Trekking the Colca Canyon is no small feat. In fact, it’s the second deepest canyon in the world, second only to its neighbour, Cotahuasi Canyon, which is only 163m deeper. So, given that we hadn’t done a multi-day hike since Chile, I was pretty apprehensive about our 3-day trek that would take us right to the bottom of the canyon, then back out. And although it was super tough (the last day being possibly the most physically challenging day of my life), it was also incredible.
We arrived to Cabanaconde in the dark, during a dramatic torrential rain storm and were welcomed in by the friendly folk of Pachamama hostel, an amazing place with a roof terrace surrounded by mountains, a toasty restaurant with a wood-fire pizza oven, and a couple of cool guys, also trekking experts, that run the joint. One of the guys took us under his wing on our first night, and got us sorted with a route to start trekking the Canyon the next day, booking us into some lodges to stay in along the way. Turned out he was doing the same trek, guiding some guys from our hostel, so we shadowed them along the way. (The idea of trekking with other people terrifies me!)
The first day of hiking was utterly beautiful. When I thought ‘canyon’, I kind of expected a big old dusty rock canyon, something like in 127 hours. Pretty samey. However, the reality was a lush scene of verdant green hills, rolling down endlessly into the canyon, with towering cacti everywhere, rivers and streams intersecting the mountain-like canyon sides, with colourful flowers, bees buzzing, and we even saw a grass snake in our first 15 minutes! The trail was alive with life, and the miradors just didn’t quit. It felt great to be out in the open walking along a trail (after so long in cities), liberated with just a daypack, two pairs of clothes, and some water on us.
Halfway down the first huge snaking hill of the canyon, we met an awesome blonde furry dog who became our travelling companion for the whole trek, staying with us until the bitter end. He walked alongside us, trying to eat any bees that wanted to sting us, and barking at anyone who came close (even when we were asleep in our huts and a fellow trekker tried to walk by as he slept loyally outside! Awkward). We called him Perro. He was the best. And he also loved posing for photos!
Some of Perro´s best shots…what a natural!
So the first day was pretty easy as it was mostly downhill. Having said that, the last couple of hours was VERY downhill, to the point where our toes were getting pretty crushed against our hiking boots, trying to make the steep gravelly downhills without stacking it! We walked passed an active geyser, and through adobe houses of local villages (= read 5 or 6 houses), and eventually reached Llajuar, a hot spring lodge where we were to spend the first night. We were greeted by our hostel dudes, and swiftly hobbled to the hot springs to soak our bones. Unfortunately they were largely flooded due to the rainy season (and only bath-water-hot) but we bathed regardless, then when the early afternoon rain came in by the shed-load, we played Monopoly under the shelter of our lodge’s outside seating area, nursing a beer and listening to the rain and the canyon’s dissecting river crashing past us below. For dinner, the lodge guys caught us some trout from the stream, and Sam had to behead and de-tail mine (I’m such a wuss!) and we fed the head to Perro.
Taking a break during the downhill, before it got SUPER steep…
The lukewarm hotsprings!
Day 2 was thankfully the easiest day, as we were mostly walking flat, and descending a bit further. After an initial painful hike upwards out of Llajuar, we trekked across the canyon horizontally, past more tiny houses, endless cacti, llamas, sheep and tons of dogs (some of which wanted a piece of Perro!), to a village called Malata where we had an AMAZING lunch at a lady’s house. She cooked us Lomo Saltado (see Food blog!) but it was the best we’d ever had. She truly knew how to season. I’m talking coriander, garlic, chili, incredible veggies and fresh Alpaca meat. It was divine! And quite a relief, because she just described it as ‘con carne’ and, looking behind me, I noticed she had a whole guinea pig (or ‘cuy’) farm in her garden! After lunch, we descended another 500m or so to Sangalle, described as the ‘Oasis of the Canyon’. Although not technically true, it was definitely an amazing mirage to see a cluster of fancy hotel/lodges with huge swimming pools in the middle of the desolate canyon! Our hotel was super lush, with a big blue swimming pool built into canyon rock with flowing fountains, hammocks in the tropical trees, and cute little huts to sleep in. There’s barely any power in the canyon, so you sleep in huts without lights and take torches everywhere – to pee, to eat. It’s basic, but also really cool – and we saw some amazing stars due to zero light pollution!
INCREDIBLE Lomo Saltado
End of Day 2!
The third day of hiking was hands-down one of the hardest things I have EVER DONE. I know there’s a lot of superlatives in this blog, but honestly, I thought I was just gonna have to give up and live in the canyon, at several points. We ascended over 1500m in 4+ hours, in blistering sunshine, up steep rocky paths, with very little shade and zero training. Thank fuck we’d already trekked for a couple of days and had some muscle mass in our legs, but it was still a seemingly impossible feat. Every 200m more we ascended, the canyon seemed to grow in height and the top seemed further away. In the last hour, we were taking breaks every 3-4 minutes because the altitude and heat were killing us. Even Perro was feeling it and would routinely slink off to find patches of shade puddles to drink from. But, alas, we made it!! Slower than the trekking guide time, but we made it. And the real sting in the tail was we only bumped into the trekking officials at the very end of our trek, so we had to pay about 30 quid whilst exasperated, exhausted, and gasping for air!
Taking a break on the steep uphill!
We stumbled home through a thin countryside track, passing by farmers herding sheep and llamas, with every slight incline almost killing our feet. After a cheap local lunch, we celebrated in true Sam and Chloe style by getting kablammoed on rum and coke on our rooftop terrace, then eating a load of delicious spitroasted chicken and chips at a local polleria.
Celebratory drinks on our hostel rooftop
A cute baby alpaca we found in town!
On our last day, we woke up at 6am hungover and weary, and grabbed a local bus to ‘Cruz del Condor’, a lookout on the canyon where you can see tons of condors circling in the early hours. At first they didn’t appear, and we were all standing there, tons of camera-straddled tourists, in apprehension. But when they did finally arrive, it was amazing! These huge, majestic birds, gracefully swooping the skies just above our heads. We’d seen a couple on our trail but to see them en mass was really spectacular (especially as they’re a national symbol of Peru. Kudos!)
What then ensued was one of the most ridiculous, delirious, hangover-induced decisions me and Sam have made to date. So basically, the public bus to take us back to Cabanaconde from Cruz del Condor is known to be unreliable, and that day, it just didn’t come. It was about 10am when we realised, after waiting an hour, that it probably wasn’t coming! We had an onward bus booked out of Cabaconde for 11.30am, a 2 hour walk away. We tried to haggle a place on a tourist bus but they were giving us crazy prices, so we indignantly decided to try and make it back for our bus ON FOOT.
We started brisk walking in our sandals (not what you want after a 3-day trek and some heavy drinking…) and soon realised this wouldn’t be fast enough, so Sam made the executive decision to RUN BACK, Forrest Gump-style! So he legged it, and I brisk-walked behind, down a deserted main road, with stunning scenery (taking in some of the parts of the Canyon we’d missed.. silver lining!), en route passing some terrifying bulls, lots of donkeys and some miffed-looking farmers. Sam eventually got picked up by a truck, made it back to town, then looped back on a bus to pick me up (the locals helped him track me down en route… so sweet!)
Irony is, our bus was cancelled in the end, so we could’ve just walked back slowly. But hey ho! The other killer was, Sam was so relieved to be back in town, he ended up spending the same amount on pricey bus food as we’d been quoted for a lift back to town, by accident! All I could do, through my huge blisters and sunburn, was smile through it, relieved that we made it for the next leg of our journey….!