Colca Canyon

Colca Canyon Travel Blog

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Colca Canyon is an incredibly deep canyon near Arequipa that is famous for its steep views and the huge condors that live there. One of the tours we had organised in advance was a three-day bike tour around Colca Canyon. The company we went with was Colca Treks.

We got picked up fairly early in the morning by our guide Renzo and our driver Pablo. It was just us on the tour - Ryan, Liz, Sam, Sandy and myself - so we fit comfortably into the beefy mini van they had. We didn't know in advance how much room we would have to take luggage so we all carefully packed our day packs as efficiently as possible for the whole tour. In the end we could have taken more but it wasn't really an issue. A funny side note is that the brand of the water they had for the tour was "SOGAY". Get it?

On the way out of Arequipa we were going through some very poor areas and Renzo was explaining how many of the people there had come from small villages seeking the glamour of city life, but only to find that there is no work and they put up with terrible conditions to avoid the shame of going back to their home villages in defeat. While it is bad in Arequipa it is apparantly a lot worse in Lima.

The first stop on the tour was the highest point on the road to Colca Canyon, which tops out at a respectable 4900 metres above sea level. The road was nice and paved pretty much until we got to the gigantic cement factory outside of Arequipa, which explained the high volume of large trucks around. After that the road was in a very bad shape and made worse by the fact it had been paved in the past but left to deteriorate into huge potholes, which made it bumpy and slow going. By the top though it was back to properly paved road.

I had imagined the high point in my mind as some vast lookout over the canyon, but really it was just a spot on the road with no canyon in sight. We could see the big volcano Ambato in the distance, which is where the young girl 'Juanita' was found by archaeologists, and now her body is kept in a museum in Arequipa. We got out and took in the thin cold air as Renzo was at pains to point out how Juanita was not a sacrifice against her will but instead it would have been a great honour for her.

From the high point we did a short drive down the other side to where we began our bike ride. The bikes were unloaded from the van and put together while we decked ourselves out in warm clothes, including the provided riding gloves. The ride then began and we headed down the road towards the town of Chivay. There was nearly no traffic on the road despite it being well paved, so we basically just went down the winding mountain side at a fast pace without much stopping for about an hour and a bit. When we were nearing the bottom we stopped for photos of Chivay nearby and we were all getting some serious tingling in our fingers from the Diamox we had taken as early preparation for the climb up El Misti we had straight after the Colca Canyon tour.

We got down to Chivay and had a big buffet lunch. After time to digest we went back out riding around to a couple of villages. Instead of being solid downhill we now had to work a bit, and frustratingly it didn't take long before my non-fit legs started to complain. I worked at it as hard as I could but with half an hour left in the day's riding the uphill was beyond me and I had to resign to the van that Pablo was driving just behind the group.

The hotel we got put up in was really nice, especially considering the village we were in was small and basic. We had a decent dinner and were then treated to a traditional dance by some local girls and boys. After that we were well exhausted and went to sleep around 8-9pm.

We had an early start the next day and after breakfast we got straight into the riding. I seemed to have more energy in my legs than the day before so although I was holding the group back as the token slow person I managed to get through all the day's riding.

Not long after we started we were doing an uphill section when Pablo honked the horn in the van just behind me to let me know that my back tire had gone flat. I didn't notice it because I just figured I was going slow from the slope. Renzo came back from the front of the group and with Pablo they got to work replacing the tube. Looking at the tube on the wheel and the spares it was obvious that punctures are not uncommon because they all had patches on them from previous repairs, and it was actually a patch that had burst on my flat tire. They loaded another one and after pumping it up they quickly realised that that one had straight away gone flat too. They replaced it again and we were on our way after a half hour of repair work. A while later Ryan also had a tire puncture and so had to wait that repair job out too.

We were always going to have a late lunch that day, but with the time spent fixing our bikes and our lack of Olympic-level endurance we weren't going to make it if we took on the long steep uphill section to the village where we were having lunch. Myself, Ryan and Liz had our bikes packed in the van and then after about 15-20 minutes Sam and Sandy did the same and we drove to our lunch destination. It was a long way there so there was never a chance we could have done it in any reasonable time.

