We Conquered the Canyon!

Triumphant at the top of the Colca Canyon

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.

The descent

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.

More than half-way down and still looking fairly fresh!

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.

Traditional-style transport
Can you imagine the squeals from 300 guinea pigs anticipating 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.

This lovely couple is using a combination of modern and traditional technology in their kitchen
Trying on the traditional head gear. I know who gets my vote for funniest looking!
400 year old church

After a hot midday trek in the sun we were ready for a swim at Sangalle – known as The Oasis.

This spring-fed pool is emptied each night and refilled in the morning ready for the next batch of backpackers

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.

Incredible contrast between the lush greenery and – steps away – the arid hillside

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.

We somehow got down this. And now we had to get back up.
Picking our way up
The path down to The Oasis
Not much farther

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’.

Monasterio Santa Catalina: best convent ever!

Monasterio Santa Catalina is a city within a city in Arequipa

I loved this place because it was so interesting and big and old and grand. We had a tour and I learnt that they used ovens that looked like pizza ovens to cook and it took six hours to filter 1L of water. If parents were rich they sent their second daughter at the age of 12 and she had to live there for the rest of her life. For four years each of the novices lived in a locked room by themselves and couldn’t speak to anyone. They were supposed to pray and sew and meditate all day. They got their meals through the window and were let out to do jobs twice a day. After four years, when they were 16 they became nuns. No-one was ever allowed to go home.

A novice’s room. Not allowed out to go to the toilet so had to use a chamber pot.

I would not like to be a nun. I would not like to pray all day like these nuns had to. Nowadays they don’t to have to pray all day. They can cook and do other jobs, but they still have to pray for 4-6 hours. I would also not like to poo in a chamber pot!

This place is huge with heaps of different streets named after Spanish cities
Where the washing was done in the old days. By the way Grandma – this is what Lantana looks like when you look after it properly.
A Mummy-sized doorway
But not a Daddy-sized one


Two nights in Nazca

What was I thinking?! Putting all my eggs into one tiny little tinny aeroplane basket (so to speak). I have always been quite nervous of small planes and it felt like a ridiculous risk to fly in one with my nearest and dearest. However, this perspective wasn’t shared by the rest of the family – who were keen to see the Nazca Lines from the air – so I put a brave face on and crossed all my fingers and toes…

Maille’s part

The Nazca lines were cool and looked amazing. But I didn’t have a good time because I felt sick. The flight was 30 mins, but I felt sick before half way. I saw the monkey, a part of the tree and the spiral.

The Condor
Viewing tower and 3 geoglyphs

For those wondering what the story behind the lines is: they were constructed by the Nazca people between 2,000-1,200 years ago and are thought to have formed a key part of religious ceremonies. Contrary to popular opinion they can be seen from the ground (in some places). They are very cleverly constructed so that you can walk along the lines from one end to the other without having to double back and it’s thought that the Nazca people walked along the lines during their ceremonies.

The Nazca culture was an important one in southern Peru. They farmed the fertile river valleys – in the middle of one of the driest places on earth – and built aqueducts to access the ground water that are still working today.

There is water at the bottom of this spiral aqueduct. Behind the mountains is the world’s tallest sand dune: Cerro Blanco

But it wasn’t all fun and games. One of the less attractive habits of the Nazca was their propensity to behead their enemies and drill holes through their skulls so that they could hang them by a rope around their belts. I noticed that most of the victims in the museum were women. Don’t know if there were women warriors or if they were just easier to catch than the men!

We were lucky to find our own oasis in the Nazca desert: El Jardin (The Garden). Being able to retreat from the heat, dust and dirt and relax in a beautiful, cool space was amazing.

Deathly catacombs

The most interesting thing in Lima that I went to was the Convento de San Fransisco (monastery/church). Unfortunately we could not take any photos.

I found that the most exciting thing there was the catacombs. Catacombs are underground tunnels underneath a church. They contain deep tombs with nothing covering the top. This was where rich people were buried before they had cemeteries. In Convento de San Fransisco the tombs were dug four meters down with human bodies stacked one on top of the other right to the top! There was also a well where there was a mural of bones and skulls in a circle with little holes on the side. (In some of the holes there was a skull). Apart from the fact that you were looking at dead people’s bodies it was actually quite pretty.

It may seem surprising but there are actually still monks living in the monastery. They live behind huge metal doors and barely speak to anyone. Another thing that we saw was some amazing tiles. They were decorated with a variety of different colours: blue, yellow, white and red. It had the year that it was made specially put on to the tiles. It also has a library with books thousands of years old and a really old and big book the choir used to sing out of. The notes were very different from the ones we have now.

the Lima cathedral


Lima’s amazing!

Hola from the other side of the world. Lima is awesome seriously there is so much to see and do. But I am not going to write about everything in Lima. In Lima we went to a Museum and it was called the Larco Museum. It had amazing jewellery and pottery from ancient times. It also had a lovely garden that was filled with flowers and life and joy. There was a beautiful cafe with vines overhanging it so when you walked out onto the grass some vines would touch you.

Very expensive jewellery


Feliz navidad from Lima!

It was so hard to open our eyes on Christmas morning – even for presents!

But on the whole we have hit the ground running, exploring our local neighborhood of Barranco: a hodge-podge of grand old buildings and modern apartments with lots of trendy restaurants, bars, shops and art galleries. Barranco is the bohemian suburb of Lima and is clearly where the struggling artists hang out – judging by the graffiti.

Christmas Day demanded special Christmas drinks – including the first pisco sours of the trip – my fave cocktail ever!

And no the girls are NOT drinking pisco but some delicious combination of lemonade and fresh fruit juice and who knows what

Happy holidays!

On our way

Bags packed, good-byes said and excitement up

Two years of anticipating this moment and when it finally arrives all goes more smoothly than my imaginings. The kids are excited and positive, James and I are calm and focused. Apart from the mad rush to vacate the motel room when the taxi arrives slightly early, that is. Perhaps we aren’t as calm as we think…

The journey begins in a very civilised fashion with Christmas cocktails at 7.30am in Brisbane and champagne in Auckland. We make some rookie errors – waiting in line for ages to change money into a currency that is not supplied and failing to fill water bottles in the last country supplying fresh, clean, free water. Oh so thirsty in Santiago!

Living it up in the airport lounge