The bus travelling from Arequipa is slow and dilapidated. Children, maize and goats cram the aisle. Outside, the landscape is alien. Mountains, bereft of trees, launch themselves from the plains in muted shade of dusty brown. Their peaks look fake against electric blue skies.
We are on our way to the Canyon de Colca in southern Peru, a great crevice in the earth amidst the towering Andes. In places, it is an incredible 3400 meters deep and until recently, was thought to be the deepest canyon in the world.
Arrival in Cabanaconde
After five hours on rocky roads, we reach Cabanaconde, a village perched on the canyon lip. The streets are lined with adobe houses and terraces carpet the land. We jump off the bus with shaky legs and I am immediately struck by the friendliness of the people and the intensely traditional lives they lead. I am also struck by altitude sickness. Cabanaconde sits at a mere 3287 metres, but it’s high enough to hit a sea level dweller like a hammer. My head feels swollen and distended, like a balloon of boiling water and every movement requires tremendous effort. I fall into bed to sleep it off.
The next morning, my husband and I stand on the edge of the precipice. 1500 metres below, the river winds like a skinny green worm writhing on a fish hook. The bleak dusty canyon drops suddenly, a steep sided tear in the ground, and above us rise the inconceivably large snowcapped peaks of the Andes.
Everything is huge, making us feel very small indeed. Suddenly I catch a glimpse of the dubious path below. It’s loose and crumbly and there are an awful lot of cacti for me to fall on. We set off with trepidatious hearts and by the time we reach the river, our legs are floppy rolls of lemon-lime jelly; knees quivering from three hours of slippery steep descent.
We emerge onto a lush flat embankment strewn with bamboo huts, swaying palms and all the tourist paraphernalia you could pack in a brochure. This oasis is visible for almost the entire walk, the cool glint of sunlight on swimming pool luring the sweaty hiker further and further down the trail till it’s too late to turn back and one is forced to spend the night sipping coconut juice in a hammock.
We resist as best we can, but by the time we drag ourselves away the sun is high and hot and we are forced to rest frequently in tiny patches of cactus shade as we stumble up the path. Our destination is the village of San Juan de Chacha, reached by a winding path halfway up the opposite side of the canyon, traversing along past a football match and descending all the way back to the river again.
Half way along, we are adopted by a local family, who happily show us the short cuts as we scramble desperately to keep up. A smiling, rotund woman watches me struggle with amusement. Traditionally dressed in colourful, layered skirts, she bounces along the invisible path at an alarming rate, baby strapped in a blanket to her back. We skid down gravel, rock hop rivers, balance on the edge of aqueducts and finally emerge, miraculously, directly in front of a hostel.
Climbing the Canyon
The lower southern side of the canyon is sculptured by cascading agricultural terraces, fed by an intricate aqueduct system that has sustained the valley for hundreds of years. Each of the villages dotted along the path continue to exist largely independent of the modern world. There is no electricity, limited hygiene services and all supplies are brought in on donkeys. So far, the impact of tourism has been minimal, resulting in the appearance of a few hostels, but not changing the essential character of the area, which remains open, honest and exceptionally enjoyable.
We retire early to our adobe brick bedroom, determined to rise early and conquer the steep uphill slog before the sun hits its peak. But when six o’clock rolls around, I am exhausted from a night spent vomiting into a prickly pear patch. I have been hit by the bane of all travellers – the stomach bug, and it could not have happened at a worse time: 1500 metres of vertical wall looms ominously above me.
We set off while the canyon is still in the shadow of the mountains, walking slowly, stopping frequently to drink water, collapse in fatigue and admire the views. The path, which is much wider than it looks from above or below, zig-zags sharply up the cliff face. A man runs up to us, a giant bundle of maize strapped to his back, sweat pouring off his brow. He pauses to mutter a brief Buenos dias, adjusts his load and sprints on upwards. I watch him disappear and feel a burst of hated for my weak gringo belly, as the day wears on, the sun hits the canyon with indescribable force. The air is dry, dusty and very, very hot. The patch continues onwards, deceiving us with false finishes, until eventually, we climb around the final corner and collapse in the shade.
I look around, at last bale to enjoy the incredible view without a cliff above me. A condor hovers in the air above us. Under our feet, fat roly-poly bees in and out of holes in the ground. An incandescent hummingbird buzzes past and we sit on the edge of the canyon and dream of the ice cold sprite that awaits us in the hostel.2