Peru #7: Colca Canyon

Located about an hour way from Arequipa (or more than that if you take local buses), Colca Canyon is a must-see if you’re passing through Arequipa and southern Peru. Apparently the deepest canyon in the world. Amazing rocky landscapes on one side, luscious green valleys on the other. While many tourists opt to go there on a guided tour, I decided to do it all myself. It was cheaper, I saw lots more and it was on my terms.

Colca Canyon would also be the place where I began to believe that the mountains might actually be alive because of a premonition I had that would later come true. I’d get stuck trying to find my way to an amazing waterfall, accrue a canine companion and realise that I’m a beast when it comes to altitude and uphill hikes. Not to mention having someone sat next to me pee in a bottle.

How to get there

By the by, most of the tours offered by agencies back in Arequipa depart at 3am so that you can go condor-spotting at a special viewpoint, another reason I decided to go on my own. Of course, advantages of a tour are that they take you there directly, you get to interact with other people on the tour and you’ll see most of the main sights, but going it alone gives you so much independence.

Anyway, I caught a bus at 9.30am after having paid 6/S for a taxi to the terminal, which is in the outskirts of Arequipa. There aren’t very many buses that go to Cabanaconde, the departure point for getting into the Canyon, and I took a ride with Andalucia for 15/S. The bus was an old banger and already parked up at the terminal gate when I went through for boarding. However, there was no sign of a driver for another half an hour, which didn’t seem to irk anybody and so we set off late. We lost more time on the journey due to the bus trudging along looking for passengers wherever we hit civilisation, though the driver did put his foot down once we’d left the small bus terminal of Chivay, another place where you can descend into the canyon from.

Getting around on your own

In order to enter the ‘tourist zone’ of Colca Canyon you need to pay 70/S for the tourist pass, which I acquired on the bus. I took advantage to ask where I should get off so as to get on the trail down into the canyon, and the man who sold me the boleto gladly instructed me where to get off; about five minutes before reaching Cabanaconde. The journey had taken just short of  seven hours and it was pushing 4.30pm so I’d have to make haste to get down to one of the small villages before nightfall.

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Turn right here

I’d downloaded a very basic map showing what villages are connected in the valley and the subsequent distance between them, so I knew I had to get to San Juan for the night. I imagined that their estimate of three hours was over-egging it and I did indeed make it down there in little more than an hour and a half, power-walking with my headphones providing the rhythm. On the way down there were spectacular views of greens mixed with browns, the river down at the bottom and the majestic mountains all around me. It was here that I started to believe that the hills are indeed alive, as when I looked at them they seemed to be breathing and no amount of squinting or rubbing my eyes would make them stop. Call it an illusion if you like, but I was certainly mesmerised.

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Colca Canyon

After zigzagging my way down to the bottom I crossed the river and a neatly-made path suggested I was close to civilisation. I was in actual fact wrong, though there were a few houses dotted along the beginnings of the path. I’d read that you could just rock up in the valley and there was no way you wouldn’t find a place to stay, and indeed a lady at the first house I passed called me and offered me accommodation, saying:  ‘Welcome to San Juan’, admittedly a little prematurely. Her place seemed devoid of other visitors so I opted to carry on for a while longer.

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If you see this bridge, you’re nearly at San Juan
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Crossing the river on the way in

After about 15 minutes I came to what is probably considered the actual village as I could see a cluster of buildings ahead. At the first house I passed, another woman called me over and invited me to stay at her place, and I spotted that there were other tourists there too. Given her price was good: 25/S for a private room and dinner, I acquiesced.  The dinner was pretty basic and didn’t really fill me up, but I did teach a bunch of German and Irish girls a few card games while we chatted.

A supernatural experience

That night I would further feel the presence of the mountains Gods. Initially finding it difficult to sleep, when I did start to drift I felt as if my bed was rising vertically and tipping me out of the bottom. Rather than wake up, I ‘slid’ into a vivid dream which weeks later would turn out to be a strange kind of premonition. I dreamed I was in a place alone and could sense that something was wrong. The letter ‘T’ was prominent and as I made my way towards a strange force I came across something or someone who appeared to unable to breathe and in what seemed a foetal position on a sofa. I recall that they were covered in plastic and that it was suffocating them. Whether I tried or not to save whatever it was I don’t know, but the dream quickly ended and I fell into another dream in which I was talking to my recently-deceased grandmother who I hadn’t vividly dreamed about in the four months since she’d died. Thankfully she seemed happy and at peace. We exchanged words, what exactly I can’t remember, and then suddenly birds were chirping, I could feel the sun shining and it was the morning.

