Second Deepest But Not Second Best

When one thinks of big canyons one’s mind usually wanders to the Grand Canyon in the USA or the space formally occupied by my brain cells before I discovered vodka, but the deepest in the world is actually right here in Peru. It doesn’t have the sheer, vertical sides like the Grand Canyon so you don’t get a real sense of the depth just by looking at it but fear ye not, there are many fine companies that will take you on a guided multi-day trek through the 3354 metres deep Cotahuasi Canyon. Bollocks to that, though. The much more popular and easily accessible Cañón del Colca is the second deepest at 3191 metres which will do me just fine but not being one to stick with convention I decided I didn’t want to just do the standard three day trek. Oh no, I wanted four days because it takes half a day to get there from Arequipa and half a day to get back and I wanted more than one whole day in the canyon. Not that I’m greedy or anything.

I mean, even Arequipa isn’t an awful place to be, with El Misti standing guard over the town.

Day one hurt. I don’t do early starts at the best of times but I shuffled to the hostel lobby and squinted through blurry eyes at the other people who were starting a trek today. Blurry eyes are the only kind of eyes to have at that time in the morning on account of the fact everyone looks like shit. I know I do. You’ve either just woken up, scrubbed the egg breath from your mouth and attempted to vaguely tame your hair with the palm of your hand and some spit, or you’ve been up all night and you’re brandishing the remnants of a bottle of wine whilst demanding to know who keeps moving the fucking floor when you’re trying to find a comfortable space in the gutter.

Arequipa.

Bit by bit we were picked up by our various buses and I’m sure we were given some kind of brief about the day but I crashed out as soon as my head touched the window and didn’t wake up again until Chivay where we parted with S/.35 each for entrance to the national park. An unimpressive breakfast later and we were back in the van and heading to the most popular attraction in Colca Canyon; Cruz del Condor. Around 10 or 11 every morning, if you’re lucky, the condors can be seen circling, riding on the thermal air currents. We were indeed lucky, we spent about 20 minutes watching these incredible, majestic birds glide around the canyon. They’re spectacular to watch and not least because they’re so huge. I’m a jammy motherfucker, I am.

That vaguely bird-shaped speck is a condor, but you’ll have to take my word for that.

Aaaand then begins the walk. Downwards. Lots and lots of down. Relentlessly. Many people bitch more about up but I’m hard pushed to decide which is worse out of up and down when the down is about two and a half hours. Your toes hurt from being jammed to the front of your shoe, your knees start considering a mutiny and your legs are reduced to a substance that even jelly would mock. By the time we got to the bottom I was what is technically known as in hiking circles as “completely and utterly fucked” but we weren’t done yet. It was only lunchtime. The scenery in the canyon is absolutely beautiful. As you walk past a multitude of different cactus species and the towering maguey plants which resemble aloe vera on steroids, you catch glimpses of small villages nestled on the slopes of the canyon walls. There are mountains and scrub land as far as the eye can see and we stopped frequently just to stand there and take it all in.

That night, a group of eight of us stayed in a village called San de Chucchu where they fed us and sold us nice, cold beer. Mmmm. There should be regulations on popular walking routes. Chilled beer should be sold at 20km intervals along the route and during high season there should be full bars with attractive staff and pink cocktails with bits of fruit and umbrellas… ok so maybe not. I’m loving the basic accommodation in South America, where you eat your rice and chicken whilst a llama suspiciously eyes you up and guinea pigs run around the kitchen, unaware that they’re destined for the pot. I’ve gotta admit though, I’m not too keen on the 2am rooster wake up call, it’s gonna tip me over the edge one day. You’ll hear a strangled squawk mid cock-a-doodle-do and you’ll find me sat in a flurry of feathers, clutching a pair of garden shears, laughing manically.

Day two and the four day group split off from the three day group. Our group was just me, Luna and Gabriel with our guide, Jhon because no one else seems to find joy in walking endlessly through a dusty canyon to go and look at a waterfall. Fools. It took a fair while to get to Fure, the tiny village nearest the falls and again, I was fuckered! I swear I was fitter than this during the Inca Trail, all those pisco sours in Huacachina clearly didn’t do me any good. Gabriel and Luna were good walkers an all and I struggled to keep up but we made it to Fure in time for lunch where we stayed for a while, getting our energy back for the walk to Huaruro waterfall. It’s about a three hour round trip. Why oh why do I do this to myself??