Our lunch destination was actually the hostel we were staying in that night, and instead of riding after lunch we went for an hour round trip walk to a nearby lookout over Colca Canyon. The view there was really spectacular with long deep views down the canyon within sight of a village right down the bottom that many people stay at when doing the popular two-day non-riding tours of Colca Canyon. At one point we saw two condors very high in the air tangled together and losing altitude. Renzo's explanation was that we were witnessing a rare sight - we were watching two condors mating mid-air. It was an impressive feat by any stretch of the imagination. Pablo showed his enthusiasm for condors to our amusement by perching up on a rock and flapping his arms and making noises like he was a condor. We walked back, had dinner, and went to sleep.

The final day of the tour started with a very early rise to go to the Cruz del Condor viewing area to hopefully catch a closer glimpse of some condors in the canyon. We had been warned that sometimes you don't see anything, and after about half an hour there we really hadn't seen more than a long distance glimpse of a couple of them. Thankfully after that it got much better as about six or eight condors started rising up the warm air, though still quite a bit off to the side.

The story behind the warm air is that condors are so huge - around 3m wingspan - that they are literally too heavy to fly themselves up, and so they use the warm air currents to rise up to a height that they can find food to eat. They are vultures instead of predators so there is no chance of them attacking animals such as, say, the swarms of humans watching them from a viewing area. After their breakfast of animals that have fallen to their death down the steep canyonside they glide all the way to the coast, which is some 200km away, eat fish there for lunch, and then glide back to the canyon for a final meal in the evening. It is a pretty incredible adaptation to a strange environment.

So we had seen the group of condors circling up the air slowly but surely, and then they started flying much closer to us. When they got high enough to be about 10-20 metres above us they essentially started swooping at us without actually attacking us. It was epic to have these huge birds glide right over our heads. Some got close enough that you could see their heads scanning all of us for anything of interest. It was one of the big highlights of my trip so far and another to add to the must-see recommendation list. Many photos and videos later they had started to move on and Renzo said we needed to get going.

The flipside to the awe of seeing all that was as the morning was passing I was feeling more and more crook. I didn't really know at the time what it was but I knew that just before we were about to start riding that I wasn't going to be able to do it. I got in the van with Pablo and the rest took off riding down the canyonside ahead of us.

A little while later we were going along a plain simple road when suddenly Ryan came to a stop and got off his bike. At first I figured it was another tire puncture but then he held up the bike with a stunned look on his face to show that his left handle bar had pretty much entirely snapped off. Renzo had a look but realised it was gone and just yanked it clean off. So all of a sudden we were a bike down and it was very lucky for Ryan that I wasn't able to use mine. My bike came out from the van and Ryan was back on his way. For it to happen then was very fortunate because if it had happened with us all riding then we would have been taking turns in the van, or if it was at high speed on rough surface then it could have been quite dangerous. Bad stuff can happen on tours but it is a bit hard to forgive that one of the bikes had just fallen apart while merely going down a flat road.

The ride had been mostly downhill for the morning but then it started climbing pretty hard. There was one section that would have been really tough - I think Ryan was the only one to make it up without having to walk at least a bit. Not along after Renzo explained that it was solid uphill for the rest of the day the others decided that they were happy to be done with it at that point and we could drive off to lunch and then head back to Arequipa.

We drove to our buffet lunch but I didn't eat much because I was getting what turned out to be travel sickness pretty bad. After lunch we drove back to Arequipa, and correspondingly I was also entering struggle town. When we got back we said our warm thank-yous to Renzo and Pablo and got to our hostel room for the night. The following day we were booked to do a two-day climb of El Misti, which is hard even at peak fitness because of the ash slope and the 5800m altitude, so instead of getting prepared for something I was in no shape to do I informed the others of my decision to not go, took some anti-biotics and went to sleep. It is a fair assessment to say I was pretty miserable at that point. Can has travel sickness immunity?
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Colca Canyon
photo by: Vlindeke