Peru's mighty Colca Canyon and it's majestic Condors
Peru’s mighty Colca Canyon and it’s majestic Condors
By the time we’d reached Peru on our 2012 year long trip we had been constantly on the road for 9 months, moving on every three days or so from town to town, city to city, village to village. We’d lost count of the amount of overnight buses we’d taken in South America. Trying to sleep uncomfortably upright in our slightly declining seats and feeling every hairpin bend on the countless bumpy mountain roads. To say we were tired by this point is an understatement, but we were of course still loving every second.
This tiredness heavily influenced our decision not to take on one of the world’s most popular hikes, the Inca Trail. Don’t worry we still went to see Machu Picchu. There was no way we were going to travel this part of the world without visiting one of it’s wonders!
Instead of spending five days strenuously walking to the magnificent Inca site we shamefully decided to take the train. Some of you may be disappointed in us for taking the easy option and missing out on a once in a lifetime walking trail like the Inca, but our trip to Machu Picchu was still one of our fondest memories from that year away.
Me and Shelley at Machu Picchu
Another big factor in making that controversial decision is that we knew only a few days after leaving Cusco, the hilly base city for Machu Picchu, we were heading to Colca Canyon, one of the world’s deepest canyons. And we didn’t want to simply visit the canyon, standing on its rim with all the other tourists, looking down in amazement at its vastness, we wanted to walk to the bottom and then back up again! This is quite a trek to take on since at it’s maximum it measures almost 14,000ft from peak to stream bed.
From speaking to other travellers we were fully aware of how challenging that trek would be so we thought by taking the train to Machu Picchu we’d be saving some much needed energy. I wish we were still in our early 20s when energy seemed to be an unlimited quantity but those days are unfortunately long gone.
Getting to Colca Canyon was easy, done so on ANOTHER bus journey from Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, a few hours south. Shadowed by a huge Volcano, Arequipa is also worth a visit to see it’s attractive architecture made from the surrounding volcanic sillar rock. Our bus, filled with an equal mix of locals and tourists drove through the arid mountainous landscape on route to Cabanaconde.
Arequipa’s main square
Cabanaconde, at 12,000ft above sea level, sitting on the edge of the canyon, is the main town in the region with the most choice of accommodation and other tourist amenities. For this reason the majority of tourists got off the bus here, but we were heading further into the remoteness to the tiny town of Huancarqui.
Continuing on to dusty Huancarqui is recommended. Almost untouched by tourism it provides the real Peruvian Andean town experience. A real outback town. There’s nothing to see in the town itself and has an almost ghost town appearance. There are a small handful of restaurants but don’t expect anything special. Most of them were offering the usual three course meal deal that you see so often in Peru. A soup, followed by a main of meat, potatoes and veg before finishing of with a local hot tea.
The town is dwarfed by the surrounding mountains and take a short stroll just outside its centre and you’ll be rewarded with some breathtaking views of the canyon and rolling mountains beyond. We did just that the evening before we took the plunge into the deep chasm itself. We were almost the only souls around apart from a new canine friend we’d made who lead the way for at least a couple of hours. We passed a farmer leading her herd of sheep and a man on horseback who gave us a couple of directions. But that was it, no tourists in sight.
Sheep herder on our walk just outside of Huancarqui
Our new canine guide for the afternoon
One of the big draws to this area of Peru aside from the epic Colca Canyon landscape is the famous Andean Condor. A monster of a bird with a wingspan of up to 6ft. They’re becoming extremely rare these days and are sadly declining quickly due to their loss of habitat. If they survive, they mate for life and can live with their partner for up to 50 years. They have a mythical status in the Andes and considered a symbol of health and prosperity in many parts of South America. I had to see these incredible creatures. I’d be disappointed if we didn’t.
Another advantage of staying overnight in Huancarqui is that you’re a short bus hop from the main Condor vantage point a few kilometres out of town. We took advantage of this by getting up early to make sure we arrived before the herds of tourists from Cabanaconde. When we excitedly reached the view point there was just a couple of other people there both well equipped with their oversized zoom lenses. It was incredibly calm as the sun was rising above the mountains creating streams of light through the morning mist and dust. We sat on a wall on the very the edge of the canyon’s rim, keeping our eyes peeled for the majestic birds.
Shelley waiting patiently with our two new Danish friends
After about an hour of waiting, full of anticipation, we were finally rewarded with two giant shapes gracefully gliding below us within the canyon’s walls. In the silence, two beautiful condors soaring left to right. Then after a few minutes of wide eyed appreciation we saw another, and then another! You’re never guaranteed to see these rare birds so we were so excited to have already seen four. It was such an incredible experience to be witnessing these creatures in such an epic setting and with so little other tourists to spoil it. Of course it wasn’t too long before the tourist bus loads started to arrive but we didn’t care. We’d already been treated to our very own private show and it felt so special.
A fantastic Andean Condor
As more people arrived the Condors were getting closer to the vantage point and started flying overhead as well as down below. These birds were just as curious about us as we were about them. As each bird flew past you could hear the chorus of clicks from dozens of camera lenses capturing a moment everyone of these people will treasure for ever. After a couple of hours of satisfying Condor watching we thought it was about time we made a start on our trek to the bottom of the mighty Colca Canyon.
