If I’ve learnt anything from years and years of traveling, it’s this: the best places to go to are the underrated ones.
Colca Canyon is one of them. Situated on the Altiplano, the high elevation plateau between Peru and Bolivia where the Andes are the widest, most visitors usually pass it up.
Their bad. The world’s second deepest canyon, the giant Andean condors, deep-cut valleys with terraced fields, traditional indigenous villages – where else can you see all that in one place?
The Altiplano is best to travel to in the winter (April to October) when the weather is dry (windy) and clear (freezing cold), as it allows for the best views and photographs. Summers are warmer but cloudy and rainy.
Colca Canyon itself can be explored on various itineraries, the most common one being the 2D/1N, which I did myself (8 times).
So if you …
1. Welcome solitude and isolation
2. Welcome discomfort and exhaustion
3. Thrive in extreme weather conditions (like hot, sun-burning days and freezing nights)
4. Feel spiritually connected with mountains
5. Find mountains to be so beautiful it hurts
… you’re ready to discover Colca Canyon.
After winding out of Arequipa past the El Misti volcano, and crossing the barren Altiplano (in other words, after three hours of a kidney-bruising road with wild gusts of wind and high-altitude hallucinations of hills swaying left and right like a group of merry hippies), we finally hit the National Reserve Salinas and Aguada Blanca. It spreads over nearly a million acres and is one of the places where anywhere you look, you have something to stare at, like vast pampas with snow-capped mountains, lagoons, wetlands and volcanoes with groups of llamas, alpacas, wild guanacos and even the elusive vicuñas grassing next to the road.
Gone for good is El Misti’s eroded volcanic landscape, dusty rock quarries and the occasional cement factory; now, it’s a spectacular high plateau habitat.
I devour the views. The highest Czech mountain has 5,000 feet, so here, at 14,000 feet, it feels like the format has switched from a single frame to epic widescreen!
Even a headache is much more bearable now.
“What’s he doing?” asks Una, when the bus stops at the Patopampa Pass for some pictures. She’s referring to an Australian guy who, without waiting, jumps out of the bus and starts climbing towards the piles of stones dotting the hillside. Apachetas are small pyramids of rock, built by locals along the road as a way to ask the Apus, Gods of the Andes, for protection, rain and a safe passage.
Halfway up the hill, the Australian guy collapses gasping noisily for air, and has to return to the bus, humiliated.
He’s forgotten that we’re at 16,000 feet of elevation!
He’s so dumb!
“Dumb but funny,” protests Una.
Una is Gerry’s girlfriend. They’re taking this tour to see if they can get back together after a recent break-up. They’re a really nice couple, so I keep my fingers crossed for them.
After the Pass, it’s an hour or so of descending and sharp zig-zagging to the village of Chivay, the official entrance to the Colca Valley. Chivay is a small, picturesque place, like most villages in this region where people still live the way they did 100 years ago.
Originally, the local indigenous groups occupied different areas, but the Spaniards forced them to leave their original villages and moved them to centrally located settlements. Nowadays, these form the principle towns of the valley, a dozen of them, with their typical Spanish layout and sturdy colonial churches.
We check into our hotel and after a short rest, take a leisurely walk into the surrounding hills and quaint villages.
The stroll turns out so exhausting that our aching feet need to be soothed. And what a better place to do that than a nice, relaxing pool, full of hot thermal water!
Where they also sell beer.
The hot springs look pretty rustic. It’s three swimming pools of varying temperatures, two inside and one outside. We go for the one with steam coming out of it, and plunge into it like a herd of hippos.
And just like them, we roll around in utmost delight, heads sticking out of the water.
The Australian guy wants to know if I’m coming to the party tonight.
Party? I hesitate a bit. It was a very early morning today, and it’s gonna be an even earlier one tomorrow.
But the water feels heavenly (100 beautiful degrees Fahrenheit!), and the backdrop of wild mountains with a sparkly night sky above is something you can only see in the Southern Hemisphere. I nod.
Getting up at 4 am the next morning is terrible. Like coming out of a coma.
And I didn’t even stay that late! After a couple games of cards, some chatter and wine, the hotel bar closed and we went to sleep. All except a few, who continued to party in the Australian guy’s cabin.
I drag myself out of bed and into the bathroom’s shower, the only place in this freezing-cold bungalow you can get warm. After breakfast, and by the time we’re ready to leave, I feel almost human.
Not something that can be said about all of us.
The drive to the Colca Canyon takes about 2 hours. When we reach the start of the trail, running along the canyon rim, nothing prepares us for the monumental sights of the brown and the green and the yellow all mixed together.
