colca canyon trek - sore legs, football, a ghost story, a party and nearly a fight

  • the canyon
  • cruz del condor
  • the mighty condor
  • this one flew right over me
  • obligatory self photo
  • oasis below where we had to walk to
  • mad canyon walls
  • up there?
  • canyon river below
  • struggling
  • the oasis
  • eyeing out the football competition
  • after climbing 1080 metres
  • cool farmlands in canyon
  • kids dancing traditionally
  • tamed eagle

On Sunday the 28th of June, I headed off to the Colca canyon (about 3 hours from Arequipa) to do a 2 day trek. I didn't really know what to expect but figured it would be a leisurely walk through the canyon, observing condors on the way. Wrong!! The second day ended up being possibly the most strenuous exercise I've done since starting my trip.

We (me and my German buddy Hannes) got picked up from the hostel at 4am to start the 3 hour drive out to the canyon. I was pretty grumpy due to the early wake up call and the damn cold I've picked up, so walked into the minibus, said a quick hello to the other trekkers and plugged in my ipod through my hoody over my head and went to sleep. 2 hours later I woke up with my ears throbbing due to the change in air pressure. An hour later we stopped for a quick breakfast on the side of the road and continued on to Cruz del Condor - a "mirrador" or observation point purely for watching the majestic condor.

It was quite touristy, with over 200 people standing around looking down at the canyon, clutching their cameras waiting for a sighting of the bird. To be perfectly honest, I felt like a bit of an knob when I joined them and pretty much just wanted to get back into the minibus to get back to sleep. But, after about 20 minutes when the first condor was spotted I realised why everybody was standing there. Yes, it was quite cheesy when the crowds started oooooing and aaaaahing at the sight of the bird, and the nearly simultaneous clicking sounds of a couple of hundred cameras made it feel like you were in Disneyland, but "wow!" what a sight. It really is a beautiful bird worthy of being considered a god by the Incas. An adult bird can have a wing span of between 2 and 3.5 meters and the sight of it gliding through this deep canyon is truly awe inspiring. At one point, just as I was about to head back to the bus, a massive one glided directly over me, and I managed to get (what I think is) a great closeup picture.

After the bird watching, we headed a bit further down the canyon to start our trek. The plan was to hike about 6 hours, "mostly" downhill that day and then stop off at a place in the valley, called the Oasis. Before we started the trek, our guide Remmy, gave us a bit of background of the area. There are 3 main villages in the canyon (unfortunately I've forgotten their names), all of which are pretty much closed off from the outside world. So much so, that there are no roads into these villages, and according to Remmy, most people don't speak Spanish and rather use the Inca dialect of Kechwau (need to check spelling). The story goes that when the Spaniards came here, these people cut all the bridges into their area and refused to assimilate with the Spanish (good on them). They pretty much just live off the fruits and grains they grow, and it's said that people in this area easily live to a hundred because of the healthy lifestyle. After the short lesson we started our trek.

Going downhill always sounds pleasant but it's one of those deceiving little bastards we have in life. After about 2 hours of a constant steep downhill, your knees start clicking, your calves tense up and your thighs start burning. You're almost tempted to start running down the mountain, but it's impossible because of the loose rocks and gravel. The landscape was spectacular. I wish my camera hadn't broken about an hour into it so that I could have taken more pictures. We eventually reached a bridge crossing the river that carved this amazing canyon, and on reaching it I walked down to the water and gave myself a bit of a scrub. The water was pretty cold but felt great in the midday heat. After that we start our ascent to the oasis. This was a pretty leisurely climb for about an hour, followed by another hour or so of flat ground before a relatively steep climb to the oasis.

