Finding a tour company that would take us for a 2-day trek of the Colca Canyon was what you might call a painless experience. The Plaza de Armas in Arequipa houses approximately 1 million companies vying for the chance to furnish tourists with such tours. The only problem is that you don’t really know what you’re buying, as the standards of service (not to mention correlation between what you’re told and what you receive) vary hugely in this sub-continent. Thankfully, we got lucky.
Day Zero: It’s about 9.30pm and a delightful female roommate who has already shot me a few glowers has decided on an early night.
Unfortunately for her, being “an asshole”, I relish these situations. And so I fixed her with the sweetest smile I could muster and said “Yes, in a few minutes, I’m not quite done”. Eventually I ran out of things to organise and had to head to the lounge to gasbag with a few usual suspects. On the way out, however, I caught an eye sneaking a look at me through the slats of the bunk and I’ll tell you: If looks could kill, I would not be turning these words right now.
Day One: The 3am start was fairly grim. Not only did I spend the morning weaving and ducking the scowls thrown my way by my new friend, but the whole ordeal was lathered in that peculiar fuzziness that typifies getting one’s shit together at a strange hour and on little sleep. True to South American schedule, the “3am pickup” was closer to 4am, and we were finally on our way toward the hills.
The highlight of the journey to Chivay was certainly the breakfast stop. After some 2½ sleepless hours, I was fairly keen to get some caffeine onboard. Not only were we treated to stale pan and mermelada, but we were also able to enjoy some fine Peruvian Taxidermy Art…
|¡La pieza de conversación!|
The bus ride carried us through a stunning landscape of small towns, terraced fields and the magnificent backdrop of the mountains. The road gradually deteriorated into a loose, undulating and twisting gravel affair that had me pining in no small way for my cyclocross bike. To carve those twists and rolls in the land at the foot of such an extraordinary vista would be damn near a religious experience.
Eventually, when I was sore from craning my neck out the window and to the sky, we arrived at our first destination of Cruz del Condor – Cross of the Condor. It sits at the shoulder of the vast Colca Canyon and provides a few elevated viewpoints to observe the condors as they go about their business.
It’s by no means guaranteed that you’ll see any condors on a visit here, but we were lucky enough to watch 4 juveniles as they both chilled out on the rocks and in full, marvelous flight. I knew that the birds would be big, but I couldn’t anticipate their true scale. The birds we observed were only young, but their wingspans were easily 2m (6.6 ft) wide.
To take off from the cliffs of the Canyon they hop outward with their wings outstretched and simply allow a heat thermal to loft them higher and higher into the air, where they begin the long graceful glide along the top of the cliffs. As they soared through the air I noticed that their wings were tipped up at the end, very much like the wings of a beautiful, big jet:
Just while we’re here, allow me to indulge my (borderline) obsession … There really is no finer jet than the 747. It has a poised, commanding presence – I’ve loved them since I was a boy. The shape is quintessential jetliner. I adore the sleek nose and the gentle taper of the roof, as if an enormous, godly hand has stroked it down. The massive wingspan, twin engines and wingtip flick are simply exquisite. To watch a 747-400 bank softly through the air is to bear witness to the culmination of some beautiful engineering indeed. Man, what a rush it must be to pilot one of those things!
Where was I?… Ah yes, condors.
They were a spectacle to behold, gliding gently along the cliffs. The sight of such a plain and impressive elegance was compounded by the sheer size of the Canyon itself. The depth from where we were observing was around 1500m; a long way down. To see the cliffs rise from such a distance and morph into a cracking ridge of huge mountains really hammered home the fragility of our existence. Such an impassable wall of natural terrain was utterly humbling.
We had a group of nine for the trek – the guide made up number ten. It was a fairly standard selection of people, a few soft and a few gamey looking specimens but nothing too far to either end of the scale. I figured that being tourist-friendly the only real issues any individual might encounter would be the heat, and how much shit they had piled into their backpacks.
The whole trip descending into the valley had me visualising returning here with a long-travel mountain bike. Loose rock gardens interspersed the trail, with long sections twisted by design and groomed smooth by a million hoofs. It would make an EPIC downhill race set against that Canyon / Mountain backdrop.
|The track down – would make for mean skidz.|
Rather than the 3+ hrs quoted for the trip down, we hit the bottom in 2:09, confirming that we’d done well to choose the 2-day option. At the bottom we found this rather cool swing bridge that we had to cross before beginning the traverse of the other side:
|Not the best shot of the bridge…|
As we were making our way up the trail we had to give way to a procession of locals that consisted of:
1 Doña, 1 Don, 2 laden mules, 2 small dogs, 1 horse and 2 sheep.
It was… pretty strange.
|Looking down to the night’s rest|
We all arrived to the Oasis in varying states of exhaustion, where we were to doss down for the night. The gals from the Netherlands in particular had found that the infamous Dutch mountains had left them in pretty poor stead for a full day’s walking. I was pretty tired (and pink) from a long day with my Irish skin exposed to the blaring sun.
It was with much enthusiasm that we tucked into the night’s meal and retired early to bed, due mainly to the impending 5am start but also due to a lack of electricity hampering campsite navigation. Not, however, before the group could swap war stories and blister tales from the day and regale each other with the highlights. I noticed our guide tucking into a small vial of hot liquid with much fervor, so I asked him what it was. Quickly he organised the hosts to prepare one for me and I was put to the task of finishing it.
