Do you know that feeling when you have been on the road all day, trying to get somewhere, but the road is bad, the time seems to move as slow as the slowest snail and you are just tired and desperate for the end of the day? But then you finally reach your destination and see something so beautiful that all the tiredness vanishes like someone has cast a magic spell. This was the case with arriving at Colca before hiking Colca Canyon.
The day leading up to our arrival really wasn’t great. We spent the night in a miserable little town called Espinar or Yauri (depending if you look on Google or on the road signs). Surrounded by mountains and barren landscape, the town is nothing you would call pretty. We just wanted a place to spend a night, so booked a basic room in one of the few hostels. I don’t have any problems with basic rooms these days, but, man, did the place smell funky. I did not realise that until I got in the bed and sniffed the old looking blanket. The girl at the reception wasn’t much better. Carl called her ‘dozy’, I just wanted to shake her violently. She was slow, it took ages for us to explain that we want to see the room before we pay, she just kept staring at us with a blank expression. Once we finally sorted the room, she told us not to worry and pay the next morning, but when we came out few hours later for a dinner, she asked us to pay now with such a manner, you would think we owed millions to mafia. Oh well, it was just one night, so early next morning we moved on.
The road to Colca was mostly dirt road, in some places terribly corrugated or rocky, making the bike jump up and down violently. On top of that, seems we took the wrong turn in one place, making sure we prolonged our journey for God knows how many miles. But, as I said before, all struggles come to an end at some point.
Once we reached the town of Chivay, which roughly marks the beginning of Colca district, we were greeted by luscious green landscape, mountains, crazy rock formations and a ticket office asking for 70 soles entry fee per person. The entry fee covers the access to the whole region. Tickets bought, we had a good lunch and continued to our final destination – Cabanaconde. The road from Chivay to Cabanaconde was incredibly beautiful, as this is where parts of the canyon can be seen. Surrounding rocks, farmland and trees were basking in the late afternoon sunlight and we stopped by the Cruz de Condor – a famous viewpoint, where majestic condors can be seen. Of course, we did not spot any – they tend to be seen in the early hours of the morning. The place still made for beautiful photos.
Arrived in Cabanaconde we made for the hotel ‘Pachamama’. It is a very good place, we were impressed with the quality of the rooms, the shower was hot and the funky restraurant downstairs served good food and drinks. If you find yourself in ‘Pachamama’, go and check the roof terrace out. Double room (or matrionial) was 70 soles with a private bathroom or 60 soles with a shared one. It seems to be a popular place with people making their way to canyon, so the staff provide tourist information, it is possible to rent walking poles and reserve a room at one of the lodges down at the bottom of the canyon.
After a good nights sleep we left our belongings in the locker room, had a breakfast in the restraurant (included in the room price) and started for the canyon. The route is easily found – just off the main plaza, it starts almost opposite the church. From there it is almost a mile through farmland before the descent begins. If you have not bought your tickets yet, there was a ticket control officer hanging around the hotel early in the morning checking and selling them or you could just ask at the hotel. After the mile through the farmland, there is a ticket checkpoint, so always carry your tickets on you.
We started our walk around 9am, but people usually start much earlier trying to avoid the hot sun. Possibly for this reason we did not meet that many people on our way down. After our tickets were checked, we started the long way descent. I was slightly dissapointed as I imagined that I will be able to see all the way down with sheer drops, kind of like you imagine the Grand Canyon, but here the slope was more gradual forbidding very dramatic views. Well, thank God for that, because how would we ever descend down a sheer drop.
The way down seemed easy at first, but don’t be fooled – the steepness, the hefty stone steps and slippery gravel make themselves known after a while when your legs start feeling like a jelly from the constant movement downwards. Bring plenty of water with you, a strong sunscreen and a hat, because the sun is strong and there are not many places offering some shade. Don’t get too excited when you first spot the Oasis de Sangalle – the spot at the bottom of the canyon where most people are headed to. It is still a long way down there.
