Colca Canyon and my faithful steed Indio

Trip Start May 18, 2007
Trip End Jul 28, 2007

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Monday, June 11, 2007

This past weekend, our group of five new volunteers from GVI (Jacqueline, Ian, Meghan, Gitta, me) plus Chris (who just left us Monday morning), went to Colca Canyon for a 3-day trek.

The Colca Canyon is the second deepest canyon in the world after - no, it's not the Grand Canyon! - the Canyon Cotahuasi, also located in Peru about 10 hours' drive from here. The Colca Canyon being slightly easier to reach from Arequipa (6 hour bus ride), it is a very popular tourist destination.

We met at the Casa de Avila Friday morning at 6am, carrying a minimum of gear with us (no porters, llamas or yaks to carry our stuff on this trek), and psyched about this weekend. Our first night would be in a lodge down at the bottom of the canyon, with thermal baths, a nice meal and even beds. Our second night would be in another part of the canyon, also down by the river, at another lodge with a swimming pool. Whoo-hoo!

You might have noticed above that staying down by the river at the bottom of the second deepest canyon in the world implies that at some point, one has to CLIMB UP and out of that canyon in order to come home. That would be reserved for our last morning, very early, in order for us to catch a bus at 6:30am, and go to a special observatory called "Cruz del Condor" to view condors soaring in the morning sky.

Our guide Robert met us at the Casa de Avila at 6am Friday, and we all travelled by taxi to the bus terminal, connecting along the way with 5 others who would join us on the trek: Gol from Israel, Tara from Kansas, and two sisters and their dad (Tikva, Shyra, and Mark) from Madison, Wisconsin. We got on the public bus leaving Arequipa bound for the small town of Cabanaconde, at 6:30. Fortunately, we had reserved seats, as more and more locals kept piling in along the way, such that by the time we reached our destination, there were at least as many people standing in the aisle as there were sitting down!

After a decent lunch at a "hostal" in Cabanaconde (with 1980's music videos playing on a small TV in the corner...), we started trekking. The first hour was deceptively easy - nice gentle dirt trail. We reached a point that showed us the entire trail down into the canyon, and back up on the other side. Oh-oh... Holy crap, that didn't look easy...

We then proceeded to slide down the scree-covered trail for the next 3 hours, careful with every footstep not to slide and fall on sharp rocks and pebbles. I was faster than I expected and actually led most of the way down. We crossed the bridge over the Colca River just as the sun was starting to hide behind the mountains, and reached the Lluhar Lodge at dusk.

Dusty, parched, and tired, we took our time getting changed into our bathing suits. Fortunately it wasn't cold out, so this wasn't as painful as I had feared.

Getting into the thermal bath was absolutely delightful. Nothing fancy or luxurious, mind you - really a "ce-ment pond" with naturally-hot water in it. I'm kind of glad it was nighttime, as I didn't want to see the colour of the water, or the condition of that pool...

The stars were bright up above, and we sat there chatting, counting shooting stars and watching for blinking satellites. Ahhhhh... all the pain and soreness of the day melted away.

A dinner of thick soup, fish, rice and veggies followed, which I ate, much to my chagrin later on. Our guide Robert took his pan flute and guitar out, and sang us a couple of songs, as we enjoyed our coffee or "mate de coca" (coca tea) after dinner.

I went to bed, and woke up with a stomach ache at 1:30am. I'll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that I went back to bed 1 hour later, with nothing left in me. Sick again on trek - a mere two weeks after the Inca Trail... What is going on? Have I become so fragile that I get sick with the first meal on a trek every time?

Of course, when I got up early Saturday, I wasn't terribly hungry, and had little energy to tackle a 4-hour climb followed by another hour straight down. I ended up trailing the group pretty early on, and found myself walking with Jacqueline, who had a bad chest cold and had serious trouble catching her breath. So we encouraged each other up the mountain, and I started feeling a bit better as we neared the top. Oh, and for those of you familiar with the renowned book by Kathleen Meyer, "How to Shit in the Woods : An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art", I'll be submitting an extra chapter titled, "Or Behind a Cactus Bush in a Steep Canyon". Hey, we all spell "relief" in different ways... don't judge!