As soon as we’d scrambled our way over a rarely used track the reason became apparent. I do love waterfalls, I gotta admit, There aren’t many things I won’t do just to catch a glimpse of water flowing over a cliff face, disappearing into a mist at the bottom and flowing out between rocks to continue its eternal journey. Back at the house where we were staying we managed dinner and a couple of beers between us before crashing out.

Day three was a mission back the way we came (after poor Luna had drained the fluid out of her blisters) then down to a slightly more commercial area where we’d be staying for the night. It was a big day and we had lots of kilometres to cover but we took plenty of breaks. On the way we met a guy and his kid scraping white stuff off the cactus. Jhon had already shown us these, they’re called cochinilla and if you squash them they erupt into a bright red substance which is lapped up by the American cosmetic companies. Amongst other things, it’s used for colouring lipsticks and these two were collecting them because they could get US$50 for every pound they collected. Now a pound is a fuck load of cochinilla but hey, I’ve had worse jobs. I’m not entirely sure if they’re an insect or fungus or what but whatever they are, someone, somewhere is spreading them all over their lips. I’m glad I’m not a make-up kinda girl.

The white powdery things are the cochinilla, and the colour inside them is the bright red you see on Jhon’s finger.

It was a long, hard slog to our last stop. I had a really hard time keeping up with Jhon and the other two, they powered on ahead and I lagged behind, stopping for water and photo breaks and to simply reassure my poor heart that’d it’d all be over soon and it didn’t have to try and break my ribs in an attempt at freedom. We got to the last bridge crossing and there was a little bit more uphill. I staggered my way up, wondering when I’d turn the last corner and stumble into Sangalle, also appropriately known as the oasis. We’d been taunted with views of it for much of the way, you can clearly see the swimming pools as you make your way along the paths that line the canyon walls and we knew there was a bar waiting for us stocked full of ice cold beverages.

Oh sweet joy! You’re taunted with views of these glorious swimming pools as you trek in the dust and the heat.

Eventually we made it. A cold shower later and we were sat by the pool, beer in hand. Day three was complete, just one more to go… You see the wiggly line up the mountain? Yep, that was day four. So I’ll be renting a mule, then.

If you look closely you can make out a path zig-zagging up the hill. That’s it. That’s the path.

I got to wake up an hour after Jhon and the other two on account of the fact they’d decided to walk the three hours up the fuck off great big hill. I was met at 6am by a man who took me and two other girls who’d also wimped out of the climb to the mules who’d been brought down the night before. It’s no wonder mules always look so depressed! Up the hill, down the hill, up with the gringos, down with the supplies for the oasis, back up with the gringos. But they’re strong buggers, bred for this whereas I was bred for sipping wine on a balcony overlooking a cityscape as the sun sinks over the skyline.

My saviours!

But I’d done this kind of thing before, I’d ridden a few horses in my time, this mule was nothing new to me as I demonstrated, expertly clinging onto the saddle for dear life as the mule made its way up the hill, wandering scarily close to the edge for no other discernible reason other than to freak the living shit out of me. My arse was killing me by the time we got to the top and trotted past the people that had walked up, I relinquished my claw-like grip for a brief second to wave to Luna and Gabriel then rode my mule into the village where I jumped off and tested my ability to walk. If the animal drunk beer I’d have bought him a crate!

Agricultural terraces on the way back to Arequipa. I might have seen them on the way in too if I wasn’t asleep.
If you give a lady some money she’ll let you pose for photos with her alpaca.

The drive back to Arequipa was punctuated by a stop off at a volcano lookout and a village where I decided I wanted a pet alpaca, then it was back to Chivay where a few people opted for a dip in the hot pools and I opted for stretching out on a patch of grass with a beer for an hour. Bliss. And this had to be last last big trek in South America didn’t it… Didn’t it?

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Cañón del Colca, Peru
Stayed at: Various places around the Colca Canyon, and Home Sweet Home in Arequipa

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