04/26/2010 - 04/28/2010 75 °F
So let me paint a picture for you. We just completed a 20 hour plane journey through 3 airports and a 6 hour car ride over a bumpy, dirt road. We are at an elevation of 10,000 feet. We each have 30lb packs on our back. It is 5pm and the sun is setting over the mountains. And we are about to hike to the bottom of the deepest canyon in the world.
So maybe it wasn't the best trip planning to do the most physically demanding part of our trip immediately after arriving in Peru, but we had limited time and a lot we wanted to see. We were amped up on adrenaline and excitement and coca tea, we were ready for anything. After a 30 minute hike, we reached the canyon rim. The views were amazing! From the rim of the canyon you could look straight down to the canyon floor 4,000 feet below (the Empire State Building is 1,250 feet tall). The walls of the canyon were incredibly steep, and it was dizzying to look straight down.
The "trail" was not much of a trail, but rather a series of steep steps over loose gravel and sharp rocks that hugged the canyon rim. Each slip on the gravel made you feel as though you would plummet over the side. You think going downhill would be easy, but imagine going down a set of very steep stairs that constantly shifted with a 30lb pack on your back while looking at a 4,000 ft drop square in the face. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the best footholds were filled with donkey poo, so it was either sure footing or poo-free boots. The donkey poo didn't just magically appear, it was dropped by the donkeys walking up the trail. The trail was barely wide enough for me, much less for a donkey, so it was a tight rope act when passing a donkey train. Roy warned us to make the donkeys walk closer to the cliff's edge so we wouldn't accidentally be knocked off. Well, it will come as no surprise that the donkeys didn't want to be near the edge either, so it was often a wrestling match to see who got the inside track.
In the last picture above, you can see where we would be sleeping the final night. This area is called the Oasis because of the hot springs present at the bottom of the canyon. If your eyes are really good, you can see the zigzag trail leading down to the Oasis that we would take tomorrow (the more zigzags, the steeper the trail). About half-way down the canyon wall, we were presented with views of the towns we would be walking through the next day.
After rounding a corner, we could see the village we would be sleeping in that night, although it looked like it was directly beneath us.
Not long after that point it got too dark to see. We flipped on our headlamps and continued the rest of the way by flashlight. We could no longer see how far the drop was (which was somewhat comforting), but you also couldn't tell how much progress you were making. The trail seemed to go on forever. My legs were tired, each step was strenuous. It was the toughest hike I'd ever done (excluding the glacier hike). I think the altitude and travel exhaustion had finally set it. After 4 hours we reached the bottom of the canyon and began the hike back up the other side. We finally reached our destination, and it felt great to finally sit down. Our hut was a square, brick room with a thatch roof, a dirt floor, and a large stone that served as a night stand. I didn't care, there was a bed. After a quick meal prepared by Roy's mom, I slumped into bed. Megan came in and screeched, she had spotted something about a foot from my head.
I was too tired to care and just rolled over. She loudly insisted that I squash it immediately. She then proceeded to throw the covers off the bed and check everywhere for more scorpions. Satisfied that the bed was scorpion free, she passed out within 30 seconds of laying down.
The next morning we woke, drank as much of the purified water as we could stomach (it took 4 hours for my purification tablets to work so the water had to sit overnight), ate a quick breakfast, and snapped a couple pictures. The first picture is the view from our room of Roy's pet alpaca. You can also see me standing outside the kitchen and a picture of the room we slept in. The last picture is a view of the last 30 minutes of the hike down the previous evening, notice the zigzag path.
The trail was more level today, as we laterally made our way through multiple villages along the canyon. Roy explained that most of the people were moving out of the canyon, so there are more houses than people. The first village we came to had a population of 20. There is a school for children aged 4-12, but for further education the children had to go to Cabanaconde or Arequipa. Once the children left, they only came back occasionally to help with farming or to come home for festivals. Most of the people we saw were extremely young, or extremely old (older than 65).
Roy began to point out various plants and features of the canyon. He didn't speak perfect English, but he was able to get his thoughts across. He really like to make a generic statement, like "See this insect egg, it is used for women's cosmetic" and then before we could ask a question, he would ask for us "Why?", and then give the answer, "because when crushed it turns pretty red". It also seemed that a majority of Peruvian culture dealt with the llama (he pronounced it yama), alpaca, potato, and tomato. Along the trail he gave us some of the local fruit. One was plucked straight off a cactus and a had a sweeter flavor. Another looked like a green banana that had a coconut texture and giant seeds. A third was extremely sour and used occasionally as a mixer in alcoholic drinks.
We hiked up into the second village, which was a little larger than the first (had around 35 people). This village had a single room hospital (which was built 9 years ago) which also had electricity (brought in 2 years ago). Here is Roy standing outside the hospital.
Walking into the village we passed a large cross which had been decorated with flowers and painted red. Roy explained that for the festivals the crosses were decorated. There was a church with a largish courtyard that was used for the main festival. There was also a larger school with 12 kids, which even included a basketball/soccer field (although I'd hate to be the one to chase a long rebound down the canyon).
After passing through the village we curved along the canyon wall before coming to a lookout point. Here you could get a great panoramic view of the canyon. We could see the villages we just walked through, part of the path from the day before, and a view down into the Oasis.
We could also get a view of tomorrow's trail leading out of the canyon.
We crossed the river at the bottom of the canyon again and walked into the Oasis. We reached our destination and it felt good to take off the hiking boots. We had about an hour before the sun set, so I decided to take a dip in the "hot" spring. The pool was a concrete bowl that had mountain water running into it (straight from the mountain, no pump necessary). A pipe in the bottom drained the water out to the pools below. The "hot" spring was hotter than any water I had felt in Peru, but it was still like jumping into a swimming pool in April (pretty darn cold). Megan eventually got in waist deep, and Roy flirted with girls by twirling a hula hoop on his neck.
Our hut was made of bamboo this time, and still had a dirt floor and a stone serving as a night stand. It was a little more breezy than the first night. We ate dinner next to the pool and then hit the hay early. We were exhausted, and our hike out of the canyon started at 3am.
We were a little worried about making it out of the canyon. Remembering how difficult it was to hike into the canyon, I didn't want to think about hiking back out. I hired a mule to carry our bags and save our legs as much as possible (and also carry us if we got too tired). We strapped on our headlamps and began that long hike out of the canyon. It was strenuous, but I felt much better than the first day. We made it about a third of the way up the canyon before Megan decided she wanted to ride the mule. While I was happy that Megan wouldn't be too worn out for the rest of the trip, I dreaded her decision because that meant I had to carry my pack. I continued up the path, trying my best to stay upwind from the mule. Eventually the sun came up, allowing us to see back down into the canyon.
After 3 1/2 hours, we reached the canyon rim. We were all exhausted, but it felt exhilarating to reach the top. Here is me, Roy, and Megan at the top (Roy is average height for a Peruvian and is 26 years old).
We headed into Cabanaconde for a quick breakfast, and then hurried over to see the main attraction for the Colca Canyon, the flight of the majestic Andean Condor (the largest South American bird).