Trekking Colca Canyon is something I’ve had my heart and mind set on doing since the very first time I set foot in Peru five years ago.
Well, since before then actually.
In the months leading up to my flight I messaged Tour Company after Tour Company after Tour Company enquiring about the various treks they offer, their length, suitability, difficulty etc. Unfortunately I didn’t quite make it that time. My few days in Arequipa were squashed in right at the end of a five-week volunteer programme, during which time I’d lived frivolously each weekend going on expensive excursions to the likes of Lake Titicaca, Machu Picchu, the Amazon Rainforest and more local sites in the Sacred Valley. So by the time I got to Arequipa, I barely had two pennies to rub together and the responsible thing to do was spend said pennies on food and accommodation.
The second time around myself and travel companion [aka then-boyfriend aka now ex-boyfriend] had the choice between attempting to summit Mt Misti, the crazy huge volcano that looms over the city, or trekking the canyon. We wrongly (and stupidly) opted for the first.
So this time – this time – I was 100% certain that I was going to do it. Not only because it’s been five years coming but also because my ex-boyfriend was planning on taking his shiny new girlfriend to do the trek, and being the child that I am I was determined they weren’t going to do or see anything I haven’t already or will be doing or seeing. Peru is my country, not theirs.
I know how stupid that sounds but what can I say? I’m a bitter little butterfly.
Anyway, it was all set. I had booked onto a 2 day/1 night trek beginning at 4am from my hotel in Arequipa. I decided on the 2D/1N as opposed to 3D/2N as I’d been told by a few people that both treks were almost exactly the same route and you saw basically the same things, but the latter was slower and more relaxed.
I can’t even remember the name of the company I booked with – there are so many in Arequipa, I just walked into the first I saw advertising a departure for the next day!
My alarm was set, bag packed, water purchased and I headed to bed.
A few hours later, I woke up and found that for whatever reason I couldn’t lift my arms higher than my waist.
I had been feeling under the weather for days, more than a week in fact.
Ever since returning from Salar de Uyuni tour (blog post on it’s way...eventually…) every single muscle and bone in my body was aching. I had no appetite, felt constantly sick and had one of the worst headaches of my life. In short, I was convinced that I had malaria/dengue/chikungunya/zika/insert other mosquito-borne virus here.
The whole not being able to lift my arms was a bit of an issue given that I was due to spend at least 12 hours over the next 2 days trekking.
When my guide arrived to pick me up at 4am I explained the situation to him and he told me that he’d strongly advise against participating in the trek in my state, but would have a word with the office and see if they can squeeze me in on the “Colca Tour” later that day.
‘If I was feeling up for it’.
Clearly the tour guide shared the same sentiments as me: I was heading for a sure-fire mosquito-related death.
The difference between the tour and the trek is that, whereas the trek is very much focused on seeing the landscape, experiencing nature etc, the tour focuses on this as well as local culture and history. It involves a lot of interaction and cooperation with locals in the small villages and towns along the way to Cruz del Condor, and a heck of a lot of churches.
What can I say? I’m a sucker for a good church.
The main difference between the two is that the tour is done by bus. Other than an optional short hike to Cruz del Condor on day two, transport between points is done entirely in the comfort of a nice, big, temperature-controlled bus. Which was a big plus for me in my situation as buses don’t require arms!
Luckily there were still a few spaces on the bus, and at 7:30am they called my hotel to inform me to be ready in half an hour.
In true Peruvian fashion, I was still waiting almost one and a half hours later…
As mentioned about two sentences back, day 1 is supposed to start with hotel pick-up at 8am. When you do eventually get picked up, first on the agenda is a nice 4 hour drive to the first stop, the town of Chivay.
The guide – in my case it was a very happy round-faced man called Omar – talks a lot along the way, explaining about the history of the area and any wildlife spotted along the away. If you are lucky enough to see some wild vicuñas, the guide will make the driver stop the bus for a while for you to take some photos.
My tour saw a lot of them and I did take photos, but they’re on my camera. and despite having been abroad for almost three months now I still haven’t worked how to use the wireless upload feature.
A little while later we stopped again to see a pen full of alpacas and llamas!!
It truly was a camelid lover’s dream come true!
Lunch is at an all-you-can-eat buffet at a little restaurant in Chivay. At S./30 per person it isn’t exactly cheap by Peruvian standards, but when they say all-you-can-eat, they mean it. And the food is so varied and so delicious! It is the perfect balance between traditional (Read: weird) Peruvian cuisine such as cuy stew and lomo de alpaca and dishes clearly catered towards tourists such as spaghetti napolitana and good ole chips.
There’s a decent enough range for vegetarians, and my absolute favourite was these flat little potato pancake things that tasted like hash brown but about a million times better!