On arriving at the oasis, Remmy invited us to have a game of football with the locals. There was a small wager of 2 big beers per team. Eventhough my legs were killing me and my cough was not sounding great I accepted and we headed down to the "football pitch". This was pretty much a piece of massively uneven grass next to the campsite. A couple of minutes after kickoff I scored, but the goal was disallowed because the ball crossed the goals above knee height - a rule the locals forgot to mention before kickoff. A couple of minutes later I came in with a second goal, again disallowed because of height - both were probably about 5cm above my knees, which isn't exactly high. Our team was getting a little frustrated with this. About a minute before the whistle, Hannes set me up with a beauty and I finally got an allowed goal. Now anybody reading this, who knows how crap my football skills are, will be seriously questioning the truth behind these 3 goals or the skill of the other team. The locals were pretty decent players and also had the altitude on their side, so I guess I was just lucky. In the second game my true skills came out and I ran around like a headless chicken, to the point that I felt like I was going to throw up, so I sat out of the next game. After the matches we had dinner and I headed straight to bed feeling a bit feverish and doubting whether or not I would continue the trek the next day. Our accommodation consisted of small, very basic thatched huts which reminded me of the place i stayed in in Mozambique.

We got woken up at 6am to start our climb out of the canyon. Remmy told us we would only get breakfast once we got to the top because he didn't want us getting all lazy on him. He said we walked well the day before and he wanted us to do the climb in 2 thirds of the time that the programme allocates to it. This meant climbing 1080m in just over 2 hours. He had obviously forgotten that both Hannes and I had played football against him the day before and he had obviously not heard my coughing up one of my lungs either. Regardless, we headed up at quite a steady pace. Halfway up, my legs felt like they were going to give way, my shirt was soaked in sweat and I had stupidly forgotten to get some water before leaving. We eventually got to a lady selling bottled water and bananas. I ran up to her and hugged her. She laughed shyly.

Throughout the trek I spoke to Remmy quite often. He's a funny guy so I enjoyed chatting to him and it also gave me an opportunity to practice some spanish. We mostly just had the usual guy talk about sport and girls. He taught me a few cool spanish phrases, mostly too rude to write here. But on approaching the top, Remmy got a bit more philosophical. He started telling me how the canyon and the mountains surrounding it have spiritual powers, some good and some evil. Not being the spiritual type, I just smiled, nodded and said "Si, claro." But the next part of his conversation sent a bit of a cold chill down my spine. Apparently...." a few weeks ago, 2 French trekkers walking in the area without a guide, got lost as it was getting dark. Suddenly they saw a strange old lady and asked her which way to the nearest village. She smiled and pointed out the direction. They started walking and the path pretty much lead to a cliff. The first guy fell and broke several bones and had severe head injuries, the other guy tried to help him and in the process broke his arm. After 3 nights they were found by some guides and were transported to the hospital in Arequipa, where one remains in a coma. The description the second guy gave of the little old lady did not match any old lady in the surrounding villages." Then Remmy concluded, still in Spanish "We take and we take from the earth, and sometimes, she finds a way of taking something back". By this point I was glad the trek was over.

After breakfast we hopped back onto the minibus and headed to some hot springs to rest our weary muscles. I had the misfortune of sitting next to a guide who had an MP3 player with a loudspeaker and who's favourite music was of the boy band variety. For the next hour I tried playing the hardest heaviest music I could find on my ipod, at full blast to try, in vain, to drown out the annoying sounds of Justin Timberlake and co. I prayed to the said mountain gods and asked if they did want to take something from us to please take that goddam music player. A while later we stopped for a buffet lunch for 20 soles (about 4 pounds). I had 3 big helpings and 3 desserts. I actually felt bad afterwards because there's really no need to eat that much.

After getting back to Arequipa we went out for drinks with some of the other people on the trek. This turned into a bit of a big night which included a group of us jumping into a taxi with a group of peruvian chicas who said they would take us to a cool club. It might be a cultural difference but this was not a cool club by my definition, so we hopped back into a cab to get back to the hostel. Before that we stopped to buy some late night/early morning street food off a little old lady with a burger stand. I thought we were going to get into a fight with 2 drunk Peruvians who asked the old lady for 2 burgers, and when she finished making them they tried to get away without paying. And then started getting a bit pushy with the lady. I'm not one for looking for trouble but for 2 grown men to do that to a little old lady out in the cold serving food at 5am made me want to kick some ass. I told the one guy in broken Spanish to "F*ck off home and leave the old lady alone." He tried shaking my hand appologising and that just p!ssed me off even more. Eventually they walked off, and we paid the old lady for the 2 burgers they had ordered. In retrospect, eating 3 burgers at 5am was probably not a good idea.