February 23rd, 2008 – by: Belluomo
Stone house in Cabanaconde village
I booked last minute with Colca Trek for a three day excursion into the canyon. I had wanted to go for four but it's low season and none of the agencies had trekkers interested in the four day option. So I joined onto a group that already had an Australian couple and an English couple booked. For me, traveling solo, going on a trek with some other travelers is something I look forward to. I appreciate the company and spending time with other people for a few days. By the end of the trek you have gotten to know them well and made some travel friends for life.
The taxi picked us up from our hostels at 5:30 AM and we were off on the three hour bus to Chivay, the main town at the beginning of the canyon.
Watching village life pass by
We didn't stop long and soon were on our way to Cabanaconde
, the town in the middle of the canyon that is the most common jumping off point for trails down into the canyon. On the way, we passed disappointed the Condor Lookout point that was wreathed in swirling fog. This time of year, the rainy season, is not a good time to see the condors, but there is always hope that the day will be clear and the condors can be spotted. They coast up on thermals and pass quite near the lookout point (mirador), but obviously with fog and clouds there is nothing to be seen. In Cabanaconde we had a lunch of sauteed beef strips tossed with onion, tomato and french fries (lomo saltado) that was nothing spectacular, but the cream of mushroom soup preceding it was very good.
The village church
Then we shouldered our daypacks and started walking east out of the village to the trail at the rim of the canyon where we would go down. The Colca Canyon is about 70 miles long and is carved out by the Colca River. Colca in Quechua language means "cave" and we saw plenty of those, both natural and man made, on our trip through the canyon. The canyon is 3,280 meters at it's deepest point (over 9,000 feet) which makes it more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. The part we were traversing is only about 1,000 meters deep, but if you've never climbed down or up that distance in a few hours, you can't appreciate how difficult it is and how tiring. But the awe-inspiring views made up for the difficulty. Our guide, Jaime, has been leading tours in the canyon for four years and he was very knowledgeable about many different aspects.
We stopped frequently to rest and he would point out some local plant or feature of the canyon and explain it thoroughly to us. He talked about the local pre-Incan peoples, and how there are still vestiges of their languages extant in the valley. He also explained how the centuries old way of life was so quickly disappearing because of the difficulty of transportation between the villages. The villages we saw across the canyon on the north side, had tried to blast a trail through to Chivay to shorten their trip to markets by several hours, but the dynamite was disturbing the condors' nests and they had to stop. Their trip each way can take up to five hours, and they walk up and down these steep hillsides sometimes several times a week. They are as tough as nails, but the younger people see no future in this subsistence way of life and they have abandoned the villages to look for work in Arequipa
On the rim of the canyon
Jaime predicted that within fifty years the villages would be ghosttowns. We passed by many adobe houses in the canyon that were crumbling. The tin or aluminum roofs were folded up and carried with the families to be used on their new house closer to the town. The level of poverty is really hard to imagine unless you see it firsthand. These people have next to nothing and have little means to earn more to improve their lives. It's a crushing and depressing cycle. Then there are the forces of nature, such as the recent draught, which left some of the land scorched, that further contribute to the difficult odds these people face for survival.
Jaime also talked about the mix of Andean and Catholic beliefs in the area.
Trying prickly pear cactus fruit (tuna). Yum!
We saw a cross on top of the canyon before we descended and Jaime told us that it was placed there to ward off evil spirits that they believe are close by. The cross is decorated with marigold flowers every May 3rd (as are all crosses in the region) with great ceremony for the feast of the Holy Cross. But a nod to the ancient pre-Christian practices is their bringing of offerings of food and objects on that day which are burned in honor of Pachamama, the mother earth goddess. Jaime doesn't think that the people really believe that anymore, but that it's more of a vestige of old customs that it still practiced.
We saw about ten condors on our way down. None flew very close, but we felt fortunate to even see some.
The B&B at the canyon floor
The fog had blown away and it was overcast but pleasant as we descended. The younger condors are brown all over but after their youth they develop the characteristic black and white coloration that makes them easy to identify when they are in flight, not to mention their great size. In beauty they are no match for the mighty and majestic eagle, but they are larger than the eagle and they also live up to 80 years. They are the king of the buzzard family and they cruise the canyon looking for carrion on which to feast. I told the group about Hinckley, Ohio being the buzzard capital of the world and they got a laugh out of that.
At the bottom of the canyon we crossed a new bridge and had a short, easy path into the small village of San Juan where we spent the night in simple, but comfortable and attractive cottages.
The family running the small B&B has a son of 14 years who is off in Arequipa studying. They only see him twice a year. I sat down in the kitchen and talked with the couple and Jaime while the others shared some beer outside and enjoyed the views. Our dinner was very good but we didn't have the energy to stay up long afterwards. We all headed to our cabins and fell asleep quickly.