This past weekend was an incredible blur, and not only because it began with a 1 A.M. overnight bus from Arequipa that didn’t have a bathroom. (Seriously, nothing makes time slow to a torturously weird mirage of existence than having to pee like a horse for several hours). Fortunately, the bus arrived in Cabanaconde a little earlier than expected so I didn’t get to actually experience what it would be like to have my bladder explode.
The group of us, six in total, crammed into a small eatery off the main square and ordered coffee and tea while getting situated for the several hours of hiking that lay ahead of us that first day. As we did, a friendly dog made himself acquainted with us, sneaking under the table and poking his head up hopefully for scraps before finally settled against our legs like a large, furry heater.
Outside, the sky lightened rapidly, from early-early morning darkness to first dawn, then gradually fading into a muted glamosh of colors. We set off from Cabanaconde a little after six, passing the town’s early risers, the occasional mule team, and once, a large bull that came blundering out of a field with a human in tow, firmly holding onto the end of a rope that looped around the bull’s neck. Exiting the city, we stayed on a long stretch of rural road for about twenty minutes, herded by a couple of town dogs that had followed us out. The actual turnoff to the beginning of the trailhead was fairly unassuming, just a walk across a stretch of barren land with beautiful hills surrounding us, but then we reached the entry point to the canyon and it was like perspective was inverted.
Something that you know, but don’t really realize, going into a canyon-hike is that it’s going to start downhill. Not only that, but downhill is not synonymous with easy. While there were some stretches of lovely, mostly flat terrain, there was also a lot of scrambling and scrabbling down loose dirt and rock patches. The surrounding scenery was incredible, kind of like being in a landscape snow globe before the scene is sealed in with glass.
There were two main stopping points before we hit our final destination for the day, the Sangalle Oasis. We ended up improvising a few others because, well, hiking was hard! Not only did we have to descend into the canyon, we also had to hike up the other side and wind around and back down to the Oasis, which sat at the bottom of a different section of the canyon but on the same side we’d originally entered on. The last part was a bit of a doozy too because you could see the gleaming waters of charming little pools stark against the otherwise ruggedly-sunlit landscape, but the switchbacks worked their way at a truly arduous rate until we finally arrived, exhausted but elated.
It may be winter here, but personally, I haven’t enjoyed an afternoon by a pool in recent memory, so I took advantage of my sweaty-grossness, changed into bathers as fast as I could, and spent a good hour luxuriating in the water and the sun before retiring for a nap. We were all quite exhausted at this point, body clocks entirely off because of the overnight bus the evening before and then commencing the hike so early, so that even with naps under our belts we were all in bed around nine, with a 5:30 A.M. wakeup on the agenda for the next day.
The next morning we set off a bit later than we’d originally intended, Rocky still sticking it out with us and with a new black dog who decided he wanted in on the morning’s hike.
The beds had been surprisingly warm overnight, which I hadn’t been expecting given that there was no electricity or hot water on the property, but was nevertheless a most pleasant surprise. It never fails to astound me how little a person really needs to be happy, and how that little is directly related to an essential thing they might not have. Like a warm bed to sleep in overnight. I think that’s one of the reasons I love hiking, besides the physical challenge it presents: it strips a person down mentally and unburdens one from unnecessary things—and, if you hike long enough, thoughts. Anxieties and problems seem to fade away in the face of natural, imposing beauty, and Colca Canyon was one of the most demanding when it came to recognizing that need to let go. The second day’s hike was much shorter, only a couple hours compared to the seven or so from the day before, but it was a constant uphill that burned legs and lungs.
Once we emerged from the canyon, we were met by a Peruvian working to collect the fees for hiking in the canyon. For international visitors, the fee is 70 soles, but because the group of us are volunteers in Arequipa we got a really nice discount at 40 soles. The man kindly pointed us back in the direction of Cabanaconde, and after about another twenty minutes of walking across much flatter terrain, we arrived. Because our schedule was a little more pressed due to our late start, we divvied up responsibilities between us: I went to go get food with another volunteer while the others bought bus tickets back. Rocky followed us straight into the restaurant and up the stairs to the counter, and promptly passed out on the floor next to us. After fumbling through some basic math, we just ordered multiples of every sort of sandwich and hoped for the best. The bus ride back was a long five, five and a half hours, but it was also a blessed relief to sit down after a grueling couple of days.
Overall takeaways and advice for those planning on a two-day Colca Canyon trek:
-Pack at least one 2.5-liter bottle per person, and make sure to drink it sparingly but often.
-Food: I found that part of a loaf of bread, bananas, and a small jar of peanut butter were amazing for keeping me satiated. Make sure you have biscuits/cookies for quick, on-the-go sugar and protein bars or some form of nutty trail mix to keep you full longer.
-Money: We did encounter one or two places to buy food and water from along the way, most notably after a viciously hard climb up the opposite side of the canyon about halfway through day one. It’s definitely worth it to carry spare change or a 10-sol note, especially if you’re worried you haven’t packed enough food. Overall, the entire cost of the trip is less than 200 soles without a guide, including buying provisions beforehand. Bus tickets were about 17 soles each way, there’s the regular international fee of 70 soles, 20 soles for the overnight stay at the Sangalle Oasis, 15 soles for a warm dinner, and all of that leaves a big buffer for the nice, sit-down meal you’re going to want to have in Cabanaconde when you do finally clamber out of the canyon.
Clothes and misc: Shorts and a T-shirt/tank top for then the sun is high and it’s hot, a long sleeve layer, a jacket, some form of long pant (I used exercise leggings from Target and was perfectly fine), a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, and a camera. The canyon is one of those places where you take one picture and feel like maybe you could have a future as a professional photographer; it’s literally impossible to take a bad shot.
General thoughts: We had varying levels of fitness on our hike (quite a disparity, really) and each of us was able to finish, though one girl needed quite a bit of assistance towards the end. Given this experience, I will say that if you do not exercise regularly and are new to hiking, this would not be a good way to introduce yourself to the activity. I come from a long-distance running background, and found the hike moderately challenging, so take what you will from that. Finally, if you have knee-problems or anticipate your body protesting in ways that make it painful to hike, walking sticks may be a good preventative measure to invest in.
Personally, this trek was one of my favorite things I’ve ever done, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.