Everybody please meet the Colca Canyon. The deepest canyon in the world – approximately twice as deep as the Grand Canyon – it rises to 3,287m at the town of Cabanaconde. The canyon is home to giant Andean condors and indigenous inhabitants speaking Quechua and Aymara languages and living (mostly) traditional lifestyles in a handful of small villages.
When I was planning this trip a tour of the canyon seemed like it would only be scratching the surface. There are no roads in to the more remote villages and anyway, if you visit the deepest canyon in the world, surely you want to experience just how deep that is? The other option was a more immersive 3-day 18km looping trek down from the top, following the canyon floor and visiting some of the villages, and finishing with a relentlessly uphill 5km race to the top – to beat the sun before the heat made walking uphill unendurable.
But was this high altitude and challenging trek biting off slightly more than we could chew? A one hour stroll was about the limit of our kids prior experience. Well – nothing ventured, nothing gained..
We chose to book a private trek with Carlitos Tours, an ethical company owned and run by the super nice Carlitos who came and saw us off at our 5.30am start from Arequipa and did everything in his power to ensure we had a great time. Our guide Nestor was a very experienced and knowledgeable local from Cabanaconde, who imparted a wealth of information to us about the canyon, its wildlife and people. Nestor was a pillar of strength throughout the trek, encouraging and supporting and enabling us to succeed.
The fun began soon after leaving Arequipa as we traveled over the Andean altiplano, passing a number of volcanoes and reaching a high of 4,900m. To put that into perspective, Mt Kosciuszko in Australia reaches a lousy 2,228m. At 4,900m not only is it freezing cold but altitude-induced instant headaches are the norm, in our experience. There was so much wildlife to see on the altiplano though: vicunas, llamas and alpacas, chinchillas, flamingos and other birds and we stopped to look whenever something interesting came along.
And then it began: a 3.5 hour trek down to the bottom, followed by another 1.5 hours to our homestay in Cosinhura. This was not easy walking – the ground is uneven, with big rocks and steps and lots of loose scree making it slippery. We were very grateful that Nestor had provided us with walking sticks, which saved many a fall.
We soon settled into a routine that was to become familiar: Eliane charging at the front, followed by James trying to keep up and slow her down, with a big gap to Maille and myself. Maille was inevitably slower – her legs being that much shorter she couldn’t take the big steps in her stride. Being so light she was particularly prone to sliding and slipping (quite a worry on those narrow paths!) and had to pick her way very carefully. But she demonstrated an amazing attitude and mental strength; from the start she set herself the goal of completing the trek without whinging and although she needed a lot of support and encouragement she stuck to it!
Our first night was spent at Elmer’s place, which is perched on a cliff on the edge of the valley. Elmer caters to hikers with a few rooms, drinks and meals and also raises guinea pigs for sale. Elmer cooked us an absolutely delicious dinner: the chicken was so tender and tasty it got me wondering if it was something slightly smaller – but apparently not! The next day we helped out in caring for the guinea pigs – harvesting alfalfa with wicked-looking sickles and distributing it to the 300+ animals for breakfast.
The second day was an easy one – only a 2.5 hour walk through a couple of villages and ending at the Oasis. On the way Nestor took us to meet some more locals running a very tiny but informative museum showing many fascinating aspects of traditional daily life. This still includes making offerings to Pachamama (including baby llama fetuses), traditional medicine (no-one ever goes to hospital as it’s too expensive), wearing traditional dress (very much the norm in indigenous communities throughout Peru so far as we can see) and even grinding maize using a stone mortar and pestle. According to Nestor the old ways are still followed about 50% of the time, with younger people tending to adopt modern methods.
After a hot midday trek in the sun we were ready for a swim at Sangalle – known as The Oasis.
What a strange place The Oasis is. There used to be a village there, using the abundant springs for agriculture. But around 50 years ago a bad earthquake destroyed most of the village and killed numerous people and the remaining people moved up to Cabanaconde, perched above the canyon. Some years later someone identified the potential for tourism and this tourist ‘oasis’ was born.
The final stretch began next morning at 4.15am when we left The Oasis guided by our torches. Although we were first off the mark, through the next few hours we were overtaken by many other hikers – everyone eager to reach the top before it got hot.
Getting up to the top took virtually every ounce of physical and emotional energy Maille had and only her steely determination saw her through. The last 500m or so were punctuated by frequent ‘cuddle stops’ and chocolate hand-outs. Nestor’s offers of a piggyback were rejected though, by a girl determined to do it on ‘her own two feet’.
In the final 20m we were cheered in by the group of backpackers sitting at the top waiting for their slower companions. Virtually everyone who passed us on the way was sitting there and James and I received many complimentary comments on the girls’ achievement. Our eyes were full of proud tears and we’re both so happy that the girls have had the opportunity to prove to themselves that they can overcome significant physical challenges to reach their goals. The motto for the rest of the trip has been set: ‘it can’t be as tough as the Colca Canyon’.