Hell of a hike: My Colca Canyon Trek

I’m a relatively fit guy.

When I say ‘relatively fit,’ I don’t mean I go to the gym everyday nor do I even keep up a healthy diet. But I’ve been somewhat athletic for most of my life — playing sports in grade school and intramurals through college. So when I was approached with the idea of going on a canyon trek during my vacation in Peru, I thought, “sure, why not. I can handle a two-day hike. It’s just a lot of walking, right?”

I’m not sure if I’ve ever been more wrong, or more unprepared for what I was about to undertake.

I traveled to Peru solo, backpacking around the country while using a bus service to get from city to city. During the early part of my trip, I met up with some other travelers who had planned a similar itinerary as me. I quickly befriended these people who hailed from all over the globe — from France, Mexico, Venezuela, Australia and Switzerland.

And as a group, we decided to amend our plans so we could tour the country together. I originally had no intention of hiking Colca Canyon, but my newfound friends and the bus-service (Peru-Hop) I was using insisted that it was a “must-do.” “Experience the natural beauty up close,” they said. “Dine in a small Andean village! Sleep under the stars in a lodge in the canyon! Swim in a natural hot springs!” It sounded amazing. It had all the appeal that Narnia has to an imaginative toddler. But nowhere on any of the informational packets or brochures did I read, “For advanced hikers only.”

Hell of a hike – My trek in Colca Canyon
Hell of a hike – My trek in Colca Canyon

To understand the true task of a two-day Colca Canyon trek, you need to be presented with a few pieces of information. First, Colca is the second deepest canyon in the world with a depth of 10,725 feet — more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. There are small villages of less than 100 people scattered throughout the canyon, many of which maintain their pre-Incan tradition of terrace farming.

The entry point of the hiking trail sits at just over 12,000 feet above sea level, while the floor of the canyon resides at 6,500 feet. Needless to say, altitude is a big factor to consider. The closest major city to Colca is Arequipa, where my journey began.

After a brief sleep in a loud and uncomfortable party hostel, a van arrived at 5:30 a.m. to take my comrades and I up the winding and narrow Andean highway. Fast forward through the nausea and discomfort of a three-plus hour van ride and we arrived in the canyon town of Chivay for a typical backpackers’ breakfast of bread and jam. After washing it down with some of Peru’s finest instant coffee, we made our way to the top of the canyon, where we witnessed the majesty of the local condors. The massive birds rise out of the canyon and glide around on massive 9-foot wingspans while hundreds of tourists look on in wonder.

A condor glides over Colca Canyon.

On the ride up the canyon, altitude had already begun to take a toll on my body. Breathing was noticeably more difficult, while headaches and nausea were common among my trekking group. I even felt the strange sensation of numbness and tingling in my legs — a side effect of low oxygen levels in the blood stream.

We spent an hour or so at the top of the canyon for acclimation before it was time to descend. Upon entering the canyon, the beauty of the landscape in front of me was overwhelming. Massive mountains rise up on through the valleys to kiss the clouds. A serene, sapphire river appeared tiny from afar, as it cut through the steep and unrelenting faces of the canyon walls.

But as we descended, tired feet and shambling legs overshadowed my admiration of the splendor that surrounded me. After about three hours and six kilometers downhill through countless switchbacks, we reached the bottom of the canyon and dipped our swollen and blistered feet in the cold waters of the San Miguel River.

A hiker gets some rest and respite at the bottom of the canyon.

After a short rest, it was time to make our way across a suspension bridge and up to a small, family-owned farm for lunch. My trekking group was served an Andean potato soup and a main course of fried Alpaca with rice. The rest was much needed, as the next two kilometers of the trek were uphill, at an almost ridiculously steep grade.

To add on to my suffering, one of the straps on my small-overfilled backpack ripped out at the seam, leaving me to carry my pack under my arm like a football. The bag disrupted my balance on some very precarious ledges, but after stopping for a rest, I managed to fashion a makeshift strap with a knife and some string. After two more kilometers of a relatively flat grade, my group reached another small village.

Our guide pointed out a school, where only 12 children attended. Seeing the locals was an eye-opening experience and shed light on just how much people take their western comforts for granted. The village had no roads and almost no access to the outside world. A crude, yet innovative electrical grid was set up for the tin huts and shanties. Most of the food consumed there was grown or cultivated in the canyon, including the numerous pens of guinea pig — an Andean diet staple.

Guinea pig is a staple of the Andean diet.

Finally, after nine hours of hiking, we reached our destinations and our beds for the night at an “oasis” hostel in the middle of the canyon. However, the accommodations weren’t exactly as advertised. Instead of a “lodge,” my friends and I were presented with small concrete huts with tin and straw thatching for roofs. There was no electricity, not to mention the door on my hut was broken and failed to close all the way. But, the owner did provide us with noodles, tomatoes and cold beer. So after indulging in excess carbs and a few drinking games, our candle burnt out and it was time to get some sleep.

However, sleep was more difficult than anticipated, as my paranoid Mexican friend Luis and I were woken over and over throughout the night — by random people bursting into our room accidentally, or the constant scurrying of mice that resided in our straw roof. In hindsight, the room was only $.79 per night, so it was suitable for the price.

canyon viewpoint
canyon viewpoint

Regardless, we awoke at 4:20 a.m. in the morning to begin our ascent back up the other side of the canyon. A couple of the girls in my group opted to pay extra to ride a mule up the final leg of the hike. But a deeply engrained stigma of masculinity would not allow me to take such shortcuts. Several of my comrades and I began to traverse the brutal switchbacks by flashlight, racing the sun up the face of the canyon.

Every time I looked up, it seemed as if I was no closer to the top than when I started. Altitude began to once again take its toll as I struggled to breath more and more en route to the summit. Even with taking a rest every ten minutes or so, I honestly thought that I might not make it.

And I felt even more defeated as a caravan of mules with comfortable riders on their backs marched up the path with ease. But somehow, someway I pushed onward and finally collapsed onto the soft grass at the precipice. After everyone in my group finished, we had breakfast then soothed our aching muscles in the hot springs before heading back to Arequipa.

I have been hiking plenty of times in the Northeast Georgia Mountains, but Colca Canyon was truly the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever undertaken. At times it was hell, but looking back, I’m thankful I did it.

Me at the canyon
Me at the canyon

And it wouldn’t have been the same without the wonderful people who I went on the journey with. We laughed, groaned, sweated and even bled together, and grew close in a unique environment and scenario. Following my trip, I gained a newfound respect for advanced hikers and mountain climbers — and an even deeper appreciation for the Inca and other ancient peoples of the Andes who traversed and thrived in one of the world’s most unforgiving terrains.

Cameron Whitlock - I write about my misadventures at home and abroad. Follow me for honest tales, tips and guides to some of the most fantastic places on earth.

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