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Condors and mountains

October 11, 2009

On Thursday morning I left for my three day trek through Colca Canyon. I was up at 2:45 for my 3am pickup, which of course ended up being at almost 4am (an hour standing out in the cold was not fun!) Then it was just a matter of sitting down before I was fast asleep again for the four or so hour bus ride to our first stop, Cruz del Condor.

Spotting condors at Cruz del Condor

Spotting condors at Cruz del Condor

It was really amazing. At first we just walked up and saw one condor sitting down the mountain a little bit from the first viewpoint. I watched it for a while, and then it spread its wings and sailed off (a majestic sight!) So I walked down to another bigger viewing area, just relaxing and enjoying the views.



Then suddenly a condor came flying up out of seemingly nowhere, coming toward us then gliding over us. Incredible! Then another came. Then another. Then a couple of them came in twos, flying nearby. It was  so cool, and I took about a million pictures!

Then it was back on the bus for another hour to Cabanoconde, where our trek would begin. First we had lunch at the one restaurant in town that apparently every tour group goes, so it was uncomfortably packed. Then it was time to get going.

I went with the company Land Adventures, which was well recommended online, with the guide Carlos/Carlitos, who supposedly will be recommended in the next Lonely Planet Peru and supposedly is also doing a special on pumas with Animal Planet. He was, indeed, a very good guide at least, but we’ll get to that later.

Anyways, the point is that we had a bit of a different tour than everyone else and we had a guide that actually stopped quite often to explain things to us. It took us probably twice as long to walk to the starting point at the canyon just because we stopped so many times for Carlos to explain to us things about the surrounding mountains, various landmarks, etc. It was nice to learn so much though.

The town in the middle is where we slept the first night...mind you, after walking down much farther to the right, first to a town that you can't even see because it's around the bend of the mountain, and further down.

The town in the middle is where we slept the first night...mind you, after walking down much farther to the right, first to a town that you can't even see because it's around the bend of the mountain, and further down.

Then we made it to the edge of the canyon and the start of our trek down. And what a long way down! Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world (here they like to say that it is the deepest, but everyone debates such facts). It’s twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and anyways, deepest or not, it is one of the deepest canyons you’ll find yourself climbing down into!

And so we began our descent. We were left to go at our own pace, and I quickly found myself way ahead of the rest. My group was just me and three Dutch girls (who unfortunately didn’t like to speak English so we didn’t exactly bond much). The girls were slowwww. Not to totally fault them, they had just done the five day Salkantay trek in Cusco a few weeks before, and apparently had some troubles with knees, tendons, etc.

The Oasis that we would climb down to the second day. See that crazy path?!

The Oasis that we would climb down to the second day. See that crazy path?!

The journey down on my own was really nice, though. I had time to think, and to appreciate my surroundings. I soon found myself passing all of the groups that had started going down well before ours. I have no idea how I was going so fast, especially in my flimsy little Skechers casual sneakers. Everyone else had giant hiking boots on. I’m lucky, really, because I definitely rolled my ankle like fifty times, and much of the path has a lot of loose rocks and dirt that I was constantly slipping and sliding on.

I did fall once, right after I’d just passed a big ruckus group of Brits. I scraped my knee up pretty good and had to hobble for a bit, but in the end it was fine. I have to say, doing this trek made me realize how amazing the human body is, and how it can handle so much. We do all we can to avoid any physical challenge in our daily lives, but we really don’t give ourselves credit. It’s all instinct. Your body is constantly calculating which rock or step to take next in just a split second, and your feet just go there without you having to give it a single conscious thought. It’s incredible really. And every time (well, almost every time), I took a wrong step and found myself starting to fall from stepping on loose rocks, my body immediately corrected its balanced and saved the day, without any help from me!

Bored, waiting for the rest of my group to arrive at the bottom.

Bored, waiting for the rest of my group to arrive at the bottom.

Anyways, I found myself at the bottom of the 2-3 hour trek in just an hour and a half. Which meant I found myself sitting and waiting for 45 minutes for the rest of my group to arrive, and I had to watch all the other groups slowly march by and pass me again. Then we spent another 45 minutes just sitting and resting by this bridge, at which point I was starting to get a bit frustrated with my tour.