So Jacqueline and I finally made it to the top, and started heading down. Straight down. Slipping down on scree and loose rocks again. Not a fun trail to hike on, but the landscape all around is absolutely breath-taking. Harsh mountains, not as vertical as Colorado, perhaps, but stupendously deep. The trail is a never-ending series of switchbacks which requires a fair amount of concentration to avoid a nasty spill.

We reached our second camp/lodge about 45 minutes after the rest of our group. I was feeling much better, but very tired, and still not very hungry. The decision was made: Jacqueline, Tara, Meghan, and myself would hire mules the next morning for the 3am hike out of the canyon. I'm sure I could have managed it, but would have been too slow for the group.

So, all was arranged by Robert, and after a bit of food, and a funny episode of making hot chocolate (more in a different entry later), we went to bed at about 8pm and got up at 2:30am. Ready to go at 3am, we finally got on our mules and got going shortly thereafter.

Oh my lord! I'm not a rider - in fact, I've been on a horse maybe 5 times in my life. And a mule is, of course, not a horse! But my faithful steed Indio was a star. Quiet, gentle and docile, it knew the way up that steep hill in the dark. The mule driver for our group was actually holding on to Indio, giving me an extra dose of comfort, but after getting used to it for the first 15 minutes, I was fine for the remaining 2 hours. I was able to enjoy the scenery under starlight, especially once the crescent moon made its appearance over the opposite ridge. Wow... I could also appreciate what my walking friends were going through - that hill was steep, and long. I could compare it to parts I trekked on Kilimanjaro - with the altitude being less of a factor, but still not an insignificant one. Kudos to all my friends who walked up - they were fast and did a great job.

I did feel a bit like I was letting myself down, not finishing the trek - but I still wasn't feeling anywhere near strong enough to go up that mountain on foot. So I chose to look at it in a different light. "What?! I have the opportunity of a lifetime to ride a mule in a canyon in Peru??!??! How cool is THAT!" And there you have it... seeing the glass almost full!

After reaching Cabanaconde again at the top of the canyon, we met at the same hostal for breakfast, and were reunited with all our group. We then failed miserably to get on the 6:30am bus to go see the condors. If you can picture a joke that starts with "how many Peruvians can you get on a bus?", then you have a good idea of the scene that was unfolding in front of us. A few were crawling through the windows, most were just pushing and shoving their way on, and all were carrying loads of stuff with them. We timid gringos just couldn't manage to push our way on, and we ended up waiting for the 8am bus, hoping we hadn't missed the condors!

Since we had reserved seats on the 8am bus, it was slightly more comfortable, as it is easier to take the full weight of a drunk Peruvian peasant when you're sitting down, rather than precariously trying to balance while standing in the aisle of a bus careening down a dirt road. So we pinched our noses a bit, and tried to keep smiling, and hoped it would all be worth it when we saw the condors.

And it was... they were majestic in their soaring flights up from the depths of the canyon to the ridge, barely fluttering in the morning air as they glided past us. Males and females, full adults and juveniles, in all, we saw approximately eight or ten beautiful animals - the largest land bird in the world with a wingspan that can exceed 3 meters. Condors mate for life, and we saw a couple settled on a rocky promontory, apparently nuzzling or... feeding one another in the morning sun.

There were tons of people about, as several buses had stopped on the way to let tourists and locals off. The locals set up shop, and attempted to sell their wares to the tourists. In the rising morning sun, with the temperature slowly increasing to a comfortable 12 or 13 degrees, the scene was peaceful despite the number of people. One could have stayed all morning, just watching condors soar...

We did have to get back on the bus to head home, so we sat in our seats, and hoped that the bus ride to the village of Chivay wouldn't be too crowded. It was some what uncomfortable, but what's an hour or two? When we got to Chivay, the bus emptied, and we headed to the Urinsaya Restaurant for one of those all-you-can-eat buffets. It was quite good, but of course, I remained quite careful of what I ate.

Back on the bus an hour later, and home to Arequipa uneventfully. At least, that part of the bus ride wasn't crowded!

All in all - a busy, challenging and tiring weekend. Beautiful, unique and worth suffering through...
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