A wise woman once said, ” We don’t need a guide, we are smart independent ladies and we don’t need some tour bus telling us to hop on and hop off, when to eat, when to hike, when to take a picture and when to move on.” This wise woman is my best friend Jillian. And this is how we ended up getting to, and hiking the Colca Canyon sin guia (without a guide). We were still in Arequipa pondering our next move. Half of our group wanted to move on to Cusco and spend some days relaxing while I was more inclined to make the most out of my two and a half weeks and we started looking into a three day excursion to the Colca Canyon.
The Colca Canyon is the world’s second deepest canyon, deeper than the grand canyon. You can hike down to the bottom of the canyon and stay in an oasis where you can spend the night. While at our hostel there were several trip packages that would take you to the canyon, a guide to hike down with you, a place to stay over night and a ride back. Being badass lady backpackers we decided we could find our way there on our own, save some pennies and add to our independent capabilities. An informed young man at our hostel who had just returned from the Colca Canyon gave us all the details we needed to reach the canyon, what buses we needed to take, where we needed to stay and how many days it would take. We were convinced that this was our plan of action and arranged our bus for the next day and a hostel in Cabanaconde, the town closest to the trail head into the canyon.
We departed on the local bus and headed to Pacha Mama Hostel in Cabanaconde, an absolute must stay if you are traveling through, an amazing staff, bar, pizzas and rooms. They even picked us up from the bus station. Who does that anymore!? We felt sure of ourselves as we checked into the hostel and one of the employees went over a map of the hike with us. It looked simple enough, you hike down down down, then up, around, a bit more down, cross a bridge, hike up, walk through a small village, hike down, boom oasis. Here, use this hand drawn map that is roughly to scale… Feeling well informed we splurged on pisco sours and pizza and enjoyed the atmosphere of the small mountain town hostel. Our hostel had arranged a van in the morning to view the condors at an impressive lookout, a ride to the trail head of the canyon, and a hostel for us in the oasis. Everything was going swimmingly and we went to bed early to prepare for our 5am wake up call so that we could squeeze in breakfast (included in our fabulous hostel) before the hike.
5am came early. We sat on the rooftop deck of the hostel and ate breakfast taking in the beautiful sunrise. Being born and raised in Colorado there is nothing more beautiful than seeing the sun first hit the highest peaks and watching the mountains being bathed in early morning golden light. Georgi however had a different opinion. As Jilly and I were oooing and aaaahhhhing at the unfolding sunrise Georgi scoffed, in her perfect british accent, “well it’s a bloody sunrise, it happens every day. I hate sunrises there is absolutely nothing special about them.” We turned in horror to this incredulous statement. Georgi had no remorse, and she would not submit to our love of sunrises. Turns out she really just had a rough night of sleep and wasn’t in the best mood. Like I’ve said before, when you travel with people you get to know them quickly. Especially when you have a rough night of sleep and you have to share your hatred of sunrises despite popular opinion. So there we were, freezing cold, eating cold eggs at 10,000ft in elevation, preparing ourselves for the day ahead, sitting in silence, and avoiding talks of sunrise.
We had left our big packs in Arequipa and only brought the bare minimum in our day packs. This included a change of underwear, change of socks, a rain coat and a long sleeve shirt. During the day when the sun was beating down the weather was hot and dry, but that cold cold morning we bundled up as much as we possibly could with our limited layers and loaded up into the most beautifully restored Volkswagen van you have ever seen. We reached the condor viewpoint before any other tourists where there. While the grand canyon is flat topped and never ending the colca canyon has huge sharp peaks that seem to pierce the sky. The rugged peaks and rock formations cascade farther and father into a valley that a tiny river has carved its way through. You can make out a distinct cut on the peaks on the other side of the valley that must be a road. It looks like a comical zig zag as your eye follows it into the side of the mountains. My eyes locate the river and the floor of the canyon knowing that even though it doesn’t look that far, but I knew that it was, perception at that elevation is severely flawed. It would be one thing to hike down, it would be completely another to hike out – but that was the next day.
We had a few sightings of condors and other tourists arrived looking incredibly better equipped for the cold and the watching of the majestic birds. Jillian, Georgi and I discovered that we really had no interest in bird watching and returned to the spot where our van had dropped us off where many locals had gathered selling their tourist wares and we bided our time looking through all the peruvian goodies. Our triumphant red van returned and we piled in with a few other people, ready to get on the trail. They dropped us off on the side of the road, waved and there we were. Just on a lonely highway about to hike down into this immense canyon. At least the first day was mostly all down. There were lots of tourists on the trail and we moved quickly to try and bypass all the groups, because after all, we had complete freedom, no guide, no timeline, just a destination – the Oasis.
