Colca Canyon – The trek that finished us off

We were undecided as to whether we should do a trek of Colca Canyon as we had still not fully recovered from altitude sickness, which meant headaches, sickness and having eaten very little for the last few days. The Peru Hop guide had a few options available ranging from a one day bus tour to a three day hike. Our guide said she really did think that a hike was the best way to experience the canyon, so we thought what the heck and went for the faster paced two day trek. After all, it was described as medium difficulty and me and Jason were hardly strangers to hiking… ahh if only we knew then what we were getting ourselves into.

We started with a 4am pick up and a freezing cold minibus ride up a 5,000m mountain pass, it gets cold that high up! After 3 hours we reached our breakfast stop, a disappointing start with some bread and a meagre portion of scrambled eggs, not much to give you energy. Still sleepy we headed to the condor view point and were amazed to witness the magnificent, giant birds silently gliding over our heads, whilst ash from the nearby volcano rained from the sky.

We then moved onto the starting point where we got a good view of the volcano’s smoke plume. Our guide let us know this was a good sign as if there’s no smoke, we would run a higher risk of tremors and rock slides – just what you need to hear when stood at a cliff edge!

All kitted up we started moving down the canyon, and the pace was already fast. Still not feeling great and weak from the lack of food, we found ourselves at the back of the group and unable to catch up.

The mountain path gradually became narrow with a sheer drop on one side, loose rocks underfoot and large rocky steps. The hike was becoming strenuous and very technical, any wrong footing would have you falling down into the canyon to a nasty finish – somewhat harder than the ‘medium difficulty’ description you might agree.

As we continued with our descent, the Colca River came into sight. That was our first check point for the morning, 1,200m down from the starting point. Although in sight, it still seemed so far away with more winding paths hidden behind each turn. Three hours later we managed to complete the first 6km and make the checkpoint, to say it was gruelling would be an understatement.

Out of energy, out of breath and with our weak knees buckling beneath us, we crossed the swaying rope bridge and headed up the other side of the canyon to a small village for our lunch stop. By this point it was safe to say I had pushed myself beyond my limits and was done. The word exhausted suddenly had new meaning.

I had read in the guide that there was an option for a taxi mule. Upon hearing that the second part of the trip was harder and longer than the first, I arranged for one immediately. Jason left along with the rest of the group to endure a further 6 hours of hiking, whilst I waited alone for my mule to arrive.

After an hour of waiting alone in the lunch shack, very aware that I had no means to contact anyone if no-one turned up, a man finally appeared with a mule – my all terrain Uber had arrived! With pretty much no Spanish under my belt, we set off with me having no idea if he knew where we were going. Needing to have blind faith had become an important part of this trip. The ride was bumpy and hard work during the steep descent, with sharp branches clawing at my exposed legs. The mule spent most of the time on the very edge of the sheer drop, with me putting all of my trust in this animal not to make a poorly judged step. That being said, there was something about being alone in the mountains with just my mule and silent sherpa that was peaceful and strangely magical.

After an hour or so I finally caught up with group and could see that Jason was shattered. After the long, hard day we made it the camp for the night – a basic hut with a bed, a tiny light and a metal hook to keep the door closed, and of course the added feature of a scorpion on the wall.

Our night was not restful as we endured being bombarded in the face by many of the kamikaze flying bugs that call the Canyon home. That, plus the prospect of what could be crawling into our sheets in the dark, was enough to keep us awake for the few hours of rest that we could have had.

Precious few hours later, and Jason was up at 4am to start the 3km hike uphill back to the top of the Canyon. I was lucky enough to get an extra 30 minutes in bed while I waited for my mule (if I barely survived hiking the downhill I wasn’t about to attempt the uphill!). As my mule progressed up the steep paths I was starting to get concerned for how Jason was doing.

Daylight had broken and I still hadn’t come across him, although I saw many hikers from other groups opting for a mule as the hike was just too much for them. Some might consider this as giving up, but riding the mule on the side of a canyon was a great way to experience rural Peru in itself! It let me take in the views of the rock formations, the colours and the cacti growing on the edge of cliffs without feeling light headed and desperately out of breath.

It was also entertaining being part of the drama between the mules as they shunted each other to be at the front of the pack and would spitefully stop in front of one another to leave a present in the face of the mule behind.

Mule drama aside, I finally caught up with Jason, and thankfully he was much further up than what I thought. We exchanged few words as he panted for breath and took a moment to lower his racing heart rate, whilst he clung to the side of the cliff to let the sherper and mules pass.

Three hours from when Jason set off, he made it to the top. Exhausted, in pain and ready for a rest he was glad to have accomplished this difficult trek. Sadly, breakfast was another half hour hike to the village, which after these two days was a cruel joke by the guide.

On the way back to Arequipa we stopped to see the pre-Inca and Incan terazza, which where incredible. A busy landscape of staggered mountains with a multitude of colours and the Colca River meandering at bottom. If only we had done the bus tour as this was the most stunning view of all, and required no trekking to get to it!

We made a second but brief stop at the 5,000m elevation mountain pass, where a few steps were enough to leave you light headed and your heart racing. The air was thin and cool, but the view of the mountains in the background and neatly stacked rock piles scattered across the landscape was quite magical. These rocks are the offering to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) from the locals who cross the mountain pass, wishing for a safe passage as they cross the mountain range (yes they do this all by foot!). At least three rocks are stacked up with a coca leaf between each stone to form the offering; each rock is for the body, Pacha Mama, good luck and any extra stones are for wishes. This is usually accompanied by a splash of pure alcohol on the ground for Pacha Mama and a sip to complete the offering. Jason looked for some spare rocks to make an offering but they had all been used up unbelievably.

After two long hard days we returned to the hotel with a lot less trust in our tour guides and looking forward to some well earned comfort and rest. Some days later and we were still feeling the strain and having difficulty walking the steep streets of Arequipa. It still makes us laugh that the entire trek was torture…and that we paid to go through it!

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