One of the deepest canyons in the world, the location where condors fly on early morning thermal currents, Colca Canyon is a bucket-list destination in Peru. Unsurprisingly, when the opportunity presented itself to do a two-day tour for less than $50 with all lodging and food included, I could hardly resist. The Argentinian who runs the travel agency at Park Hostel in Arequipa just added a final warning: “Make sure to bring warm clothing; it gets cold up there,” he intoned in the Italian-inflected Spanish typical of his native land. Mulling it over I figured that it would surely be better to pack light for a two-day trip. After all, I would hardly need much clothing for such a short time. BIG MISTAKE!
BIG, BIG MISTAKE!
This article should probably be entitled ‘Colca Canyon- Views to Die For?’
Read on and laugh!
Beginnings- Colca Canyon beckons
The day started with an early breakfast that was soon interrupted by the news that the tour guide was already waiting for me at Reception. Apparently, they could collect before the promised departure time! Quickly grabbing my bag and my passport, I made my way down to the bus and the tour commenced, more or less. We still had to do the rounds of Arequipa to collect more travellers, so I was pleased to learn that we would be stopping for a fifteen-minute breakfast before departing the city. That stop was also an opportunity to stock up on coca leaves and water, both essential in the fight against altitude sickness. Our guide explained in detail the effects of altitude sickness and the steps that we could take to prevent its occurrence. So far, so good.
Who We Are…
After our brief stop, we left Arequipa and we were soon climbing the Andes en route to Colca Canyon. The group turned out to be diverse and eclectic- Taiwanese Canadians from Quebec, Poles living overseas, Dutch students, two Peruvians from a Spanish language school in Cusco, and an adventurous American lady from a ‘red state’ who assured me that Trump could never win the election. If I could turn back time, as the song goes.
It Won’t Get Any Colder, Will It?
Two hours passed quickly and we became acquainted with each other as we compared coca leaf chewing techniques and chatted about our trips. Then it was time for another rest stop to allow people to answer the call of nature and to warm up with hot tea. In this case, with the fear of altitude sickness ever present, coca tea was de rigueur. However, let’s just say that although the sky was an Italian celestial blue, the drop in temperature was already noticeable. Not having wanted to pack too much or be ‘travel heavy’, this dedicated follower of fashion was wearing a light T-shirt and a light top. After all, it couldn’t get any colder…or could it?
The Cold Truth About Colca Canyon
The next stop was where my suspicions started to harden like the ice of the frozen waterfall in the photo below. For once, I was seriously unprepared and under packed. Sure, it was beautiful, but God it was cold!Arriving in Chivay, our base for the two days, we tucked into a sumptuous lunch that took my mind off the cold for a spell. Following that, our bus took us into the countryside where we went for a walk that included Incan storage spots in the mountains (caves and crannies in the rocks where they stored supplies for their messengers). The bright sunlight, added to the effort needed to climb the steep paths, again diverted my attention from the cold- the calm before the storm…the ice storm!
The Coffee and the Cold
Returning to Chivay, we were dropped at our hotels and I went for a coffee in the main square. Aromas Café turned out to serve great coffee and it was THE place to go in Chivay as the sun started to set. Despite being only about 100m from my hotel, the walk back in my T-shirt and top proved to be decidedly chilly, and when I got to the hotel I discovered to my horror that my room could double as an icebox.
The evening was pleasant and we were entertained by traditional Andean music and dance at dinner. On the other hand, like the line in the Billy Joel song ‘Good Night, Saigon’, the night seemed to last forever. By the time I met the Taiwanese Canadians over breakfast next morning, I had spent the night in a room that was probably colder than your average refrigerator. On a brighter note, my tour companions were equally miserable and we took turns putting our hands around the hot water flasks on the table- one last desperate attempt to warm up! Copious amounts of hot water, coca tea and coffee were consumed, but to no avail. All three of us felt like we had just spent a night on Pluto and one of us was more appropriately dressed for a trip to Mercury.
