“Amber, Amber…” beckoned my Colca Canyon tour guide, Raphael, from the street below. This was my cue that my 3am pick-up had arrived. Raphael showed me to the van where the other 5 travelers in my group were already packed in. Greetings and the getting to know each other part would have to wait until breakfast in Chivay because we all had some unfinished sleep to get back to.
I must have slept more soundly than I thought on the bumpy and winding 3-hour ride to Chivay because next thing I know the gentle sounds of some sort of Incan/Peruvian music are in my ear and the volume keeps increasing. Oh, It’s Raphael’s cell phone pressed against my ear making that beautiful sound and I’m the last one up!
We unloaded from the van to freezing cold temperatures. Shivering and still not totally awake, we take our seats at a restaurant that I have no clue how we arrived at. We were the only patrons at this early hour. A woman donning the colorful native dress dropped bread, jam, and coca tea on our table. We devoured about ten baskets worth of the bread while we started to gather each other’s names and stories. My group consisted of some honeymooners from Slovakia, a German couple on an extended 6-month vacation that started in Canada and is finishing in South America, and another solo female traveler from Austria. Of all the travel agencies I had to choose from in Arequipa, I had somehow landed in the perfect group. All easy-going, friendly, and ready for the incredible trek that lay before us.
After breakfast, we stopped at the famous Cruz Del Condor to hopefully catch a glimpse of the massive condors. These revered birds have a wing span of over 8 feet. They are huge! We spotted a few but from a distance it was hard to really appreciate their size.
Next up was the start of our trek in Cabanaconde. Raphael drew a circle in the sand to illustrate the loop through the canyon that we’d be traversing over the next two days. Right away, the views were amazing. I couldn’t take enough pictures. Raphael pointed out the speck across the canyon that was our lunch destination. It looked impossibly far away.
The descent into the canyon was grueling on the knees. For about 3 hours, we followed a zig-zagging and very steep trail to the river at the bottom. Making it to the bottom was an incredible feeling but then began the uphill. Fortunately, lunch was just another 40 minutes hike. Whereas the downhill was exposed and winding switchback after switchback, the uphill was lush and full of the most beautiful flowers and trickling trailside streams. We saw donkeys grazing and butterflies zipping about. The tiny village where plates of lomo saltado were waiting for us was a welcome and beautiful sight. We were all ready for a chair by this point and some fuel.
After lunch, we still had another 3 hours to hike to the oasis where we’d be sleeping for the night. Raphael offered us an alternate shorter route through some abandoned terraces that we all had no problem taking him up on. Along the way, we tasted cactus tuna, pepper, and this long, green, podded fruit called pacay. We smelled a special leaf that gives you instant energy and learned about the white insect that thrives on cactus and is used in our yogurts, cosmetics, and is the red dye used in many of the Quechua fabrics.
The first glimpse of Sangalle, the oasis in the canyon, was beautiful for so many reasons. Besides it looking like paradise with its lush, jungle-like landscape and a few thermal baths, Sangalle also meant food, rest, and only 3 hours left of hiking to the finish the next morning. We slept in thatched roof huts with thick blankets and no electricity. The stars above looked incredible! Dinner was soup, spaghetti, and some chamomile tea. I slept like a baby this night despite Raphael mentioning that we might find scorpions chilling on the walls of our huts. Harmless, he said. Fortunately I never found out if we had some extra roommates. Saved by the dark, I guess.
We started our final stretch at 5:15 the next morning. It was an all uphill hike to the finish that started by the light of our headlamps. Chatting with Raphael about trail running and his insane three treks a week schedule distracted me from my sore muscles and the incredibly steep 3-hour ascent. It was only when we reached the top that the realization of what we had just done sunk in. I felt like I just conquered the world and maybe for a second wished I could be back at the beginning again. I had no idea how amazing this experience would be.
The path into Cabanaconde was gorgeous, some of the prettiest scenes of the whole journey. It felt like our reward for making it this far. Another reward was a steaming hot breakfast of eggs, bread, jam, and coffee. That’s right – breakfast followed the 3-hour uphill hike. Needless to say, we were starving.
The rest of the tour was a bit of a blur. The best of it was behind us. We stopped at a craft market where you could take a picture with a llama while a large bird perched on your head. We visited the highest point in the area that offered views of all of the volcanic peaks. My head was spinning at 4,910 meters above sea level. Finally, we paid a visit to a llama farm where I learned the difference between llamas, vicunas, and alpaca. It’s all in the coloring, fur, and the length of their necks. Then it was back to Arequipa for my quick turnaround to the bus station for an overnight bus to Cusco…