Some tourists getting their perfect shots
The Condor viewing point
The Colca Canyon trek
Our chosen path down started back in Huancarqui. As we stood at it’s edge, we realised it’s base, where we were heading, was a VERY long way down, almost too far to see to the naked eye. To give you some perspective, Colca Canyon is twice as deep at the Grand Canyon. That’s pretty big! We looked at each other with ‘what are we doing!’ looks on our faces. We also noticed just how steep the paths were, zig zagging over and over again like the mountains’ scorched veins until they reached the bottom.
At the distant bottom, amongst the parched canyon landscape was an area of bright green. This really stood out as was such a contrast to the miles and miles of brown dry mountainous terrain. There must be water down there we thought. We couldn’t see it but of course there must be. What else carved this huge gash in the Earth. The strange little oasis kept us motivated as we began our descent.
View from the top of Colca Canyon
The steep incline really took some concentration. The ground beneath our feet was loose so we had to tread carefully so not to slip and fall. We’d been told by our guest house owner that an Italian tourist only a few days ago died on these very paths after straying off to retrieve his girlfriends bottle of water, lost his footing and tragically fell to his death. Although that terrible accident isn’t a common occurrence in these parts it was still constantly on our minds. We took it slow, especially Shelley as she had already fell on her arse a couple of times in the first few minutes.
Me making my way down the valley
But we were happy to take our time. It gave us the opportunity to take in the magnificent views. The infiniteness of the canyon makes you feel so small and insignificant. We occasionally saw other people on one of the many paths across the valley. They looked so minuscule, like tiny ants crawling the soaring valley walls. After several hours we made it to the bottom, just in time for a late lunch. Looking back up to the top of the ridge where we started we said to each other “Did we really just walk all the way down from up there?!”.
We were now in the middle of the green oasis that we spotted at the top. It was beautiful and unexpected. A tiny little tropical paradise with palm trees, well kept lawns, colourful flowers, little bungalows and a very inviting swimming pool. We can’t tell you how out of place it looked within its wider surroundings.
The little tropical paradise
We were tempted to stay the night but the plan was to walk on to one of the few villages in the canyon for a more authentic canyon village experience. We knew we had a few more hours of light left in the day so we had some time to enjoy this little slice of heaven. The lunch menu was clearly aimed at tourists so we ordered a plate each of Spaghetti Bolognese before taking a quick dip in the swimming pool. Once recharged from our walk down we set off for our search of accommodation for the night.
We underestimated the distance to our village target as it was starting to get quite dark as we approached. The village was completely different to the tourist friendly oasis we left behind a few hours ago. It couldn’t have felt more remote, situated in the vastness of Colca Canyon.
Shelley walking the canyon
As we walked through the village we were greeted by a couple of barking dogs, a few panicked chickens and a sorry looking donkey. But there wasn’t a human in sight. Aside from the livestock you could hear a pin drop. It was hardly the friendly welcoming village we were hoping for. And the setting sun darkening the skies weren’t helping. We scanned the buildings for any sign of accommodation but there was nothing. We stood still for a while scratching our heads and then a man on horseback approached us. “Accommodation?” we asked. “Sleep?” we mimed with our hands as pillows against our faces. He understood and lead us to what looked like a derelict barn. He pointed to it and then just left us with confused looks on our faces.
The local man on horse back leading the way
The place was deserted and dark but we decided to have a look around. The main building was two story, the ground floor being a building site but the floor above seemed to resemble some sort of accommodation. We went up the half finished wooden staircase, opened one of the unlocked doors, and there were bedrooms! They were as basic as basic gets but they had beds, and the beds were made. We were a little concerned with the gaping gaps in the floorboards to the building site below. Especially as we found a fairly large spider under one of the pillows and a baby Scorpion under the bed frame. But there was no other option so we went outside and started shouting “Hola!” half a dozen times until we were relieved to see the woman proprietress appear out of the darkness.
Our shabby accommodation compound
After a surprisingly comfortable sleep we woke early the next morning to the all too familiar Cockerel screaming like the worst kind of alarm clock with no snooze button. But we didn’t mind as we had a long trek back up to Huancarqui so we were happy to get going before the sun’s strength kicked in. Our path back up was on the opposite side of the valley to the village so we had to walk a couple of kilometres following the canyon’s stream to a bridge which would could take us to the start of our upward trail.
Once we reached the bridge we looked up to see the daunting task we had in front of us. Getting down the valley was difficult enough but as we started the incline we realised how easy we had it the previous day. And this time there was no green oasis with swimming pool to reward us at the end.
Shelley on the steep path back up to the top
Walking up the uneven path we quickly became aware that this was to be more of a climb than a walk. With each laboured gasp it quickly started to feel like we were breathing through a straw and we remembered how thin the air was. We’re in the Andes remember.
As the morning reached it’s end the fierce sun was starting to slow us down but we stubbornly persevered upwards. At every bend on the path we stopped to get our breath back and take a sip of much needed water. We expected to look up to see circling Condors awaiting our doomed fate. Joking aside we did see another Condor way above us in the azure skies which for a moment helped us to forget the challenge we were currently enduring.
A path view of Colca Canyon
Another 8 hours after leaving the village we finally made it to the top of the canyon. Exhausted, hungry and sunburnt but proud and thankful to have made it. We drank our last dregs of warm water while looking back at what we had just achieved. To say it was tough is underplaying it but would we do it again? You bet we would!