The whole route took us 2 full hours walking and 30-40 minutes spent for a rest and taking pictures. It does not sound a lot, but once we reached the Oasis, I almost rolled down onto the green grass as my painful legs gave in.
The Oasis itself is a little patch of greenery in between the walls of the canyon and with river Colca rushing around it. There are few hotels/lodges for the weary tourists to have a nights rest before heading up the canyon and nothing else. We stopped at the first place just at the end of the route, being so tired, the promise of a blue pool with refreshing waters sealing the deal. We were greeted by a happy man, rushing about and showed a little lodge for our accomoodation. It was very simple bungalow with a bamboo roof and few single beds on concrete panels. We were surprised seeing a lightbulb at the ceiling, as Carl read somewhere that there is no electricity at the Oasis.
With us settled in, I realised that I am the world’s biggest idiot. I forgot to take my shampoo (which also doubles as a body wash), so I could not properly wash off all the mixture of sweat, dust and my sunscreen. Carl only had a tiny satchet with him. I forgot my towel, of course, there were none given at the lodge. I forgot a change of clothes and sandals to relieve my sweatty feet. And most imortantly, I forgot my bikini so there and then my dream of lounging in the pool was crushed. There were too many people to dare a swim in my underwear. I had to create a makeshift sarong from my dirty scarf and all I could do was sit on the side with my feet dipped in, hoping the wind would not blow my ‘sarong’ away, whilst Carl was happily splashing about.
The food was very limited, of course, because everything is delivered on the backs of some poor mules down the same road we came from. We had a plain soup, some chips and a piece of tough meat for lunch and the same soup and some sphagetti with a tomato sauce for dinner. I could forget about the fruit juice I dreamt of, so Carl and I shared bottles of beer, chilled in the river water.
There is not much to do at the Oasis, so in the afternoon we wanted to walk down to the river only to find out it is not accessible so we had to make do with a bridge to explore. On the way back we found two mules grazing grass, possibly restingˋfor taking some people up (if you don’t fancy the walk up, it is possible to go up on the back of the mule, but we never found out the price. I felt sorry for the poor creatures, also after seeing some of them stumbling down the road earlier, it did not seem like an easy ride for neither the mule or the person on it.
It was an early night for us with nohing to do and we got up at 7am to make our way up. There was no breakfast in sight and the restraurant was closed. Later it turned out that the man, running the place had left for Cabanaconde with his mules the previous night. Slightly pissed off (I cannot function with a breakfast, but Carl does not care), we started heading up. Thankfully I had a banana in my bag and few chocolate nuts.
We knew that the way up would be much harder and it can take 3-4 hours, but, damn, it was hard. Imagine walking up an incline machine at 15-45 degrees for few miles. But then throw in dry sands, slippery gravel and giant stone steps (felt like doing lunges). Don’t forget the hot sun and your already beaten legs from the previous day. We did not talk much on the way up and sweatted buckets. My 700ml water bottle was empty halfway up. There were many rest stops – as we started so early, we managed to get few shady bits. It also gets cooler as you get higher, but the air gets thinner and harder to breathe.
After what seemed like hours of grunting and pain, we made it up to the farmlands and heard a sound of hooves. It was our hotel owner coming down with his mules and fresh supplies. He seemed pleased to see that we have made it and there were lots of smiles and handshakes exchanged. Despite everything, we actually managed to make it back in 3 hours including 30 minutes spent resting. We were both impressed and also just dead on our feet. It was time for a big meal and a nap back in the comfy beds of ‘Pachamama’.
Although it was hard, painful and the Oasis possibly left a lot to imagine, I feel ridiculously proud of myself doing this and having these memories of hiking down one of the deepest canyons in the world. I am certainly not my fittest at the moment, so it can clearly be done and is a wonderful and challenging experience. Now we feel like we have hiked enough so staying at the cost of the Pacific Ocean is our next plan.
Have you ever hiked a hard route and challenged yourself? Has it been worth it?