Destinations Peru South America

How to conquer Colca Canyon

The only sound is the shuffling of feet on gravel and the occasional dry-retching of a fellow hiker ahead of or behind me. It had already been an hour of climbing, but it felt interminable. The sun was only just rising, but my initial energy and eagerness had already dissipated. I was no longer walking; my feet dragged reluctantly along the ground, my ankles and calves screaming for rest.

But taking rest was bad. Rest was a trap.

If I stopped, I knew it may be impossible to urge my feet on again, so I dragged them baby steps further, coaxing them onwards with the promise of an eventual end. But it seemed like it would never come.

This tortuous journey is just a typical part of the Colca Canyon trek. El Cañón del Colca, about 160km from Peru’s second largest city Arequipa, is the world’s second deepest canyon. Backpackers and torture-seekers are insane enough to go on two or three day trips down into this canyon and (hopefully!) back out again.

colca canyon

Colca River runs through Colca Canyon

It may not sound particularly gruelling, but the numerous small villages and the characterless resort oasis at the bottom of the canyon have subsisted since their beginning without vehicle access into or out of the canyon. Anything brought in is carried by hand or on mule’s back.

On a guided trek, a circular route is taken into and out of the canyon. After admiring the graceful, easy flight of the wild condors at Cruz del Condor, we suffered two and a half hours of steadily downhill walking, feet tensed tightly in a vain attempt to not skid on the gravelly path. Luckily, the scenery distracted.

The canyon is some 4,000m deep in the north and 3,600m in the south. It’s not like the Grand Canyon, which is half as deep, with the spectacular vertical drops we see so much of in tourist brochures.

Colca Canyon could be mistaken for a valley, with steeply sloping mountainsides parted by the Colca River at the bottom. Our guide Marcelo explained that a valley becomes a canyon when the peaks of the mountains are less than 20km apart. And this canyon certainly seemed to close in on itself.

It was a no-brainer that the uphill climb would be easier after a refreshing sleep. So since the morning hike began at five a.m., most of us curled up at eight p.m. One rowdy crew thought it OK to drink into the night, but the sounds of dry-retching the next morning proved otherwise.

The most common and direct route into and out of the canyon, plied by locals daily in 45 minutes, is a near vertical path of constant switch backs carved into a cliff that rises a kilometre to the top.

The 6km path never relents in its steep uphill inclination, the ascent only broken when you choose to stop for rest.

A familiar sight was locals jogging down the path at sunrise, carrying bags of daily supplies into the canyon. It was a 45 minute journey max for them, the guides generally give us gringos three hours.

At first, we were pumped. We glared at that path and we challenged it to defeat us. It was youth, ignorance, cockiness and disrespect. The cliff soon taught us.

Our steps were reduced to zombie shuffles. The scenery no longer distracted. It was a hateful sight, representing only how deceptive natural beauty can be. You can admired mother nature all you like, but she is an unforgiving and uncaring matron.

After what seemed an eternity, I glanced upwards and estimated an hour to go. A local skipped down the hill, basket on his back. He dashed our hopes; a brief enquiry elicited a laugh and a blunt return, “dos horas mas“. Two hours more.

It seemed an impossibility to keep going.

It wasn’t just a physical torture but mental. The path constantly teased you. The next switchback, I was convinced, must be the last. On and on it went. As soon as I felt within closing distant, the cliff seemed to expand.

It was mental energy alone, sheer strength of mind, that propelled me onwards. I feared that should I stop, I would not be able to urge me feet on again.

But finally, I could make out the telephone lines at the top.

And then the individual rocks.

And then the leaves on the trees.

The last stretch was the worst, hoping for flat land at every turn only to find more rocky stairs or gravel slopes.

There were quiet murmurs, a glimpse of the more energetic in our group resting ahead, and finally I was at the top. We had climbed 1200m straight up in two and a half hours. Once the exhaustion in our bodies subsided a little, we realised our triumph. Take that, canyon.

As the less adventurous, less crazy travellers surmounted the peak on mule-back, I gave them a wave. But inside, I was feeling superior. I had defeated this canyon, and god knows how.

Conquest, I’m not sure about. Certainly, the canyon conquered my body. I hobbled along for the rest of the day, bum, feet, calves and thighs all rioting against my act of determination.

But my mind conquered all. Without the will power, there isn’t a shred of evidence to prove my feet would have got me out of that canyon. I may be a little loca to voluntarily put myself through that ordeal, but my blood is already pulsing with the thought of what the next trek may bring.

And for more Peruvian adventures…

Peru isn’t just canyons and torments. Oh no, it’s so much more. Check out some of the other beautiful things you can do in this country here:

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