I thought I’d found a noxious substance when my girlfriend’s father had encouraged lavish quantities of rakija into me at the Serbian Easter, but this stuff revised my horizons. Whereas the Yugoslav vodka had the toxic nose of paint-thinner, this steaming little flask had a leafy, vegetative smell that appealed to a deeper, more historic angle of charge. The small quantity I ingested milked my insides and fastened a silly grin onto me that would endure the following hours until a blissful, sturdy sleep took hold.
Day Two: I was in two minds about walking ahead on the final ascent of the Canyon. Naturally, my sporting interest and curiosities were piqued by talk of a known gringo time that was more than a full hour slower than the local’s efforts, but I was also mindful of the solidarity that was to be enjoyed by hanging back with the group. When we took off and it became evident that a) my legs felt fine b) our guide was nursing a decent hangover and c) most of the group was still hurting from the previous day, I decided that I wouldn’t be helping things by sticking around. The views were obscured by mist anyhow, so I got the signoff from the tour guide and The Better Half to have a stab at the track under my own steam. And off I went.
It was hard going initially – my muscles took a long time to warm up and my lungs were generally objecting to the thin air. My heart was up in my throat and thudding away with a disquieting persistence that made me wonder if all of this wasn’t a bit of a bad idea. Even though we were in the base of a Canyon, it was still pretty high up – and certainly unfamiliar territory given that all my mountain biking had been done at below 750m ASL.
As I began reeling in the groups that had taken off ahead of us I managed to find a more comfortable rhythm, but quickly discovered that I’m no cragsman. The inital sprightliness that carried me over the rock sections disappeared quickly and I resorted to long, hard pushes to keep the pace up. Despite the inadequacies, it was a great feeling to get the heart hammering and the sweat pouring after a spell of pretty staid travelling.
About halfway up I picked up three companions; two of which were stray dogs that I later learned run from the nearby town to the halfway point to scavenge food from trekkers, and the third was a Belgian marathon runner whose pride would not allow for me to walk on by. I gained an initial advantage but felt that unmistakeable feeling of a pursuer bearing down. Sure enough, I turned a few corners later to find him hot on my heels, dripping sweat and panting like some poor, laboured dog. True to my suspicions he made no effort to pass, so I relaxed the pace a little and enjoyed chatting with him as the dogs circled and yapped around our ankles.
Hitting the top was a thorough anticlimax for the both of us. We had anticipated at least another 30min of climbing, even after factoring in our supposition of a slightly quicker ascent. Nonetheless, one of the biggest wins of my life was to find a lone, blasé Señorita sitting atop the cliff face with a thermos of agua caliente and several sachets of café instante. By this time it was 7:05 a.m so still pretty cold, and that hot coffee was a godsend. After adjusting for our tardy start I put the ascent at around 1:25 for myself, and around 1:40 for the Belgian – as his group had preceded mine. Significantly quicker than the standing 2:20 but by no means troubling the locals!
I enjoyed sitting and talking with the Belgian, having donned all of my clothes from my backpack, as we waited for the groups to arrive. When I was waiting for my second cup of hot coffee I asked the Señorita if we were the first tourists to arrive. She fixed me with a look of polite disinterest and said “Sí, campeones”. I had no choice but to laugh at the effectiveness and unintentional humour with which she had demoted us and put our feat in perspective – it was brilliant.
The rest of our group arrived several good conversations later, save for the notable absence of our hungover guide and the two Dutch gals. I quietly observed with genuine cheer as all of the girls delighted in their accomplishments. It was abundantly clear that it had been a slog, yet they had all pushed themselves in one way or another and were now free to soak up that pleasant incredulity and fluttering warmth that flows from exceeding one’s expectations.
With the back of the Canyon trip well and truly broken, we had a lazy day of convenient diversions to ring in our return trip to Arequipa. A buffet spread sated our rumbling appetites, a thermal hot spring soaked our weary pins and various sideshows discharged our tourist obligations. Throughout it all the group rejoiced in the interim solidarity that the experience had furnished us with, enjoying the transitory jokes and smiles of a familiar crew that appreciated that it would soon part ways.
I sat up front with the tour guide as he gave me impromptu Spanish lessons and chewed incessantly on coca leaves which sweated the sickly smell of lawn clippings and cold weetbix. We passed through, and stopped at, a few pueblos which, wounded by the 2007 earthquake, now rely heavily on the traveling dollar. We were able to peruse their craft at our leisure and also found a woman who had domesticated an alpaca and an eagle. Here the lovely Jovana models the animals…
It was a bizarre feeling to have an eagle sitting on your arm, let alone on your head, as we were later treated to. The power of those talons was immediately apparent and, even in its domesticated state, it had a dignified and impressive confidence that no human could ever replicate. They are beautiful creatures.
It was a great experience on so many different levels. Not only did we get to spend 2 days surrounded by amazing landscapes, but the people here in Arequipa are truly great. We stumbled upon a sense of community that was absent among our other destinations and which goes a good way toward alleviating the pangs of want when thinking of New Zealand. It´ll be with a small pain that we depart Arequipa, but she´s always on the map for a return journey.