The Colca Canyon
In November 2009, I set off on a four-month trip to South America. I left Toronto with my boyfriend at the time, Olivier, without any idea of the adventures that lay ahead. Throughout the trip we had some wild experiences; we went on treks through the Andes in Northern Peru, the Amazon jungle in Bolivia, and through the breathtaking landscapes of Patagonia in Chile and Argentina. One trek in particular stood out as the most life-changing experience of them all, our trip through the Colca Canyon in Peru. The Colca Canyon is a common tourist attraction and is considered part of the ‘Gringo Trail’ in South America. It is also the second deepest canyon in the world. Many travellers are attracted to the canyon because some of the world’s largest birds, condors, are known to soar through the canyon and are a mesmerizing sight. Oli and I wanted the adventure of trekking and did not feel we needed a guide to take us through the canyon.
One very attractive characteristic of the canyon is fact that there are many people dwell in small communities throughout the area. These locals make very good business from turning their little mud-floored homes into hostels, where trekkers can stay the night and have home-cooked meals. By staying each night in one of these refugios, Oli and I wouldn’t have to rent and carry around camping and cooking equipment during our three-day trek.
After attaining what seemed to be sufficient information about the canyon, we set off. The owner of our hostel in Arequipa, the nearest big city, told us there was absolutely no need to a hire a local guide because every few hours we would pass through a village. The people in these villages could sell us bottles of water and give us directions to our next destination. The man gave us a very vague and sketchy-looking map of the canyon trails and made sure to point out the trail along the entire length of the Rio del Colca, at the base of the canyon. Our plan was to make our descent into the canyon on the first day and cross the bridge over the river, then stay at a refugio that night. The second day we would walk through the canyon and back to the base where the ‘oasis’ refugio was located. Finally on the third day, we would make our ascent up the canyon and walk back to town.
We set out in the evening for Chivay, arriving around 3 o’clock in the morning at a deserted bus station. A traditionally dressed indigenous woman hurried up to us and insisted she bring us to her hostel. Walking down the dusty streets through the chilly Andean night felt surreal and foreign. We got to the hostel, which was decent and clean – and seemed to be under some renovations. After the woman’s son made us some vegetable soup and coca leaf tea, we hit the hay – excited with the anticipation of our adventure into the canyon.
We had to wake up at 6 A.M. to catch the first bus into Cabanaconde. We ate a quick breakfast and drank more coca tea, paid for our stay and walked to the bus station. While we waited for the bus, a man tried to convince us that we had to buy a ‘canyon pass’ from him. Luckily, we were not tricked into giving the stranger our money. The bus arrived and we were pleased to see there were descent seats. The bus became very crowded as big groups of locals shuffled on at the many stops along the way. We had a good laugh when Oli felt a breath on his ear and turned to see a little goat wrapped onto a woman’s back. There were many women and children , who all seemed familiar with one another and chatted as we bumped along the dirt road. When we arrived in Cabanaconde the sun was beating down and we stripped off some layers. Numerous outfitting stores gave the town an established appearance, but the absence of signs showing the way to the canyon was unnerving.
From the start of the trek we found it very hard to find the trail – ending up in irrigation ponds, only to be redirected by a man knee deep in murky water. The descent into the canyon took about five hours, at times we loosely ran down, but the terrain was mostly crumbling, rolling rocks. The first recognizable point was the bridge at the very base, which led us over the powerful Rio Del Colca.
The first town we passed through, Llauar, consisted of one building with a dirt floor kitchen, expensive bottles of soda and a rickety porch were we were served lunch. There was another group of people there, being led by a young German girl. We ate river fish and stale fries and some butter toffees we had brought along. Eager to get to our final destination for the night, we moved on. We began to feel the intensity of the desert heat and walking turned to trudging. At this point, Oli’s knees began hurting from the descent into the canyon and his pace became much slower.
We arrived at the next town only an hour before sunset and settled into the first refugio we could find. The woman of the house seemed surprised at our arrival. For what reason, I will never know – perhaps some trekkers give some kind of notice, perhaps she was only used to guided tours passing through. Hoping for something other than fish for dinner, we were pleased to receive a big pasta dinner with lots of oil and sauce, which she had cooked in the complete darkness of her makeshift kitchen. We ate ravenously and went straight to bed. The woman’s husband gave us a small candle with a pop bottle cap melted to the bottom to catch the wax. The room had three beds made from raw wood and what felt like hay-stuffed mattresses. The floor was bare earth and all that separated us from the family was a bamboo estrella divider. We whispered for a little while and when the chill got to us we pulled up our scratchy wool blankets and fell asleep.