Finally we continued on, this time uphill and walking for about an hour to the first town, San Juan de Chuccho. Here is where most groups stay for the night. But not us! We stopped for maybe ten minutes, then continued on.  It was another killer hour or hour and a half uphill to the second town. It was starting to get dark, and the girls were going so slow and constantly stopping to rest. It was a tough, steep climb up, and I was definitely starting to feel tired and sick of climbing, but it was even more frustrating how it kept being dragged out longer by my lagging groupmates.

Eventually we reached our place for the night. We were “staying with a family in their home” but in all honesty, it was really just another hostel/hotel. There was an old couple that sat in the kitchen with us while we ate dinner and talked to us a bit, but we had a dorm room, there was a store, etc. Not quite what I expected, but I really didn’t care. All I wanted was some food and to sleep. Luckily Carlos is a really good cook, so we had soup (always soup with every meal! I can never finish a whole bowl…I would so much rather go without) and some good spaghetti (much better than the spaghetti we had on our salt flats tour!) Then it was early to bed.

The next morning we knew we had a long day ahead of us, but we tried not to think about it. Carlos made us chocolate-banana pancakes, which was a refreshing change from bread and jam. (Did I mention I’ve had ridiculous cravings for hotel buffet breakfasts? Eggs, bacon, ham, bagels, waffles, hasbrowns, all of it….mmmmmm!) We visited the family’s guinea pigs (tons and tons of them running around this little room!) and said our goodbyes. Then we were off again.

The walk to the Oasis was supposed to take four hours, but we managed to do it in three or three and a half. I think it could have been easily down in two, but again we were always stopping and waiting for the girls. It was mostly downhill, so it was pretty easy. I was really, really sore though. I woke up in the morning, stepped out of bed, and could feel it in all my legs. My right knee (not the one I scraped and hurt the day before) felt like it was swollen to the size of a baseball (thankfully it wasn’t) and was killing me. My inner thighs were screaming and sore. Slow, normal steps were painful. But amazingly, once we got to really walking and going up or down, it wasn’t painful at all (lucky me!)

Paradise at the Oasis

Paradise at the Oasis

But eventually we arrived to the Oasis, which was exactly what it promised to be. Carlos took us to (again) a different pool than the rest of the groups, apparently a private one that was owned by his friend. The water was really cold but refreshing, at least for a few minutes. And there were beautiful views up the canyon. The surroundings were lush and green, with palm trees, grass, flowers — it was beautiful. I relaxed by the pool and read, then we had an incredibly delicious lunch (again thanks to Carlos being a great cook) in a nice cool shaded hut.

Our time was short, though, and after a few hours it was time to get hiking again. This was the biggest difference between our tour and the others. Most tours staying the night at the Oasis in some very basic hostels and then get up at three or four in the morning to start making the hike up. We were doing the trek up the afternoon of the second day. So in reality, our three day trek was two days with a day for relaxing tacked on at the end.

Part of the trail we took to the top

Part of the trail we took to the top

One of the Dutch girls was having problems with her tendon and so decided to ride a mule up. So we fetched her mule, Luisa, and got started walking. We decided to stay together for the hike up (though again the other girls were often far behind).

I still don’t know how I, the most unfit and uncoordinated person I know, managed to keep pace with Carlos and the mule and far ahead of the others. It will remain a mystery to me this day. I guess it springs from my tendency to walk fast. But this was not walking…this is climbing. The pathway is very, very steep and often it is just stairs. I still can’t believe how well my knees and ankles (which are so bad!) fared with all that steep downhill and uphill/stairs walking.

Also I just really wanted to get to the top! The first hour and a half of the trek was excruciating. As it is, your breathing gets worse as you’re constantly climbing. Then the sun was beating down on us. I was lathering on sunscreen every ten minutes and my face still felt on fire. We left the Oasis at about three in the afternoon, when the sun was blazing. And this second day was, as it is, twice as hot as the day before.

I found myself wondering what the heck I was doing. Why I picked the company that did the trek up in the afternoon, and why I was insisting on walking instead of just getting a mule, like many of the other people in other groups ended up doing (partly because I didn’t have enough money left to hire one anyways, but mostly because I was bent on challenging myself!)

