8 November 2010
Camping in the Colca Canyon
Kitted out with camping gear, enough food for four days and some booze to celebrate our hard slog each day, we board a six hour local bus to Cabanaconde. Once there, we quickly find ourselves a great little hostel with staff who provide us with maps for our hike and some basic drawings of landmarks to watch out for. We stuff ourselves with sensational pizza and have an early night – completely unaware of the battering our bodies are about to take.
Day 1: We rise early and quickly make tracks. The first part of the hike is within walking distance of the town and we are delighted when, in the first half hour, we come across a breathtaking lookout over the canyon. The canyon is so deep and we are literally peering over the edge of it. In the distance we can see where our track leads and our destination for day two. It looks like torture.
Tonight’s camping spot, Lluhuar, is at the very bottom of the canyon and out of sight but it has hot springs. The thought of those hot springs keep me going when the hike becomes difficult, which we know it will.
The canyon colours are magnificent – hues of pink, orange, yellow and brown – and the Andean peaks in the distance add another dimension of awe to the view. A condor soars above us which I see as a sign of luck remembering that the Incas worshipped the condors. We come across a friendly local herding cattle, donning a cowboy hat and looking like he belongs on a ranch. He points us in the right direction and we reluctantly leave our stunning view because today is a long hike, it is stinking hot and my pack is back-breakingly heavy.
The first few hours are so horrendously steep and gravelly that every few steps I skid further than I can step. After an hour, I’m a bit over it – saying some pretty choice words to Pachamama. I already have blisters, and as the elder of the group, I lag behind. It has its advantages. Several times I stop to sit on a rock with a view and poetically think about how good life is before my pack unbalances me and topples me over.
After several hours we find a tiny patch of shade and stop to make some tuna rolls for lunch. On a high, we feel so proud of our efforts so far that we crack open some wine - perhaps not the most sensible thing to do given we are only half way down the canyon and, unbeknownst to us, it is steeper yet. When we eventually get going again, I feel like I’d be better equipped with skis than hiking boots.
Finally we reach the bottom and all agree that it was a tricky start to the trek. We arrive at the river which is ice cold and I’m so hot it is tempting to jump in. We cross a suspension bridge and a short hike later we arrive at our first night’s destination – a restaurant, camping ground with lush grass and hot springs.
The only down side is that the beer is warm but the owner advises us that if we leave them in the river for an hour, they’ll be cold enough. So we quickly set up our camp next to the river and head down to the hot springs which are everything we hoped for. Piping hot and set in the most stunning surroundings – right next to a raging river and canyon walls so high that you have to crane your neck to see the top. The sun is setting and we have the place to ourselves.
Reluctantly we leave the hot springs, boil some noodles for dinner and Hunter gets a cracker fire going. As the fire dies down, the stars emerge and we make a team decision to walk back to the suspension bridge with our torches and a bottle of wine.
The hours speed past as we sit in the middle of a huge bridge suspended from one side of the canyon to the other with candles and wine, star gazing. A case of the munchies sends us back to camp.
Day 2: We wake at 10:30am and quickly decide that there is no point trekking today. It is too late and hot, we feel a little dusty and, to our horror, realise that we’ve managed to eat our way through most of our food.
I’m not disappointed. The camp spot is absolutely beautiful and spending a day here to bathe my sore feet in the hot springs is fine by me.
But our joy at camping there is short lived when a large school group of scatty teenagers descends upon the campsite and literally puts about 20 tents up within an inch of ours. The leader gives us a sympathetic look before attempting to shoo them up to the restaurant to give us some peace.
So we vow to be up at dawn so that we can beat them out of the camp and once again have the trail to ourselves.
Day 3: No need to set an alarm clock. We are woken well before dawn by squawking school girls who have no idea how to put dismantle a tent and are grossed out by all the ants surrounding them.
Thankfully they seem to be heading in a different direction and we leave our lovely camp site to head to another site high up on the canyon with waterfalls.
I leave putting my hiking boots back on until the very last minute and apologise to my severely blistered feet for the next battering.
Now that we’ve scaled the canyon from bottom to top, the only way is back up and the first few hours are gruelling. The only advantage of having eaten and drunk our supplies is that our packs are significantly lighter.
