Of all the pleasures in life, there’s not many that come close to a nice, long walk. It could be over the barrenly beautiful hills of England’s Peak District, hugging the idyllic shorelines of New Zealand’s Abel Tasman coastal track, hiking across Andean Plains or clawing our way through steamy Asian jungles, but the chances are that if we’ve walked it, then we’ve generally enjoyed it immensely. There’s nothing quite like being in the great outdoors you see. The sense of freedom is probably the biggest draw, where with an escape from the madness of society, fresh air in your lungs and more often than not, some astounding scenery around you, there’s really no better way of spending either a few simple hours, or a few adventurous days. With all this in mind however, and for all our enthusiasm and excitement in discovering new places in which to go trekking, we’d possibly found somewhere that might just change all that.
Following a six hour bumpy bus ride from Arequipa to Cobanacande, a tiny rustic town where a traditional way of life and dress is still very much in existence, we found ourselves peering over the edge of the Colca Canyon and doing that kind of nervous ‘what the hell are we about to do?’ laughter as we looked down upon our trekking route into the abyss. The Colca Canyon is beyond big. It’s beyond massive in fact. Dropping down more than 4000m at its lowest point and extending for around 70km, it’s over twice as deep as the far more famous Grand Canyon in North America, and yet somehow it’s still not the deepest canyon around. That award goes to its neighbour the Cotahuasi Canyon which is found just up the road, but nevertheless, here we were at Colca, and this definitely looked big enough. We could just about make out some civilisation at the bottom there, the small town of San Galle clustered around the winding Rio Colca which from the top looked like a thin, dark crack in the valley floor. A tiny road stretched out along the opposite slope, the occasional car lost amidst a cloud of dust and everything, absolutely everything below us, just looked so small. This could be a long walk.
It turns out it’s not just the landscape that is super sized around here either, as the wildlife gets in on the act as well. This is the home of the mighty Andean Condor, one of the largest birds found in existence and an animal which is revered in indigenous South American folklore and mythology more than any other, and we wanted to see it for ourselves. Rising with the sun the next morning, we found our way up to Cruz del Condor, a local lookout point high above some nesting sites, and we waited. At first, there was nothing. Just the vast canyon below us still darkened with the early morning shadow, and a biting wind which whipped around us and left us longing for the warm beds we’d left behind. Stamping our feet and with impatience growing, we waited some more. Eventually, some birds did appear. Not Condors mind, but Hummingbirds, which unsurprisingly considering the size of everything else around these parts, were actually Giant Hummingbirds, the largest of their kind. That alleviated the boredom for a few minutes before once again the coldness set in and, hang on, what was that down there? Far, far below us, a tiny speck of darkness could be seen gliding along the canyon wall. Was that a Condor? Or a fly in front of my binoculars? Now there was nothing. We waited again.
Eventually, the dark speck reappeared, along with some other dark specks, and now they were definitely closer. We could now make out the outlines – huge, stretching wings – and the colours; some black with streaks of white, some a more dappled brown. These were definitely Condors. Over the next 30 minutes or so they rose further and further, gliding gracefully on the warming thermals, sometimes in pairs but mostly alone, until they were eye level and above. There were now around a dozen of them around us, close enough to make out their unsightly folded faces and bulging eyes, and close enough to see the ferocious looking talons and long, hooked beaks which they use to tear carcasses to pieces. Condors are essentially just big Vultures, feeding on carrion for survival, but they’re also immensely big. With wingspans of over three metres and legs that definitely looked powerful enough to pick you or me up, we found ourselves clutching onto the railings tightly as they circled above. We didn’t want to be heading up and away anytime soon.
We were, however, soon heading down and away. Armed with a roughly drawn map, as much water as we could carry and a bewildering mix of thermals, sun cream and swimwear, we made our way into the canyon. The main issue with trekking in the Colca Canyon is the heat. It’s unrelenting. Temperatures soar into the 30s here, and there’s just no escape from it. With barely any vegetation above knee level and the sun overhead, there’s little to be done except wearing the stupidest looking but most practical hat you can find, then getting your head down and just walking. It took us around four hours to reach the valley floor. A seemingly endless path of switchbacks and zig zags eventually dumped us by the Rio Colca, where steaming geysers had the water bubbling and a taste of sulphur in the air, before eventually bringing us out by our home for the first night, a remotely located hostel in the tiny community of Llahuar.