The stubborn mule

The stubborn mule

We would break in the shadow whenever we could find it, usually waiting for the others to catch up. I was also, admittedly, glad for the mini breaks that were constantly built in because Louisa was the most stubborn mule on the planet. She would constantly stop and refuse to keep going. Carlos would yell and yell at her, but she would still only start walking when she felt like it. Sometimes she would only stop for what was really probably just thirty seconds or a minute, but she would do it ALL the time. At least every five minutes, if not more.

Finally the sun started to set and the climb became more bearable. I was surprised that, though exhausted, I never really felt like giving up. It never felt like it was that bad. I remembered back on how torturous running the mile was in middle school, and this seemed much less bad than that! I guess I’m just better off climbing mountains than running!

Happy to be just 30 minutes from the top!

Happy to be just 30 minutes from the top!

There were some tough parts still to come, but the three and a half hour climb didn’t seem as long as it was. With about 30-45 minutes left we could finally see the actual top that we were climbing to: a small victory in itself! We thankfully made it to the top just before flashlights became necessary (the sun sets very early here) and cruised through the rocky 20 minute walk back to Cabanoconde.

This is when we felt glad for choosing the trek that we did. We checked in to our luxurious (well, at least it felt so for me!) three-star hotel, where Carlos got me my own room, complete with my own bathroom with hot shower! Oh, there are few greater luxuries. I think I spent a good 25 minutes in the shower, at least. Glorious.

Then we went to dinner at the same restaurant we’d eaten lunch at the day before. Again the food was far from great, in fact it was exactly what Carlos had made us for lunch, only less than half as good. We had rice soup, our second meal of chicken and rice…I was so sick of rice by the end of the trip!

The next morning we slept in while the other groups were all making the hike up in the dark (I would not want to do that at all!), had a lazy breakfast (again back to bread and jam, sigh), and hung out in the main plaza until our bus arrived. We drove an hour or so to a hot spring, which was a bit disappointing (wasn’t even that hot and cost us 10 soles) and then to a so-so buffet lunch in Chivay.

Four long hours later we were finally back in Arequipa. It was such a relief! We made plans to meet up for dinner, though I admit I wasn’t really feeling it and would have rather just gone to bed right then. Luckily, dinner ended up being fun. I met up with the Dutch girls, Carlos, and a French couple that had gone on a trek with him last week, and we got some really delicious and really cheap pizza and played Jenga, with this giant Jenga set.

We then decided to go out to this popular bar/club, Deja Vu. I was really tired, but agreed to go. Well, let’s just say I finally did bond with one of the Dutch girls — over Carlos trying to hit on both of us. Unfortunately, I’d gotten the vibe from Carlos right when I met him. I’ve met guys like him everywhere I’ve traveled. He’s a really friendly guy and great guide, but he still thinks (especially after a beer or two) that he can sweet talk his young female tourists.

He pulled out all the stops, and he proved to be the type that tells everyone what he thinks they want to hear, bad talking everyone else if necessary (something that backfires if people talk to each other!) But it didn’t really matter. I’ve dealt with the same thing before and it’s easy to get around, but it’s just a shame that he had to fall from a great guide to something less in my mind because of it.

But that’s neither here nor there. The trip itself was great and a bit intense. It was a shame that I didn’t have a group I could bond a bit more with, but it wasn’t bad having the time to myself, enjoying the canyon.

Now I’m back in Arequipa, and will probably take a night bus to Cusco tomorrow night.

Eating queso helado

Eating queso helado

Did I mention that I tried one of Arequipa’s specialties? The night before my trek I went with a guy from the hostel (who is, believe it or not, more obsessed with ice cream than me!) to Ice Palace, an ice cream place on Calle Mercadores. There I got the specialty of Arequipa, queso helado (literally translated: cheese ice cream). It’s not actually cheese, though, and I’m not sure I would even call it cheese flavored. It’s hard to describe. And they sprinkled cinnamon on top, which added an interesting twist. We also tried pisco sour ice cream, which was basically that — frozen pisco sour!

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mark Taft permalink
    October 12, 2009 2:09 pm

    Wow – what a story! Hope you’ll have energy for our Machu Picchu hike next week! What is pisco?

    Love Dad – see you soon!

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