After lunch we were all dropped off at our respective hotels/hostels/guesthouses. The quality of your accommodation really depended on how much you paid for the tour. There were a few older couples who ended up in a very nice looking hotel! Mine was basic but comfortable enough, if a little chilly.
Between drop-off at the hotel and dinner (which was to be at around 7pm) there was a good 4 or 5 hours to spare, and so the tour included an optional (for an additional cost) visit to the nearby hot springs. Hot springs aren’t normally something that particularly appeals to me, but given the previously mentioned not being able to move my arms situation, I figured it would be a good idea to relax all affected muscles.
Oh my goodness, it was Heaven!!
The coldest bath was 37 degrees Celsius. Coldest!
Dinner that night was at a really cosy little pizzeria in Chivay.
The place was choc-a-bloc with a whole bunch of tour groups, not just our own, and we were entertained all evening by a traditional Peruvian band and a couple of teenagers in traditional dress who danced a whole range of different dances. The man on stage kept calling them Timon and Pumba, but that surely can’t be their actual names??
The dancing was very much focused on audience participation, and it was so much fun! Normally I’m the first to shy away from being pulled up in front of a crowd, but when Timon (the guy) decided he wanted to dress me in his poncho and make me dance with him, who was I to refuse?!
Soon enough we were joined by Pumba and her chosen man, all of us dancing together. They kept picking random people from the tables until eventually there were about 15 of us all dancing in a single and doing a conga line around the room.
It was such an enjoyable experience, and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed that much with a bunch of strangers before!
Breakfast was to be served at the hotels from 5.30am ready for a 6:15am pick-up. Knowing that it would consist of a bread roll, jam, butter and a choice of teabags, and not being a breakfast person anyway, I planned to wake up at 5:55am and wolf it down ready for pick-up in order to maximise sleep time.
Unfortunately, as I was the only person in the whole hostal, I received a personal wake-up call at exactly 5:29am.
A lot of tour groups take advantage of the early rise to go straight to Cruz del Condor – arguably the main highlight of both the tour and the trek – in order to try and sight some condors. Our guide grew up in the Colca Valley and so was very familiar with the flight patterns of the birds, insisting to us that we needn’t worry and the best time to see them was normally between 9am-10am.
The first stops of the day were the small town centres of Chivay and Yanque. I’m really not sure in which order we stopped at them – the timestamps on my photos make me want to say Yanque came first, but that wouldn’t make sense given that we started off in Chivay, right?
Both towns were very similar – they had beautiful churches around the main square, a lot of artisanal stalls, men holding falcons, traditional dancers and not much else.
However, the highlight of both the towns for me was definitely the colourful statues on the corners of one of the squares in Chivay.
Not many of the tour group wandered far enough from the plaza and/or drop-off point and I really think they missed out not seeing the statues!
Next it was finally time to head to the deepest part of one of the biggest canyons in the world, Cruz del Condor. This was the part of the trip that I had been waiting for. This is what I’ve wanted to see for more than five years.
It did not disappoint.
Our bus stopped a little way before the ‘summit’ of Cruz del Condor so that those who wanted to participate in the optional hike with Omar could alight. Omar told us that a lot of the tours don’t offer this part, and that only he and a few guides suggest it to their guests. He advised that whereas you’re not always guaranteed to see condors, if you do the hike you get to see them take flight from even lower, which makes it a more spectacular sight.
The hike took about an hour, although it could have been done a lot faster if it weren’t for the fact that there were so many condors distracting us. Honestly, it was incredible!
We saw baby condors not quite ready to fly, ‘teenage’ condors who hadn’t quite earned their stripes yet and of course the big guys, the adults, swooping up and down, left and right in the most majestic way.
The flight of the birds, in contrast with the absolute magnitude of the canyon is impressive to say the least. The two in contrast to one another make you truly appreciate how huge the canyon is. Omar told us a few stories of hikers and trekkers who had decided to forego local advice and take on the canyon alone. Every story had a common ending: the trekkers fell and died. The drop is just crazy, and it’s terrifying to imagine what it must feel like to plummet down there, knowing that you’re not going to make it! Horrible!
Officially this was supposed to be where the tour ended and the boring four-hour drive back to Arequipa began. However, our bus driver and Omar were absolute gems and stopped a handful of times on the way back for us to all clamber out of the bus and take some snaps of the absolutely breathtaking view of the whole valley!
The initial cost of the tour was S./100 and that was to cover transport, accommodation and breakfast.
On top of this there is a S./70 entry fee to the national park that you can pay directly to the tour company.
Lunch each day was S./30 and S./25. Dinner was S./15.
The cost of the hot springs was S./15