They picked me up at three in the morning for a drive over paved highway to the hamlet of Chivay, Peru. With a population of 5,000, it is a sleepy place where people dress traditionally and travel mostly on foot…
The author is a graduate of Lincoln Elementary and Liberty High School. He is currently traveling in South America on a shoestring. Photos are available on his Facebook page.
At just under 12,000 feet above sea level, I panted as we walked into a crude building to sit for a breakfast of coca tea and bread. For an extra charge, they served eggs.
Inside, I met our climbing group including three Swedes, two Frenchman, a Brit, and his Canadian girlfriend. We drank coca leaf tea while talking about the elevation. Peru’s Colca Canyon is the world’s second deepest, even deeper than the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona. The canyon is part of the Andes mountain range and is located amidst a ring of snowcapped volcanoes, many over 20,000 feet tall. Commercial hiking only began about a decade ago.
Our guide was a local who had just finished coming up the canyon with another group when he met us. He said during busy season they hiked continuously for two weeks straight.
After a brief stop at an Andean condor wild habitat, we pulled on packs and began marching single file along a rough mountain trail surrounded by the Andes. We walked downhill for the first two hours, towards the Colca River. Our guide stayed at the back of the group to make sure no one got lost or fell too far behind.
My knees and feet ached as we crossed a tension bridge at the canyon floor.
“Onlee a leetle mohr,” said our guide from behind. We trudged, then all stopped, panting while we waited for him to catch up. He reappeared in front of us, smiling. We realized he wasn’t taking the winding downhill path, just running down the mountain. He told us he trained with weights on his ankles while trying to beat a stopwatch.
Soon, we entered a tiny village where the locals spoke Quechua (the ancient language of the Incas), not Spanish. There were a few women dressed traditionally in long multi-colored handmade skirts, hand woven llama wool sweaters, long, hand-stitched shawls hung over shoulders and tied under their chins to form backpacks, and large bowler hats. They sold fruit and Inca Kola (a very sweet bubble-gum-tasting soda). Their smiles exposed missing teeth and premature wrinkles. Life for them must be harsh.
We bought pacay, a Peruvian fruit. It is bigger than a string bean and the inside looked like a banana with a big black seed the size of an avocado pit. They tasted sweet and jello-like. We ate several. Near the river we passed cacti and Peruvian fruit trees. Our guide, Abel, ripped off a piece of the cactus and explained how the bacteria, cochineal, which grows on it can be crushed and used as a natural dye.
For the next three hours, we zig-zagged through the canyon.
“We’ll be going around the mountain when she comes,” said the Canadian girl.
“Merd,” said a Frenchman and groaned.
Some of the narrow paths had hundred-foot drops on the river side. My shoulders were sore, my knees ached as we trudged towards a small hotel. All we heard was the beat of boot steps. After six hours of walking, we saw a beautiful, big pool in the horizon. With the sun setting quickly and temperatures dropping, we only got an hour to sooth our sore bodies in the pool. Several of us had blisters on our feet the size of ping-pong balls.
The next morning, my Swedish buddy, Axel, woke me up before dawn as he shut the door on his way to the bathroom. Within thirty minutes, dressed and packs on, we headed out without breakfast. Our guide took us up and up, along the wall of the canyon.
Luckily, we took a different route up that saved time, but it seemed almost completely vertical. As the sun rose, the canyon walls changed colors like a chameleon. The rocks were jagged and some appeared petrified, jutting out to provide some shade.
After 45 minutes the green trees and shrubs were gone and everything was a shade of brown. The last half hour, the sun came out and made the last stretch even tougher. We hustled ahead just to get into mountain shade.
“We’ll be going around the mountain,” said a Swede and a few of us giggled. But we noticed that we now panted as we spoke.
The trek out was more difficult. A Brit shared his candy with me and the sugar helped. We passed locals leading pack donkeys. Most of us finished in two and one half hours but a few needed an extra half hour. We waited at top to give them a high five, walked unsteadily back to the same rest stop for breakfast before beginning our the six-hour ride back to Arequipa.