Monday, January 11, 2010

Trekking in the Colca Canyon

Colca Trek

When we took the train from Cusco to Puno and then the bus to Arequipa we were heading for the Colca Canyon - Peru's Grand Canyon. It is not as steep as the Grand Canyon but it is twice as deep. And to top it off, the mountains around the canyon rise to 6300 m (20,700 ft - bigger than Mt. McKinley, the highest in North America).

From Arequipa we took the bus to Chivay, a small town at the start of the canyon. This is a four to five hour ride. Part of the road was under construction and was really rough. The road goes over a 4900 m pass where you're supposed to be able to see some of the high volcanoes, but it was too cloudy to see much.

When we got off the bus in Chivay we were "befriended" (hustled, in other words) by a lady and her daughter promoting their Rumi Wasi hostel. Normally we don't like to encourage these people but she was low pressure and was quite helpful as we tried to book bus tickets for the next day. (In the end we found the reason we were having so much trouble is that they didn't sell those tickets in advance!) We didn't have any plans on where to stay so we decided to give the hostel a try. It seemed ok and was only 20 soles per person (about $8). Sadly, once they got our business they stopped being friendly and helpful and pretty much ignored us. Oh well, it was a place to stay.

The next day we caught the bus to Cabanaconde. This is normally a 2 1/2 hour bus ride but our bus broke down and it took them an hour to fix it. Usually it's just a flat tire but this was something else involving hoses and connections. I just hoped it wasn't the brakes they were jerry rigging!

We got to Cabanaconde about 1pm and had a quick bite to eat. The tiny restaurant didn't offer us a menu or ask us what we wanted, they just brought us each a big bowl of soup. Luckily it was vegetable soup and quite good. The woman also started cooking more (meat probably?) but we managed to communicate "no algo mas" (nothing more).

After lunch we headed out on our three day hike (didn't spend the night in Cabanaconde). We got directions for finding the start of the trail, which actually had a sign (unusual) but we soon got confused in the maze of trails through the corn fields around town. Once we found where the trail dropped into the canyon we were ok. For the first night we were headed to Sangalle, a camping site beside the river. That meant descending about 1000m (3300 ft) on a steep path zig zagging down the side of the canyon. Our legs were getting a little rubbery by the time we got to the bottom.

We saw a few lizards on the way down and also quite a few dung beetles. They were the kind that make balls out of fresh dung, rolled them away and then bury them, either for food or for laying their eggs. They're actually quite a valuable part of the ecosystem since they get rid of the dung before it breeds flies and other pests. Often the female rides on the dung ball while the male rolls it. It's a bumpy ride for the female! They roll the ball by putting their front legs on the ground and using their back legs to push (like doing handstands). Check out dung beetles on Wikipedia for more information.

There are several camping sites at Sangalle. We stayed at Oasis (the first one we came to). It had toilets, a shower (cold), and even a pool, and it was only 3 soles (about $1) per person. We hadn't brought our swim suits but we were glad of the shower after a sweaty day. The resident dogs - a large German Shepherd and a brown fur ball of a puppy - pestered us a bit, but in a friendly way. The puppy wanted to chew everything, including Shelley's socks and even her elbow!  Then as we tried to get to sleep the mules came to munch on the grass, so close to our tent that we thought they were going to take a bite out of our packs which were under the fly of the tent. I finally yelled at them and they ran off.

The next day we crossed the river (the Rio Colca) and hiked up the other side to Malata, Coshnirhua, Tapay, and finally dropped down almost to the river again to San Juan de Chuccho. Most towns have an "Arco de Ingreso" (entry arch) and a church with a plaza (square) out front. Some of the plaza's were very nice with grass and flowers, others were bare and not well kept.

On the steep route up to Tapay Shelley started feeling not that great and threw up (a fairly common occurrence on these trips unfortunately). Just before this we'd been stopped by a French couple coming from the other way and asking directions to Sangalle. They were also camping but the guy was carrying a big pack with all the gear and the girl was carrying a small day pack. Shelley later wondered where she could find a big strong guy to carry all her gear for her. I told her I was looking for a hefty girlfriend to carry all my gear but
preferred one who didn't puke!

We stopped for a snack at Hospedaje Restaurant el Encanto de Maruja in Tapay - a big name for a small place! Amazingly, the owner pulled out a home espresso maker (still in the original box) and made me a latte! Originally we had planned to stay in Tapay and this would have been a good place, but we decided to shorten the next day (the big climb out of the canyon) by going further. While we were sitting here we noticed the small green fruits in the tree beside us. We asked what they were ("que es?") but of course we didn't understand a word of the reply. The man brought one over with the green skin removed and it was obvious they were walnuts! Sadly, to us, things like walnuts and brazil nuts come from the grocery store, far removed from their original source.

In San Juan de Chuccho we stayed at Gloria's. Some people had recommended it and it was also the first place we came to. It was very nice with flowers and trees and only 8 soles per person (about $3). Our total bill for the room, drinks, supper, and breakfast was 45 soles (less than $20). A beautiful sunset that night.

The third day we crossed back over the river and made the long climb back up. It took us about 3 1/2 hot, sweaty hours, slowly but surely. Once we reached the rim it was about another hours walk back to Cabanaconde. We were again "befriended" and led to Pachamama's for lunch. This guy was a real character. He had very good English and was obviously determined to try out every slang English expression he knew. He even pulled out a list of English words (from a book he was trying to read) to get us to help him pronounce them correctly. English pronunciation is tough. By comparison, Spanish is easy.

We caught the 2pm bus back to Chivay. The bus ended up packed so full there wasn't even standing room. So far we've been lucky and gotten seats - I'd hate to have to stand, packed like sardines, for a two hour bus ride!

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