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The rising sun

I’m not one to believe in the supernatural, but those dreams had certainly impacted upon me and upon returning home I would find that a distant family member whose name begins with ‘T’ had passed away on that very same night and in very similar circumstances to what I’d seen. It has really opened my eyes to such things.

Futile walks through Cactusville

After breakfasting on a can of tuna and some leftover bread and biscuits I set off towards the small village of Tapay, which took about an hour and a half. It was worth looking at for its very pretty church and surrounding garden. From there I continued on to Cosñihua and Malata, which aren’t particularly anything to write home about, but I’d gone there just in case there was anything to see.

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A pretty churchyard in Tapay

In Malata I stopped for refreshments and the shopkeepers I asked directions of thought it too late for me to set off to see the waterfall. They reckoned I’d be pushing it to get up there and back and on towards Sangalle before sundown, but I assured them I was a fast walker. Indeed the basic map I had suggested the round-trip took around nine hours, but I managed it in about six, despite wasting over an hour trying in vain to get to the waterfalls.

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Me in Colca Canyon

I plugged in my headphones so as to pick up a quick pace and was joined by a dog for the whole day, who willingly stayed by my side, probably expecting me to give him treats as other tourists most likely did, but I had nothing to give him except water. The walk up to Fure, an abandoned town with a couple of places that were hostels in bygone times, took about two and a half hours and was mostly flat with the exception of a few ups and downs. After a while I could see and hear what seemed some to be some amazing waterfalls in the distance down the hillside.

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My canine companion
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Fure: the ghost town

I first tried going directly down towards them, following what little remnants of trail remained, but found my path blocked by cacti, and in trying to pass, ended up with needles stuck into me from all angles, having pierced my clothes. Given I’d seen absolutely no one for the past three hours I figured there was no problem getting naked so as to pick and shake all of the needles out of my legs and clothes, a task I thought I had completed until one of the luggage handlers at a bus terminal a few weeks later would complain that my backpack was full of spines.

I next tried to follow an alternative path behind Fure, but found my route blocked by a very homemade graveyard. Deciding I didn’t want to tempt nature and what were for me its newfound powers I went around it and started to walk alongside a waterpipe, hoping it would eventually take me down to the waterfalls. Unfortunately it didn’t and I was attacked by cacti again and once again had to strip off and de-needle, walking round in circles for what seemed about an hour before finally re-joining the trail that led back down to Malata. The dog was still with me and probably quite stung too.

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The waterfalls I never got to

Finally back on the trail, I worried I wouldn’t make it to Sangalle (the nearest place for accommodation) and so broke into a jog where possible. Thus coming down took me under two hours and it took me a further hour to get to Sangalle, and from Malata  it was downhill all the way.

Improvising where to stay

I had initially intended to rock up and find somewhere to stay in Sangalle when I got there, but as luck would have it I bumped into a group of Spanish-speaking girls and we started chatting. They couldn’t fathom where I was from and one was extremely surprised when I told her that was in fact English. She asked her friend from Spain where she thought I was from and she guessed I was Mexican, which I liked, as it further adds to my ‘international intrigue’. They were on a tour and had all their accommodation already sorted out. A while later we caught up with the tour leader and he told me to pretend I was in his group as solo travelers allegedly got charged more at where we were. Given I’d made some friends, the offer of a bed and dinner for 25/S was enticing enough and I slipped him the money later that evening.

Sangalle is renowned as one of the most beautiful villages in Colca Canyon, though I couldn’t fully appreciate as I arrived at sundown, but looking down at it from above is quite impressive, mostly due to the collection of waterfalls spouting out of the mountainside and into the river. It is indeed greener than its oft rocky surroundings and I guess there’s some kind of geological explanation for that.

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Waterfalls at Sangalle
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Sangalle

At the accommodation six girls and I ended up sharing a big room with ten beds, and we were warned to check the room for scorpions, especially in our shoes, each time we entered. There was a solitary one on the wall in one of the corners, but the guide said it was fine and they’d do us no harm. Needless to say, everyone chose a bed as far away as possible.

There was also a swimming pool and despite the falling temperature and darkness I jumped in as I felt I deserved it after lots of walking and being stung everywhere. One of the girls, a Mexican-Dutch, joined me and we were getting on quite well. Added to that, when I went back to the room and was evidently about to get changed, she took a long time to leave. As it happened, nothing happened, but it was one of those encounters where if you had more time (and weren’t sharing a room with a bunch of other tourists) it could be interesting to get to know someone better.