From miradores, scenic lookouts, we’re treated to sweeping views of agricultural terraces, that date back to the pre-Inca days and are still worked by local farmers. Hundreds of kidney-shaped, stepped terraces are dug into the slopes of steep, inaccessible hillsides, where maize, potatoes and quinoa are grown.
The scenery is breath-taking, looking like one of Tolkien’s earths.
After an hour’s walk, filled with a frantic clicking of my camera, I get close to the place everybody is aiming for – the Cruz del Condor Mirador, the most popular spot for viewing condors. It’s here where they fly out of the canyon’s 4,000 foot depth every morning.
Trying to figure out the best angle to take a picture of a cute vizcacha, a local rodent that looks like a rabbit, I bump into Gerry. He’s sitting on a low, rocky wall staring vacantly into the depth.
“What’s up?” I give him a notch. “Getting ready to jump?”
He gives me the saddest look I’ve ever seen on a man. “If only you knew.”
“Surely, it can’t be that bad,” I wave my arm around in a cheering-up gesture. “Look at all this beauty.”
He doesn’t see it.
And before the condors start their circling flight out of the canyon, I know why.
“Last thing I remember about last night’s party,” Gerry says, “is a table full of red wine bottles, and us, laughing loudly as we we’re trying to get the room’s bizarre heating to work.”
When he wakes up, he’s lying on the wet tiles of the hotel’s thermal pond down by the river. His jacket and shoes, all soaking wet, are lying nearby.
He doesn’t remember how he got there, nor what time it was, and it is only later that he realizes that the hot water of the thermal springs had probably saved him from freezing to death.
In the cold light of the dawn, he staggers up the stairs in the direction of his room. Puffs of breath come out of his mouth. He’s still drunk.
With a shaky hand, he unlocks his bungalow and enters the empty, ice-cold room. He calls out Una’s name, but there’s no answer.
He checks his watch. Four! In about an hour they should be hitting the road.
He walks into the bathroom and sticks his finger deep down his throat.
Then he takes a quick shower, puts on fresh clothes and goes back out to look for Una. He hopes she stayed with the others. His head is throbbing.
He enters the Australian guy’s unlocked room, dark and quiet.
He reaches out and turns on the switch. A sharp light illuminates the room, blinding his eyes. He stands there, blinking.
Two naked bodies lay on the bed by the wall, covered in dark blood.
He walks over and touches them. Una’s body is still warm.
“Una, Una, are you ok?!” he says, shaking her violently. The body moves, groaning slightly, and rolls over. Una opens her eyes and stares blankly at the ceiling. Then she closes them again.
“Una, you’re all right?!”
“Um?” she murmurs, pressing with her shoulder into her neighbor’s blood-stained back.
This is when it hits him. The pungent smell of vomit.
That’s not blood! he realizes, and a relief washes over him. That’s the red wine thrown up all over them!
Then the truth of what he’s actually seeing sinks in. He freezes, then runs out.
He has to – if he stayed, it wouldn’t end well.
The rest of the morning is a haze.
“I don’t know if it’s the hangover or the shock that make me sicker,” he confesses.
He stays away from everybody. Not that Una or anyone notices – they all have such a bad hangover they can hardly stand up.
Jesus! I exhale. Well, the Australian guy is the Australian guy, but Una?!
When I leave, Gerry is standing on the rocky overhang of Cruz del Condor with an even sadder expression on his face, staring into the endless depth of the canyon. Flying out of the gaping ravine are condors, drifting majestically on air currents above his head.
The excited whooping and cheering going on around doesn’t affect him – he just doesn’t have it in him right now to enjoy the beauty and magnificence of these massive, 10-feet long vultures.
Watching the mythical rulers of the sky rise higher and higher into the air, it’s easy to tell what’s going through his head – he’s wishing that he could be like them, free and unattached, miles above this messed-up world.
On the way back to Chivay, we make a few stops at the villages we’re passing through. Yunque, Maca and Ichupampa, all worth checking out with their Spanish colonial designs and well-preserved, two-tower churches.
And their people.
Wide gathered skirts, embroidered red ponchos and wool jackets; sombreros worn over chullos, knitted hats with earflaps; wide sunburnt faces and long braided hair, children peeking out of their mothers’ richly decorated shawls; colorful tapestries for sale spread out on the ground; posing with hawks; ethnic dancing.
Again – this is the Latin America as I’ve always imagined it!
Gerry stays the whole time on the bus.
“The tooth,” he just keeps saying.