back towards the bus.
Time to EAT!
After the hot springs, we drove to lunch. We sat at a large table with 10 other people. The buffet was delicious and offered a wide array of Peruvian/Western food, as well as a salad and dessert bar.
I’ve seen Doug eat at buffets before, and it is fair to say he always gets his money’s worth. But this time… this time he got way more than that. After three days of intense physical activity, and very little nourishment, he was ready for some food. I have never seen him eat that much in all of our years together.
He kept going back for more over and over again. I think the total count was 5 FULL plates of food, 2 soup bowls, and dessert. A group of four Chilean women sat in front of us and they were mouth-hanging-open-shocked to see how much Doug was eating (I was too). But after that meal we felt renewed and thankful for our food.
As we left the canyon, we stopped at Pampas Cañahuas National Reserve, where we saw flamingos, llamas, alpacas, and wild vicuñas. We stood next to the road looking at the valleys atop the canyon when it began to snow. I thought to myself “what a perfect ending to our Colca Canyon experience”.