One of the major attractions of going to Arequipa, besides seeing the city itself, is that it’s reasonably close to the Colca Canyon and the major jumping off spot for tours there. Formed by the Colca River, the canyon is over 10,700 feet deep; twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and one of the deepest canyons in the world. As Lonely Planet puts it, “Going to Arequipa and missing out on the Colca Canyon is like going to Cuzco and neglecting to visit Machu Picchu.”So off we went. There are a couple options for going to the canyon from Arequipe. One is to do it as a day trip: a three hour bus ride out there, a couple hours driving around and stopping at view points, and a three hour ride back. That sounds like a pretty good description of hell to us, so we took the other option, a two day trip including a long hike down into the bottom of the canyon on the first day and a really long hike back up out of the canyon on the second day.
Now, this option had its drawbacks, including the fact that you still have the three-hour bus rides on each day. And that the bus picks you up on day one from your hotel at 3:00 AM. Yup, 3:00 AM so you can get to a town near the canyon for breakfast, stop at a viewpoint to watch Andean condors soaring, and still hit the trailhead by 9:30 or so.
Fortunately the bus was reasonably small and comfortable, maybe 16 people or so, and we could finish our night’s rest before getting to the Colca region for breakfast. To say that breakfast was light, though, would be a bit of an understatement: it consisted of bread, butter, and a little strawberry jam. Local bread, very tasty, but still not a lot to fuel a long hike.
From there it was on to Cruz del Cóndor, nearly 4,000 feet above the canyon floor, where a family of Andean condors nest and soar. They’re a beautiful bird to watch as they swoop and soar around the rim of the canyon, their 10-foot wingspan making them pretty recognizable. Amusingly, though, when you see close-up pictures of them they’re kind of ugly. They are, in fact, a kind of vulture who feed not on little animals they spy like eagles do, but on dead animals, preferably big carcasses like deer and cattle. While the Andean condor is one of the longest-living birds, with life spans of up to 70 years, it has been on the U.S. Endangered Species list since the 1970s.
After a brief stop to watch the condors, then, it was off to the trail head. There’s not a lot to say about the trail except that it was a L-O-N-G route down to the bottom of the canyon. And if anyone ever says “Yeah, but at least it was downhill,” let me be the first to say hiking up is easier than hiking down. While some of it was a beautiful and gradual slope, a lot of it was steep with loose rocks; you felt as though you could slip and fall at any second. But, wobbly though my legs were after the 4,000-foot descent, we made it to the bottom.From there it was an up-and-down route first to lunch and then back down to the bottom of the canyon where we spent the night. Now, we knew the accommodations weren’t going to be our normal standards; the price we were paying suggested this was going to be backpacker style instead. One of the things we learned was that we’re really not cut out to be backpackers. Rustic indeed. It’s not just that our cabin didn’t have plumbing or a bathroom, it didn’t have electricity. Yikes – nowhere to plug in our phones (which are also our cameras) or iPads. No towels provided, though the cold showers available weren’t that enticing anyway. Not even toilet paper, to be honest. Yeah, that’s basic. Still, it was lovely down there in the bottom of the canyon.
Then it’s up at 4:45 or so to start the hike out of the canyon by 5:00. Still dark, but fortunately we’re smart enough to travel with small flashlights. We know it’s going to be hard work, as the trail takes about three hours and is just up, up, up. Every step you take is up. But it was totally worth it. Going up is hard work, but – unlike going down – it never feels dangerous or particularly difficult. We started hiking under starlight but within 20 minutes or so daylight began breaking through and pretty soon you were watching daybreak in the canyon. Spectacular. And I’ll brag for just a bit: while the guidebook says it’s a 3-hour hike for normal hikers and two- to two-and-a-half hours for fit hikers, I did it in just slightly under two hours. There I was, passing up 20-something kids, feeling just fine.
Only then did we get breakfast. After that we stopped at a few small towns, had lunch, and then it was a long drive back. Fabulous scenery, got to know a few of our fellow hikers from Germany, Italy, Spain, Bulgaria, Wales, and just in general a great way to spend two days. After a night back in Arequipa, then, it’s off to Cuzco.