But somewhere in the morning we take a wrong turn and end up climbing a goat trail to get where we need to go. We climb higher and higher looking fearfully across the canyon at the track we’d walked down the first day and the track that we must take tomorrow to get us back out. We’re probably two thirds of the way up the other side of the canyon and the track winds round blind corners of mountains. Each time, we desperately hope it will be our last. At least the track is flat for a while.
Eventually we decide that since we only have one oreo biscuit for each of us we should keep going to the ‘oasis’ at the bottom of the canyon... much further than we’d anticipated walking today. When the decision is made, we realise that it means hiking all the way to the very bottom again. But as we round a corner we see the oasis at the bottom and it motivates us to keep going. Giant swimming pools with waterfalls, large lawns of green grass and lovely little huts. Ah bliss, I think.
I slip in to ‘don’t talk to me, I need to get down this damn mountain’ mode and focus on getting down as quickly as possible.
It reaches 2pm. We haven’t eaten all day, the oasis is at least another hour away and I’m well over it. At one point I actually yell out “Over it!!!!” which echoes back to me several times through the canyon.
After one final stack into a pile of horse dung, I reach the oasis to see Geezer, who looks like he has breezed through the hike in converse shoes. Meg and Hunter shortly follow with Meg wearing thongs which are proving to be more comfortable than her hiking boots.
When the inn keeper tells us he only has warm beer and hot soup for lunch, we simultaneously rise off the lawn, pick up our bags and thank him for the warm beer. He refuses to tell us how to get to the next restaurant so we end up having to bush bash from his property to the next which is the last thing I feel like doing. I can’t help but give him a ‘thanks very much for your unhelpfulness’ look.
We then stumble across a campsite that has a massive lawn, a swimming pool and a bored looking Frenchman running the place. All four of us talk to him at once. “Please, mate, we haven’t eaten all day.” “So hungry.” “Can hardly move so hungry.” “Have you got any food besides soup?”
He flies into the kitchen and whips up the most sensational pasta with a side dish of chillies freshly picked off the roof of his kitchen. We hoof into the pasta and chillies like it’s our last supper, not realising how hot the chillies are. After several mouthfuls, we are again begging him for “water please mate” “so thirsty”. Thankfully he takes pity on us.
After lunch, the boys take off to check out other camp sites while Meg and I loll about, relieved that our seven hour traumatic hike is over. Neither of us bring up the hike out of there the next day but the track is right in front of us and it heads skyward.
The boys re-emerge to say they’ve found a wicked site with great views across the canyon so we slowly make our way over and set up our camp.
Dinner is frightfully disappointing – more bloody soup, rice and weird vegetable stuff. Geezer looks completely disgusted with the muck in front of him so we buy some twix bars, settle in to our sleeping bags.
I get woken at 1am by the crinkling of twix bar wrappers and peer over to see Geezer satisfying his sweet tooth.
Day 4: After yesterday’s seven hour mission on an empty stomach we opt for a lie in and swim. But I’m dreading the supposedly three hour walk out of the canyon because it is a vertical hike and my pack is disintegrating with every step.
Before setting off, we stop off at the Frenchman’s camp and beg for more pasta.
Eventually we confront the inevitable. The hike is relentless and the track so gravelly that I feel like I’m taking one step forward and two back. I’m exhausted after 100m. Half way up, with the others well ahead of me, I sit on a rock and have a meltdown. It is the hardest exercise I have ever done and the language coming out of my mouth is fairly vile.
I follow Geezer’s converse shoe footprints which I spot in the gravel. He makes the hike up look easy and every now and again, he peers from above to check that I’m still alive.
When we finally reach the top, it is nearly sunset but I’m too knackered to care. I slump next to a rock and all I can think about is pizza and bed. The others are the same.
As we leave, I take a final look back across the canyon and see where we’ve just walked. It is no mean feat. We have literally hiked down the canyon, up the canyon, across the canyon, down the canyon and up the canyon. And my body feels so battered that I don’t have the energy to feel proud of what we’ve achieved. Most tourists hike down part of the way and back in a day. I think we more than conquered it.