Now not many places we stay can boast of hot, natural pools a few metres from your bedroom door, and not many places can boast of a view of the stars from your bed either. That said, not many places we stay have a bed made from stones with a mattress slung on top, gravel for a carpet and walls of bamboo so thin that you can easily poke your fingers through. This was as crude as a place that we’d stayed anywhere; but for its location at the foot of the Canyon, for the steaming hot pools by the river in which we could soak our weary bones and being able to sleep to the soothing sound of rushing water and with the twinkle of stars above our heads, it was perfect.
We left at first light. The carefully architecturally designed natural lighting system wouldn’t have given us much choice in the matter anyway, but with a long days walk ahead of us we were happy to make use of the natural alarm clock and make tracks early on. As well as needing the time for the long distance ahead, it meant we managed to cover several kilometres of walking up the opposite canyon slope before the sun had risen fully, and it wasn’t until mid morning when the first rays of sun had us cowering in the valley walls like a pair of shabby looking vampires. Unlike almost everywhere else we go in the world, here the sun was not our friend. After a lengthy walk along the dusty road we’d observed from afar two days beforehand, we did our usual trick of getting lost before dropping down to the valley floor once again, this time passing through a series of impressive Inca terraces and taking a short cut that took three times as long as the normal path, before reaching the strange oddity that is the village of San Galle.
In a valley which barely receives any rainfall for much of the year, where there is no provided water supply to local communities and where each home has a limit on water usage per day, it seems slightly odd that in the middle of it all, located so remotely in such a vast, dry canyon, is a village full of swimming pools. It’s bizarre. Like a tiny Las Vegas, San Galle just sits there all smug and appealing. With its perfect blue pools and gushing fountains, it sticks it’s middle finger up to everything else around it and sits back while trekkers pile in for some respite. I’d love to say we were outraged by this obscene disregard for local water usage and that we stomped past it in absolute disgust, but my word, doing a running bomb into one of those pools after several hours of walking in the dry, dusty, scorching heat was probably the highlight of the entire trek.
A part of the trek that was undoubtedly not the highlight however, was the few hours that then followed. Ignoring the recommended advice to stay the night in San Galle and make our ascent out of the canyon early the next morning, rather than attempt it in the mid afternoon heat, we reluctantly left the swimming pools and started our long walk up. This is not the deepest part of the canyon by any means, thank god, but it was still around a kilometre up. And that’s not a kilometre in walking length by the way, that’s a kilometre in height. For hours we toiled upward, desperately searching for some shade and desperately gazing at a summit that never seemed to get any closer, and we struggled like never before. I’m not suggesting we’re a pair of walking supremos or that we’re super fit trekking machines, but we’ve covered some ground in our time and we’ve been just fine. Here though, it was ridiculous.
The swimming pools below us goaded us continually, shimmering beneath wobbling heat mirages while each turn simply led steeply up to another. And then another, and then more. We were really struggling by this point. A Condor cruised past us high above, probably eyeing us up as potential carcasses for dinner before deciding we didn’t look appetising enough and disappearing, and I couldn’t blame him. Layered with dust upon sweat about four times over, we dragged our cracked and blistered feet – barely recovered from a five day Salkantay trek the week before – ever so slowly upwards, until finally, eventually….ah no, we weren’t quite there yet. False summit after false summit came and went, our water ran out, our mouths became as dry as a menopausal camel and to be honest, we’d just about had enough. The summit did arrive eventually of course, and as we collapsed in a giddy heap at the top, we couldn’t help but crawl over to the edge and peer down at where we’d come from.
The paths we’d walked upon were now barely visible, just tiny lines no more than a hairs width wide which jutted down the steep valley walls. The village of Llahuar was nowhere to be seen, lost through a dusty haze and tucked around a canyon corner out of sight, while the pools we’d swum in were now distant drops of blue on the valley floor. We gazed around in breathless awe at sheer vastness of the canyon below as we slumped back onto the grass, released our feet from the fiery hell of our walking boots and took a few deep, long breaths. Like I said, there is absolutely nothing like a nice, long walk. Honest.