A New Day
I would like to entitle this section ‘Defrosting’, but that would be disingenuous. Don’t be fooled by the blue skies of the photos because it was still cold- seriously cold. Our trip to see the condors included a quick stop in the village of Yanque, where the locals danced in the main square. This was to be our last bathroom break before Condor Valley. We did, however, stop at another viewing point on the way up. Needless to say, the views were again striking, but with the possible exception of the night before, I had never felt as cold in all my life.
I spent a Christmas vacation in the Chinese Himalayas as a much younger man and I recollect once having the water of a warm shower literally freeze around me.
However, the difference back then was that I had warm clothing. Aren’t we suppose to mature with age???
The Valley of the Condors
Pristine. Pure. Vast. Awe-inspiring. The Valley of the Condors exceeded my expectations. Even if the landscape was barren and brown, its vertiginous drops and sweeping scale were enough to take your breath away. If that didn’t work, the altitude and the cold would probably do the job anyway. Giant condors glided gracefully on the thermal air currents and at times they would swoop down right above the heads of those in the crowd. At other times I would go to the edge to admire a condor that appeared almost as a dot in the vast valley below and then watch as the same bird flew ever higher and ever closer to me. Although the landscape guaranteed beautiful photos, only videos truly capture the memory of the flight of the condor for me.
A highlight of any trip to Peru- judge for yourself below!
Maca and the Trip Back
On our way back to Chivay we made a twenty minute stop in the village of Maca where we had time to have a quick coffee and to visit the church. Apart from the bright pink colour of its colonial facade, the real interest lay in the elaborate decoration of the interior where every detail spoke of the syncretism between traditional Andean culture and the Catholicism imported by the Spanish conquistadors. Picture an overlay of gold with statues of saints wearing wide-brimmed hats and brightly coloured pastel dresses. Taken altogether, it was clear that the religion had adopted new shades when removed from the austere atmosphere of imperial Spain.
Lunch was a lively and talkative affair as this would be our last time together as a group before the long drive back to Arequipa. At this stage, I had forgotten the bitter cold of the night before and the trip had a glow. Fabulous views, interesting companions, food and cold accommodation all for $50- why complain?
A few hours out of Chivay the first sneezes started.
The next ten days would be marked by fever, blocked sinus passages, a choking cough and pure exhaustion. In fact, the entire trip to Peru all but flatlined. Until I went to Machu Picchu I would think that it was one of the least enjoyable trips of my entire life and there is some competition on that score. How can you enjoy a vacation when it’s an effort to get out of bed, breathing is a chore and every step you take is accompanied by aches in some muscle you never realised you had? It never rains but it pours, as they say, so the Colca Canyon extravaganza was followed by another 23-hour bus (mis)adventure in the high Andes- click here to get another laugh!
Tips and Advice
- Follow local advice. If the man says it gets cold, listen to him!
- Pack for all weather and bring layers. You never know…
- The trip to Colca Canyon can be booked anywhere in Arequipa, but it is a good idea to stay at Park Hostel to take advantage of their special deal. Many of my trip companions paid double with no food included.
- Bring extra money even if your trip is all-inclusive. You may need it to buy extra clothing or to tip the guide and the driver at the end of the trip.
- Colca Canyon is a cold place. Bring warm clothing regardless of the trip or trek that you plan there.
- Get a good camera. The views are stunning, but you’ll get more out of them if you have better equipment. Note: all the photos in this post were taken on my trusty iPad.
- Do not take a one day trip to Colca Canyon. You will have to leave early and the condors fly on the thermal currents in the morning, not the afternoon.
- Apart from the Valley of the Condors, the villages of Maca and Yanque are well worth a stop.
- Make time for Colca Canyon if you go to Arequipa. It surprised me how many travellers went to Arequipa, but never made it out to Colca Canyon. It nearly killed me (literally), but it was unforgettable in many respects.
- Drink plenty of coca tea when you’re there. It will rehydrate you, keep you warm and it fights altitude sickness.