But in this case, as in many, we were on tight schedules and darting from one place to the next, as often is the case with backpackers. Sometimes you meet people that you feel attracted to instantly, and others that would be a great friend in ‘normal life, but as you’re on the move, it all lasts for one day. Let’s call them ‘day friends’. You’re sometimes tempted to add them on social media, but then realise that although you might chat initially, you’ll probably never see each other again, and perhaps it’s best not to have such a person stagnating way down on your friend list, and instead let them remain  a chimeric memory.

Getting out of the canyon and bizarre bus rides

After having dinner we all went to bed rather early and got up at 5’o clock the next day to start the pretty much 2km vertical zig-zag trek out of the canyon while the temperature was kind. I had run out of water and guessed I’d have to pay a premium for it in such a touristy place, but figured I’d take the hit. Yet when he wanted 15/S (about 5 USD) for 2 litres I kind of snotted in shock and instead opted for a smaller bottle, still expensive at 5/S, but not pocket-burningly so.

Apparently it should take about 3 to 4 hours to get out, but ‘fresh’ from my volcano hike at almost 6000m, I got up a head of steam (ably assisted by music to give me a rhythm) and blitzed it out of there in about and hour and a half, passing dozens of gasping walkers on the way. I felt a real euphoria upon arriving at the top, and had that pleasant feeling that you get after exertive exercise.

The tourist boleto I had acquired for 70/S was finally checked as I emerged at the top, and from there a windy but flat route takes you on to the main square in Cabanaconde in about 20 minutes. It was about 7.30am by this time and unfortunately I’d just missed a bus back to Arequipa so had to wait almost two hours for the next one to depart.

And in some bizarre way it was worth the wait, just to have one of those wacky bus rides that are part and parcel of any tourist’s trip. The bus did indeed set off on time from the main square, though seemed pretty empty. I was looking forward to a relaxing and quiet ride back and then realised we were in Peru, where people don’t buy bus tickets at the agency office and instead get on it a few blocks down where they can get a negotiated price from the driver and the guy collecting money.

Evidently those two don’t get paid too handsomely and thus need to make as much money as possible from these rogue passengers. The bus seemed to stop every couple of minutes and the bus kept getting fuller and fuller. Soon the whole aisle was occupied and I thought that would be it, yet somehow they managed to squeeze more than twenty schoolchildren on. Following that, at least a dozen more people got on and there must have been at least 100 people on a bus probably designed for less than half of that. How they keep up with who gets on where and subsequently if and how much they pay, I don’t know.

But the best was yet to come. The old gentleman next to me had been clamouring for them to let him get off and take a pee long before the bus had been crowded, even managing to get off at some temporary traffic lights only to be told to get back on the departing bus before he’d had chance to sprinkle. Thus there was clearly no way he’d be able to get wade the masses and off and on the bus again.

Now, I’d seen him fidgeting around with an empty bottle for a while and half-get up a few times as if contemplating it. Yet when the bus took a detour to find even more passengers, he stopped considering and actually stood up and urinated into the bottle. I’d been anticipating it, so was looking away, but I still heard the gushing. I chose to observe a schoolgirl who’d got a little more than she’d bargained for and saw how her eyes bulged at the spectacle, yet for some strange reason couldn’t take her eyes away, instead blindly tapping her friend to look too. The old fella finished what he was doing and zipped up, but not without there being some incriminating puddles on the floor, the tributaries of which were slowly creeping towards me, meaning I had to keep my feet raised for the rest of the journey.

About twenty minutes later the bus pulled into Chivay, cue the exodus of most passengers. He left his deposit behind and for some reason I couldn’t help but look. In some ways the verdant glow of the bottle was a fitting prelude to the wonders of nature and greens that I’d seen in Colca Canyon. With that I arrived in Arequipa a few hours later and set about getting a good night’s sleep before going on to Ica and Huacachina.

Conclusions

The couple of days I’d spent in Colca Canyon had been great, and all the more so because I’d done it alone. Other tourists I’ve spoken to spend in the region of 100/S for an overnight stay there, without taking into consideration the 70/S tourist boleto, yet only see a fraction of the place and are rather herded around. Doing it independently, you see much more, have independence, and I even managed to stay for two days for the same price. Consider that the bus there and back comes to about 30/S, two nights’ accommodation and dinner to 50/S, and then throw in costs for snacks, and it’s well worth going it alone. You may have the inconvenience of incredibly slow and crowded buses, but if you can spare a few extra hours and a bit of comfort, don’t hesitate.

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