* * *
I woke up very groggy that morning, my eyes felt glued shut – but we had to get an early start. Fish and cold fries for breakfast. I felt grumpy at the fact of having to push down that fish first thing – but in retrospect, it having been our last meal, it played an important part in our survival.
We packed up and headed farther into the canyon to visit a waterfall. We were not very impressed so we only took a few photos and then moved on. We headed back through the town and into the next leg of the trek. As the sun rose the shadows drift down towards the river. The exposure of the sun had crept up and down the cliffs in the canyon and by the time we passed through the town again, sunlight had begun heating up the river and dehydrating us. It was ten o-clock at this point and the pain in Oli’s knees had worsened. We kept trekking in the desert heat, satisfying our thirst every fifteen minutes with bottled water.
The next town we passed through seemed oddly quiet. Scared, trembling donkeys bolted around with their necks roped to a fixture in one of the houses, two of the smaller ones each had one ear cut off. It was cleanly chopped at the base, with a cartilage tube exposed. We walked around the cactus fields and called out, “Hay personas aqui?” No answer. We needed to stock up on water bottles and ask for further directions to our final destination. There was absolutely no one there – so we took a break and continued on. There was faint chalk marking indicating the trail to the town known as ‘the oasis’.
We continued walking, trying our best to follow the chalk arrows. One hour turned into two, two into three and three into four. We were tired, thirsty and frustrated. The path had become much narrower and a number of animal trails made it difficult to know if we were even on the path anymore. I asked Oli if he thought we should turn around. The realization we may be lost made my heart pound quickly as I became very anxious.
We knew we should not have walked that long, the oasis was supposed to be three hours from the last town. The path ended. We had approached a cliff, which we could not cross over. It was too late to turn back to the empty town since the sun would set in about an hour and a half. We slowly scaled down towards the river, avoiding the steepest, prickliest areas and trying hard to control our shaky knees. We were almost at the bottom when somewhere between five and ten hornets flew out from their nest and stung my lower back and butt. The stings shocked me and I fell to my knees. Heavy tears poured out of my eyes and Oli put his hand on my back. His attempt to comfort me did little to soothe my fear because I could hear the uncertainty in his voice. He must have known the tears were more from fear of never getting to safety than from the stings. I pulled myself together in fear of losing control again and we began walking along the rocks in the direction of the hostel. The river crept up and we could not walk farther as the cliff reached the water.
We walked back in the other direction and were cut off again. The thought of spending the night outside drifted in and out of my mind. I screamed ‘hello’ and then, ‘help’. My voice echoed through the canyon and left me feeling scared and even more alone.
Oli could barely move his legs by this time. I started to get angry and showed my panic by telling him to hurry, over and over again. We stopped walking to think and I looked down. I was standing on a perfectly smooth rock, shaped almost like a bowl and big enough for two. I looked at Oli and said, “We’re sleeping here tonight.”
We sat down and tried to think of ways to purify the river water. We did not have any kind of container that could withstand fire. We rinsed our mouths with river water only to spit it out with little satisfaction. We had about two hundred millilitres of water left and I decided to try and save it for the morning. I ate two very dry soda crackers and a few butter toffees. Oli could not manage to eat anything but one toffee. As we lay down the sun disappeared behind the canyon walls. The rock was warm from the sun’s heat. It was comfortable enough and we put on our extra clothes.
There was a rock directly in front of us, of the same composition, colour and smoothness as the one we were lying on. It was about forty feet tall and was shaped like the figure of a man leaning over with crossed legs. If it were not for a picture I took of this rock, I would have expected that it was a hallucination. I took comfort in the feeling that the rock acted as some kind of guardian for Oli and I.
We spent the night falling in and out of sleep, staring up at the stars in a daze of delirium and amazement. Sleeping in the bottom of that canyon was the most magnificent and frightening thing I have ever experienced. The grandeur of the canyon walls made me feel small and powerless. Many anxious thoughts ran through my mind that night. I wondered if we would die there. Who would even find us or come across our bodies? Would they be able to trace back to the man at the hostel in Arequipa? Would locals be helpful? I started to fear that Oli would be unconscious in the morning and that I would be alone at the base of the crevasse.
The sun rose around 5:30 A.M. We had discussed trying to find cactus fruit to have something with moisture in it. First thing, we climbed up a crumbly, steep hill, our legs trembling with exhaustion. We made it up high enough to reach a few cacti, but all the fruit were completely dry and dead. We slid back down about 50 metres, while cacti needles and burrs poked through our clothing and implanted themselves in our skin.
