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Hiking Colca Canyon: A Test of Endurance in Peru

The day starts at 3 a.m., so early that you wonder if you're really on vacation. If you're by yourself like I was, you get in a van with a handful of strangers, a driver, and a tour guide, then head three hours into the desert.

We went northwest of Arequipa, I found out later, but I could barely function at the time. I thought this trip to Peru's Colca Canyon better be worth it, and then I fell back asleep.

One of the best hikes I've ever made happened at Colca Canyon
One of the best hikes I've ever made happened at Colca Canyon

I woke up again when we arrived at Chivay, the little town where you pay the entrance fee to the national park. It's 40 soles for South Americans (about $14) and 75 soles for other foreigners (about $27).

That didn't include the 150 soles (about $27) I had already paid at my hostel for the trip, which covered the guide fee, most of my meals, lodging, and transportation.

The first meal was breakfast, just bread and jam, tea and coffee, cheese and ham (or at least what I thought was ham). I was too tired to care.

I didn't wake up until we got to Cruz del Condor, the lookout point where those big and magnificent birds soar, swirl, and dive like the fighter jets in Top Gun. It was hard to take pictures, but I got a few decent ones if not great ones.

See also: Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

A condor flies by as visitors try to take its picture. I did OK, I guess.
A condor flies by as visitors try to take its picture. I did OK, I guess.

We were ready to hike down into Colca Canyon, six hours of trekking starting at Cabanaconde.

It starts easily enough. You follow a dirt path that descends into the canyon, measured at 13,650 feet deep. The Grand Canyon is 6,000 feet deep.

About a half-hour into the hike, you notice an oasis in the basin of the canyon, a place the river passes with green trees, red roofs, and blue pools, where we would spend the night—only five and a half more hours to go.

You're trying your best to watch your footing on the way down to make sure you don't slip on the loose dirt and rock, and a couple of times, I almost did. But I made it to the first bridge unscathed, where we took a short break.

I'm happy we did because the hike was about to get a little more challenging. We had to walk up a steep path, not too long, but the 50-degree incline made it seem that way and seem like it was taking forever.

When I reached the top, I was pretty short of breath, a reminder that I was in good shape—not great shape yet.

The path leveled out again as we headed to our next stop, lunch, which everyone could use after the paltry breakfast.

We had alpaca saltado, a popular dish in this region of Peru. The alpaca meat replaced the beef normally used in the recipe.

On my trip to the country, which began on June 13, I had already tried alpaca a handful of times. My first time was in Cusco at a restaurant called Uchu.

Alpacas are abundant...and delicious.
Alpacas are abundant…and delicious.

Oops, wrong photo…

This was the best alpaca I had in Peru. Thank you, Uchu.
This was the best alpaca I had in Perú. Thank you, Uchu.

There we go. As my friend Brent says, “It's so dang good!” Happy it was part of my lunch, I was ready for the next part of the trek, the last time we would have to walk uphill on this day.

The incline wasn't as steep, maybe 40 degrees this time, but by then, I was a little tired, so it was just as hard, so I took my time until I arrived at a tienda at the top.

I stocked up on snacks and granola bars because Markos, our guide, told us we would hike up and out of the canyon the next day before eating breakfast.

Three granola bars, a four-pack of Chips Ahoy, and a big bottle of water later, we were back on the path.

It was a dirt road that remained level until we reached our destination: Sangalle El Oasis. We could see the oasis from the end of the road, where another dirt path down into Colca Canyon began.

As I watched my footing, I realized that we had hiked all the way down into the canyon, then halfway up, and were about to hike back down. This was a day of endurance that I would always remember.

Seeing Sangalle El Oasis, in the middle of a canyon, was fascinating.
Seeing Sangalle El Oasis in the middle of a canyon was fascinating.

Getting there wasn't the same as getting to Ahm Shere, the fictional oasis in “The Mummy Returns,” but we felt we had accomplished something extraordinary.

We had hiked up and down, braved the early morning cold and the midday heat, shifted from hungry to momentarily full to hungry yet again, and we all kept going.

We also got to know each other a bit. My group included a couple from the States, a girl from France, a guy from Germany, and two Israelis.

And then there was Markos, our guide, who was only 19 but looked 15, with enough English to explain everything to the people who didn't speak Spanish.

As we arrived at the common area of our cabana village, we noticed it was packed. Everyone was watching the end of the U.S.-Belgium game. The U.S. team fought bravely but fell 2-1 in overtime.

They proved, though, that they are a team to watch in the future as Coach Jürgen Klinsmann, the former German National Team coach, has his players transitioning to a more attacking style of football.

After the game, we relaxed until dinner, which started with soup, followed by an entrée of rice and stew, and ended with a Jell-O-like dessert that I was unsure of and did not care to ask about because by then, I was dead tired.

It was only 8 p.m., but we had to wake up the next day well before dawn. It was time for bed.

Markos knocked on our doors at 4:30 a.m., just like he said he would, and we met in the common area 15 minutes later, ready for our faux breakfast. I had a granola bar and the Chips Ahoy I had bought the day before.

It was time, Markos announced, by saying, “Vamos!” He lent me his light, the kind you strap to your forehead because I did not have one, and it was quite dark.

It was a huge help. Today would be nothing but up, up, and more up, and did I mention we'd be walking up? Without the light, I'm sure I would have slipped and fallen at least a few times, something clumsy people like me do.

I took several breaks along the way but kept on pushing. To entertain myself, I thought of “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”

Specifically, I thought about the part where Ricky gives that long and silly grace before their delicious meal of KFC and Taco Bell and how one of his boys — can't remember if it was Walker or Texas Ranger — says, “You really made that grace your bitch, dad.”

I wanted to do the same with Colca Canyon, so I kept trudging along, finally making it to the top three and a half hours later. We all took pics at the top, and I was doing the gangster pose to be silly. The rest of the day would be easy.

Highlights: breakfast — this time with eggs! — a stop at one of Colca Canyon's best lookout points and a brief visit to the pueblo of Maca, where I held a falcon.

See also: Machu Picchu Tour with G Adventures

The falcon is used to people. Look how indifferent he is.
This falcon is familiar with people; notice his indifference.

I stayed awake the entire ride back to Arequipa, which included two more stops, one at the highest point along the route, which stood at 16,000 feet, and saw the volcanoes surrounding the area, one still active. The other stop was at an alpaca and llama preserve.

Again, I stayed awake while others fell back asleep. I wanted to sleep on the overnight bus to Lima. When we arrived in downtown Arequipa, it was already dark, unlike my arrival two days earlier, when I saw dusk decorate the Basilica Cathedral.

As I headed back to my hostel, my legs hurt, but not too bad—not like when I made it to the top of the canyon, and even then, the burn didn't last long.

The pain fades away when the rising sun floods the canyon with such pretty white light.

Lima Travel Guide

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Tuesday 19th of August 2014

An indispensable part of southern Peru, the little towns nestled into the valley and the surrounding mountains are staggering for their starkness, desolation and beauty. If you must, a two day trip from a city may work, but better to book a stay and enjoy the condors, the hot springs, and exploring the small villages.

Ramesh Lamsal

Monday 1st of September 2014

Very nice pictures, pic of Colca Canyon and Sangalle El Oasis shows that Peru's geographical structure is are very much similar to Nepal. I love it.

Rishi Bhandari

Tuesday 5th of August 2014

Beautiful picture, hope next travel destination will be Peru


Friday 25th of July 2014

Sweet post and pictures Ryan!

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