Down we went. Down down down. The walls of the canyon grew around us and the peaks seemed impossibly far away. The thought of the next day climbing back out seemed terribly ominous so I kept my thoughts to the task at hand, staying on the right path. Turns out our hand drawn map wasn’t the most precise, shocking I know. The tour groups also seemed to disappear rapidly and we were left questioning the occasional farmer or the women selling snacks. No one gave very clear answers and seemed at best annoyed with us for not having a guide. Luckily though we kept to the correct trail and after crossing an iconic but unimpressive concrete bridge and hiking up steep switch backs, the path became very clear. The sun was shining all day and the bluest of blue skies made the canyon perfectly picturesque. We walked through small villages and wondered what it would be like to exist in this remote place, in such a tough geographical location. How did supplies come in, did these villagers ever leave the canyon, what did they really think of all these gringos trekking through their land? We never got any concrete answers but we did get some strange behavior of locals trying to charge us for walking on the path that we had already paid a park entrance for.
The sun began to go down and we reached the lush green oasis at the bottom of the canyon and we located our hostel. We went to check in and everyone at the front desk seemed utterly confused that we did not have a guide. They tried to say they had no room for us but we knew this was a lie and we used all the spanish we could to convince them they were misinformed. Luckily the message got through and we were taken to our rooms. Two very bare bones shacks with no electricity. We were too tired to think much of it, drank celebratory beers and soaked our exhausted feet in the chilly pool. We dreamed of swimming but with the sunlight gone and the night chill was coming in fast we knew it was not going to happen. Our tummies growled signaling dinner time and we walked towards the communal dining room.
Once again we were treated by surprise and confusion that we had no guide. What group were we to sit with if we were lone individuals? Luckily there was a Dutch family who were experiencing the same troubles and they put us all at a table. We sat and talked with the mother of the family, who had all boys, and she seemed very grateful for the female company. We all chatted about our lives and she told us how she traveled the world when she was younger with her husband and continues to do so with her children. We applauded her efforts and were inspired at the belief that we could keep doing this traveling thing, no matter the age or marital status. We had a lot of time to chat because they made us wait until all the other groups had eaten. We finished our mediocre meal of pasta thoroughly pissed off and ready for bed.
We awoke before the sunrise to try and get a head start up the canyon. It was a shorter distance than the previous day, but of course, it was straight up. All the mental preparation I did for climbing out of that canyon was no match for the actual day of endless steep switch backs that consisted of the natural rock in the form of stairs. Half an hour into our trek we saw our Dutch dinner companions riding on donkeys. As they passed us on the trail Georgi noticed there was an extra donkey with the pack and quickly hailed the Senior and bargained her way onto the back of the last mule. Jilly and I waved goodbye as we watched her disappear up the mountain. I regretted this instantly in my head, but put on a smile and placed one foot in front of the other. Three hours later, lungs burning and continually gasping for breath at the intense elevation gain and thin air I wondered if I would ever reach the seemingly mythical top of the trail. Jilly had gotten ahead of me and it was just me against the mountain. The sun was getting unbearably strong and I played a mental game of what ifs as I weighed my options of how to carry on. Turns out I had no options, I just had to keep going. The trek up the canyon was one of the harder climbs I had done in awhile, not to mention I was severely out of hiking shape. I finally reached the top plateau where Jilly was waiting. We rejoiced for reaching the top but we had to walk back to town. We both had run out of water and were ready for a full meal. We followed the final trail through farmlands to reach the town of Cabanaconde. As luck would have it we took a wrong turn and ended up in a farmer’s field. A terrifying woman kept screaming at us that there was no exit, NO SALIDA NO SALIDA and we were too exhausted to politely tell her that this was obvious, but we were lost and just trying to get back to town. We turned our backs on her, hopped a few more fences and finally made our way to the center of town.
We found Georgi sunning herself on a park bench. When she saw us she ran up to us half panicked wondering where we had been. We told her breakfast first before we have to catch the bus and then we will tell you all about the intensely steep hike and the screaming locals. We shoveled food into our mouths as Georgi told us all the trials and tribulations of riding a donkey up a steep canyon for two hours. We agreed that there was no good way to get out of that canyon, but we did it and we all felt extremely accomplished. Our bus arrived, we took our seats and promptly fell asleep. We had six hours until we returned to Arequipa where we would relocate our bags from our previous hostel, shower, eat dinner and then catch a twelve hour night bus to Cusco. I feel like these are how adventures are born, with the decision to do something just a little different. We certainly had quite an adventure in that canyon. What is it they say? Oh yes, it’s all about the journey.
And now, pictures.
Thank you for reading and looking.