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#29 Colca Canyon – Where the condor flies

The Colca Canyon lies around 150km from Arequipa is, with almost 3’300 meters, one of the deepest Canyons in the world. While not as deep as Cotahuasi Canyon, which is also in Peru, it’s more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US. The valley leading to the canyon is still being cultivated in the old terrace style by local families that largely maintained the culture and traditions of their pre-Inca ancestors.

There are several ways to visit the place depending on how much spare time you have. A rather rushed program takes you for a one day tour by bus to the top of the canyon to snap a few pictures. As I wasn’t exactly in a hurry, I decided to do a three day trekking with overnight stays at a local family and in an oasis. It is also possible to explore the region by yourself, with the obvious advantages and disadvantages of planning your own thing. The three day tour cost me 170 Soles (about USD 50) including accommodation and food, so I really couldn’t be bothered to plan anything by myself.

Our group consisted of two Japanese girls, two Swiss girls, a Swedish guy, a Belgium girl and myself. Our guide James, accompanied by his “assistant” which turned out to be his wife, spoke broken English and often left us guessing what he actually said. Speaking Spanish came in handy when there was something important going on for a change.

The first day started with a long bus ride from Arequipa to the Colca Valley. Somewhere on the way we stopped for breakfast and later at Cruz del Condor, a spot where it is often possible to observe one or more flying condors. We had a fourty minute window, but nothing happened until minute 38 or so, when suddenly a Condor took off and flew a few circles above our heads. Our group was lucky enough to see another one flying closer to us later the same day. It’s definitely a nice thing to see them sail with their majestic wings spread wide, but have you ever seen a Condor’s head? Wow, that creature has some ugly mug!

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The hiking of the first day consisted of entering the canyon and getting down to its lowest point and partly up on the other side until we reached our accommodation site at a local family home. There was a small kiosk where they sold drinks and snacks and a few very simple huts to sleep in.

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Going in…

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Colca River at the bottom of the canyon

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On the second day we hiked about three to four hours downstream with several uphill and downhill sections. From time to time James paused to explain the medicinal or industrial value of different herbs, plants and fruits along the way. I couldn’t help wonder how they found out what cures what and if they might maybe have gotten it wrong sometimes. Isn’t it likely that a plant they use to make tea to aliviate stomach problems might actually be much more efficient as an ointment against, I don’t know, let’s say hemorrhoids? They couldn’t possibly have checked all the possibilities.
The oasis of San Galle was the final destination for day number two. After walking in the sun for hours, we were happy to arrive there at about 1PM. The huts were once again very basic and without mosquito nets, but there was a pool and a lot of green in the middle of this dry land. Even more importantly, they had cold beer; the promised land, hallelujah!

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Cochineal; insect living on prickly pear cacti, used to dye fabrics (red) in the 15th century
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Our huts in the San Galle oasis

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An unpleasant roommate

The third and last day was all about getting out of the canyon again. When we started hiking at 4.30AM we had about two hours of steep zigzag in front of us. For the first fifteen to twenty minutes or so we walked in the dark with our headlamps on. But it got brighter and warmer quickly, so I started to take off one layer after the other. At the top, great views of the canyon in the morning sun waited for us. After a few more minutes of walking we reached Cabanaconde, where we had breakfast (or “Bredfakst” how James used to call it – yes, I know, I’m an obnoxious prick for making fun of his English, but come on; Bredfakst!).

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From Cabanaconde we took the bus and made our way back to Arequipa. On the way we stopped at another community with a small church and some tourist stands, including a Colca Sour bar (a Pisco Sour with Cactus fruit juice instead of lime juice) which I couldn’t resist.

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View over the Colca Valley

 

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Colca Sour bar

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The rest of the way seemed endless, an impression made worse by the fact that the suspension of one of the bus’ wheels was completey broken. But that didn’t deter the driver from engaging in a few passing maneuvers that could have turned this tourist bus into a steel coffin.

Well, we made it back. And I was ready to move on to Cusco the next day.

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