An Oasis at the Bottom of a Canyon

14 Apr

Cañón del Colca is one of the deepest canyons in the world, argued by some to be the second deepest after its neighbor, Cañón del Cotahuasi. I figured hiking to the bottom of this cavernous indent in the earth would make up for me having never visited the Grand Canyon, which is only half as deep as the Colca. And so I joined a tour group in Arequipa that would accompany me on an expedition down the side of the canyon.

Some vicuñas hanging out at a lagoon in the National Reserve

We buckled into a comfortable van early in the morning so we could make our idle way to the village of Cabanaconde, our home base for hiking into the canyon. It was an unhurried drive with frequent stops to admire the scenery along the way.

Right outside of the metropolitan area, we entered the National Reserve, home to endless packs of vicuñas and their domesticated descendants, the alpaca. Vicuñas and alpaca pervade the Andean region of Peru, but that doesn’t stop us tourists from getting excited when we see them.

Me staring down a naturally formed Incan head made of volcanic rock

Past marshy lagoons and rocky grass meadows, we were chauffeured to a forest of finger-shaped volcanic rock formations, formed by the erosion of dried lava that erupted from the nearby entourage of volcanoes. The naturally formed sculptures were molded in such refined configurations that they looked like they had been deliberately carved by an artist’s hand.

The town of Chivay from the road above

We braved the biting cold at the highest point of our drive, a viewing point where we could see partially clouded-over Andean volcanoes, before zigzagging down to Chivay.

Ravenous with hunger, I was extremely happy when we finally made it to Chivay, a dingy town that is mostly just a place to stop on the way to the canyon. There was no shortage of food in our lunch buffet, and I scarfed down about five plates of Peruvian meat, potato, rice, vegetable, and dessert dishes.

One of about five gigantic plates of food I ate for lunch

I wasn’t prepared for the arctic air near the canyon, so I spent our next stops in little towns on the way to Cabanaconde jumping up and down for warmth rather than appreciating their colonial churches and squares.

We reached Mirador Cruz del Cura as the sky was portending dusk. The viewing spot is named for an arequipeño priest, or “cura,” who fell in love with a local girl. In order to avoid the wrath of the city, he drove himself and his beloved off the cliff into the canyon at the exact spot of the mirador.

The cross on the top of the canyon in honor of the priest and his girlfriend

A cross, or “cruz,” marks the spot of the priest’s last act as well as the point where the canyon officially beings.

From the priest’s cross, we hiked along the top of the canyon in search of condors, the sacred bird of the Incas. Condors fly on wind currents because they are so heavy, and the thermal air in the canyon buoys these lazy floating birds. Unfortunately, it wasn’t windy enough that evening for the condors to want to fly, and they all stayed hidden somewhere in the rocky canyonside.

View from the priest’s cross and the beginning of the canyon

At the end of the trail, our driver was waiting for us with a thermos of coca tea, a perfect anecdote for the freezing twilight air.

Cabanaconde, our destination for the night, was just a few minutes down the road. After a dinner of lomo saltado, beef stir fried with tomatoes and onions, I wrapped myself in four blankets and tried to warm up for a good night’s sleep.

In the morning, our bags were strapped onto three sturdy mules, and we strolled from the dreary town through an expanse of cornfields to the top of the canyon.

The canyon is somewhere in that mist.

We halted to a stop in front of a dense haze. The canyon was nowhere to be seen. A seemingly impenetrable fog completely obscured the view of what we were hiking into.

We set off into the mist, crisscrossing down the side of the canyon on a trail constructed by the Incas in post-Incan times. Apparently there had been a well-designed trail during the heyday of the Incas, but they had destroyed it when the Spanish arrived in hopes the invaders wouldn’t find their communities around the canyon. The Spanish did eventually find the remnants of the trail, and forced the Incas to rebuild it.

The crisscrossing trail going down into the canyon

The Incas haphazardly reconstructed the trail, taking way less care with its quality than their previous trail. The trail that remains today is loose dirt and unstable rocks instead of the Incas’ normally flat and smooth sculpted stairs. This makes the way down a slow-going, slippery journey. I had to concentrate intently on keeping my legs under me.

A teenage condor. When he gets older, his feathers will turn black and white.

My concentration was interrupted by some condors who graced us with their presence close enough to see the black and white fringed feathers of their wingtips. They soared back and forth around a bend in the canyon while we engaged in a continuous pattern of hike, sight, point, and photograph as they repeatedly disappeared and reappeared.

Our resort from above

Condors are fascinating animals. They live long lives – to 80 years old! – staying with the same mate their entire life. Both father and mother care for the eggs and babies. They are members of the vulture family, which means they eat carrion and do not hunt live food. And their effortless gliding through the air is absolutely mesmerizing to watch. It is easy to see why the Incas revered them as symbols of their heaven.

Our camp resort oasis at the bottom of the canyon

After a few hours of skidding down the canyon trail, we were at our camp resort in Sangalle, known as the oasis at the base of the canyon. Indeed, the palm trees, flowering plants, and flowing river did give the area a tropical-like atmosphere.

We collapsed on the riverbank at our camp resort and filled up with food. Then it was time for an afternoon hike to the pedestrian bridge that crosses the river to the other side of the canyon. Local vendors who live on the other side of the canyon walk their wares all the way down the side of the canyon, over the bridge, and up the other side in order to sell their produce and products. What a tiring profession!

The river from the pedestrian bridge in the base of the canyon

When we returned to the resort, some angry clouds exploded with sheets of rain. The only thing to do was seek shelter under a cabana and pass the rest of the afternoon with cards and Arequipeño Beer.

At bedtime, I dashed through the rain to my cabin, ecstatically grateful that we got to sleep under a wooden roof instead of tents as we’d planned. My cabin had no electricity and a leaky door, but it had a bed and a roof, and that’s all I needed! It was also very cozy falling asleep to flickering candlelight and the sound of rain on the roof.

This is what was covered in mist the day before. We had no idea what we were missing out on!

We were up before sunrise to climb back up the canyon. I hotfooted it up the trail as fast as I could go, mentally thanking the mule who was carrying my bag for freeing me of extra pounds. I’m not sure why I was in such a hurry other than that it is really fun to go fast!

There was no covering of mist when I arrived at the top, so I got to take in the views we had missed out on the day before. The canyonside was an incredible hunter green, resplendent in the sunlight and the backdrop of glacier peaks.

These Incan terraces in the valley near Chivay are still used by the locals.

Our reward for a morning of hiking was an hour of relaxation at some hot springs in Chivay. I wasn’t really looking forward to this reward, because it was absolutely freezing and I am just not that into hot springs, which are usually crowded and dirty. But these were fairly empty and mostly clean. And amazingly hot so the torturous thirty seconds from the changing rooms to the steaming pool were forgotten as soon as my toes hit the water.

Me attacking my plate of cuy

Back in Arequipa when the tour was over, I met some of my new Australian friends for dinner to try the Peruvian specialty dish, cuy. My guinea pig arrived in his entirety, head, teeth, claws, and all. My normally open-minded taste buds were not so welcoming of this whole animal that was filling my plate. However, his edible parts did taste pretty good. And it was fun to try this food favorite of the locals.

Now I’m off for the food metropolis of Peru – where I hope to try some dishes without the limbs still attached – Lima!


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