We reached the water and tried to figure out what to do next. Walking back up to the trail and returning four hours to the abandoned town was a daunting prospect. Even if we did get back we would be farther in, when all we had prayed for the night before was getting out. Taking the river back to the bridge where we had crossed the first day was our only other option. The danger and unpredictability of the rapids made me worry we could be injured and potentially immobilized. The water was very, very cold. Although the water was cold, at least, we thought, it may satisfy our thirst somehow to be immersed in it. After walking back and forth between the path up and the way down the river we decided on the river. Oli’s knees were so stiff I do not know if it would have been physically possible for him to walk back to the town. The threat of heat and intensified dehydration was another cloud over our heads.
When I jumped into the water my breath escaped and I struggled to find it. My body was shocked, but it gave me a boost of energy. We floated feet first, holding one another and Oli’s backpack close to our chests. The current was strong enough to pull our bodies along. But at bends in river we had to swim. Finally we had a chance to get out of the river and take a break. We pulled our heavy, drenched selves up onto the rocks and into the sunlight. The warmth was the most comforting thing I had experienced in hours. We dumped out some of the water from our backpacks. We rubbed each other’s forearms with all the energy we could muster. It got to the point when it was so hard to force ourselves to continue that I gave us a time limit before we had to get back in the freezing water. When we slipped back into the river it felt ever colder than before.
We continued floating on, around each bend, never knowing what was waiting. I remember feeling like my thirst was relieved a bit, the cold water all over my body made my mouth feel less dry, for one thing. We stopped on the side of a mossy rock face and tried collecting droplets of water in a sprite bottle. I was still too apprehensive to drink any questionable water and still felt some hope knowing we had about 100 millilitres of clean water left. We made our way through some rapids, during which I repeated over and over “Oli, be careful, be careful, take your time. Be careful.” We continued on like this for three and a half hours. The river had dried up a little and I raced ahead, walking clumsily over the rocks. As we made our way a little farther I finally saw the bridge and yelled back to Oli, “We made it! I can see the bridge!”
We scrambled up the high trail to the bridge and collapsed. Hoping that there would be construction workers nearby, we were disappointed. We finished the water and laid all our soaking wet clothing, passports, money and guidebooks out in the sunlight. About thirty minutes had passed when a man with two horses arrived. Oli explained what had happened and said we could pay him to bring us out on horseback. It was obvious on the expression on his face we were in bad condition and though he had no water with him, when said he would get some for us. It would take him two hours to get to Llahuar, buy water bottles and return. We told him we would give him all the money we had ended up being 200 pesos, about $50 US dollars.
During our wait, two Peruvians came by and expressed their concern, because they knew how powerful and dangerous the canyon could be. They explained they had heard of people being lost before. The woman gave us each a lollipop and a bottle of cola to share. That cola alone almost completely satisfied my thirst and the lollipop made my hunger subside.
When the man who we later learned was called Mario, returned, he had two litres of water and about eight green, banana-shaped fruits. We peeled them open to find moist, cotton- like fruit and big brown seeds. We fed the peels to the horses and mounted them. Mario told Oli to sit on the bigger horse. He then told me to mount the smaller white horse without a saddle.
Mario led my horse by a small rope looped around his neck and Oli’s horse followed behind. I initially felt very unsafe and did not know how to hold on. The ascent was very steep and the trail changed from low gravel to heavy rocky terrain. The whole ascent took about five hours and we stopped only two or three times. Mario drank no water and only wore small, leather sandal on his feet. When we were almost at the top he pointed across the canyon and showed us the trail we had taken and where the correct trail veered upwards. We sauntered into town and dropped off before the plaza and paid our saviour with all our flimsy damp Peruvian bills.
Our legs and inner thighs were very sore from the horseback riding and we hobbled into a restaurant where we ate happily and took our time savouring each mouthful of warm food. Afterwards we went from hostel to hostel asking if we could pay to use the shower before one man agreed. The washroom was filthy and the drain in the tub was clogged. Oli let me shower first and I screamed with joy when the hot water hit my back and swollen bee stings. When we were done, we headed into the hostel bar where we ran into Julien, a Frenchman who we had met twice before during out trip. There were four other travellers and we told them our story. We all ate llama and vegetables together and Oli and I set out to the catch the night bus to Chivay.
Even though we had tickets, we had to stand in the aisle, eventually standing turned into sitting on the floor. Christmas was in two days so many people were travelling to visit their families. Four hours later we arrived in Chivay and returned to our hostel.
I could not believe what had happened when my head hit the pillow. The past three days had been full of so much uncertainty, not knowing if we would make it out alive. I knew I would never experience a trip similar to that adventure into the canyon. I took great comfort in knowing I had saved myself and I could do it again if I ever had to.