Trekking through Colca Canyon – A Cautionary Tale

Disclaimer: we were not paid for this post. Not that we’ve been paid for anything previously published either, but we definitely weren’t paid for this one. We might actually have been paid not to publish this particular story… But time+tragedy = comedy, and Aidan and I have been laughing ever since the nausea stopped!

My last post was essentially a tirade against deserts. So what did we decide to do the moment we arrived in Peru? Go to a freaking desert of course. 

The Colca Canyon is the second deepest canyon in the world, known for it’s beauty and it’s abundance of condors (sign number one that we shouldn’t have gone – those who know me well are aware that I’ve seen enough birds for a lifetime). Although it’s one of the most famous tourist destinations in Peru, it is still incredibly hard to get to; 7 hours by bus, where bathroom breaks are taken on the side of the road (I became very stingy in my water consumption after seeing a Peruvian woman sit down on the side of the road, spread her skirt around her, and letting loose). 

We were determined to make our trip worth the commute, so we planned on doing the longest possible hike. We spent a night at the Pachamama hostel in Cabanaconde, where we got a trail map and packed our bags for a four day trek. We set off the next morning at 730 am.

So as not to relive the horror that was this trek, I’ll just skip straight to day five (remember we were only supposed to be gone for four…). But before I get to our harrowing evacuation by mule, you need some context. Every leg of the trek was forecasted to take around 4-5 hours. This sounded like nothing to us – we’d been hiking 7-8 hour days in Patagonia with no problems! What we failed to take into account was the canyon’s blistering heat and lack of water. That first day I was feeling woozy after a couple hours, and desperately seeking refuge in the shade every chance I got (which wasn’t often, seeing as trees had been replaced by cactuses). Taking a dip in the icy river at the bottom of the canyon was the only thing that saved me from severe heat stroke that day.  

Desperately searching for shade!

We rose at increasingly earlier times over the next couple days in an attempt to outrace the sun’s evil rays. We ate breakfast under the stars and used our headlamps to navigate out of each campsite. We made great time through the trail until the sun peaked out over the mountains, at which point I would once become a frail and faded human being. 

Savannah, most likely imagining jumping down into the cold waters below!

We arrived at “The Oasis” at the end of day 3, dripping with seat and seeing double. We shared a couple of celebratory mojitos by the pool, at which point Aidan became violently ill. She thinks it was bad water; I think it was sun stroke. We’ll never know – there was a lack of health care facilities at the bottom of this particular canyon. Aidan did get some treatment in the form of a complete Aloe Vera rub down.

Neither of us are convinced that the aloe did any good, but the experience broke up the monotony of waiting out Aidan’s illness in the “Oasis”

We were desperate to get out of the canyon, but we were effectively trapped by a steep cliff of switchbacks ascending x meters. The sun had reduced me to a shell of human, and Aidan could barely walk 10 paces without collapsing. I entered bargaining mode, and managed to procure us a mule each to carry us up the mountain the following morning for 20$ CAD each (much less than an evacuation by helicopter!). 

Looks like paradise… A lesson in not believing everything you see!

We left at 6 am, hours after many other hikers had set off. Our mules carried us up at double speed and soon became overtaking groups of hikers. Most people stared at us with poorly concealed looks of anger and resentment as we rushed by. What they didn’t realize was that, if it had been at all possible, we would have vastly preferred to be walking as well. 

You see, it appeared that Aidan’s mule had a death wish. He took the route closest to the edge of the precipice at each opportunity, to the point where pebbles he kicked with his hooves plummeted down hundreds of meters. We called him Heart Attack. I was following behind on a mule who earned the name of Chomper. He clearly hated the mule preceding Heart Attack (for the sake of the story, let’s call her Victim). Whenever I let my guard down, he pushed past to try and take a bite out of Victim’s backside. Oftentimes Chomper’s chosen route would take us even closer to the cliffs edge as he tried to overtake Heart Attack. 

Picture of Heart Attack and Victim, taken from the back of Chomper

We did eventually reach the top of the canyon in one piece, although my back was in spasms from gripping Chomper’s reins for the better part of two hours. We walked/crawled towards town, picked up the rest of our gear which we had stored at our hostel, and made our way to the bus station. We loaded up on snacks in the plaza and then we were off! We were headed for Cusco, where we would convalesce for a week before taking on our most intense hike yet to Machu Picchu. 

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