Friday, 22 August 2014

Colca Canyon

The alarm goes off, and I resist the urge to crash around as loudly as possible to wake our sleeping Mossad friends, and stealthily carry our belongings into the main courtyard to get dressed. By 3am, we're ready and waiting. And then waiting... and waiting...

The bus picks us up 4am and as we curse another hour of sleep that we've lost, Todd confirms that no one was late, they've just been doing laps of the city. Mercifully we are the last ones so no extra city tour for us.

Our guide explains that we are currently at 2,300m, we have a 3 hour drive to Chivay where we will have breakfast at 3,600m, and in between the highest we will hit is 4,900m. After breakfast we have a further 1.5 hour drive to the mirador, Cruz de la Condor, where "the condors will wait for us" - this might be a slight translation thing, but we like the idea of these massive birds waiting patiently for us to arrive and take photos.

Without really doing too much wrong, both of the guides on our bus manage to come across as a couple of idiots, and we're all fairly relieved when we arrive at the start of the trek and are assigned to an entirely different guide, who turns out to be a bit of a star.

Breakfast is a blur, as everyone is still in varying stages of sleep, but we arrive at the Condor lookout point, which is easily identifiable by the dozens of tourist minibuses that are in attendance. We're still rolling with the douchebag guides, who warn us that if we're not back on the bus in exactly 30 minutes they may leave without us, pointing out that they've done it before, 5 times. Are they joking? Either way, this scare tactic has the desired effect - the time is noted, and we will be getting back on the bus!

Condor spotting gets off to a slow start, and part of me is thinking that between the various treks we've already done, we've seen enough so who cares. Suddenly - POW! Two huge condors appear from the cliff face right in front of us. Alright, I'll admit it - this tops what we've seen so far, and we're suitably impressed. At one point, CP swears out loud, in the most unladylike like, very Australian way, as she gets confronted with a massive condor in the eye of her zoom lens and can almost feel the wings on her face.

Back on the bus, and CP is sat chatting to the girl sat next to her. I'm a couple of seats away, but I'm confused... English is being spoken, with a slight accent that I recognise... but it doesn't make sense. Could this be? Have we met an Israeli traveller that isn't self obsessed? It's true! It takes a while to understand her name as if you have to ask more than 3 times it starts to look rude, and no doubt I'm spelling this wrong, but it sounds like "Or". Finally an exception to the stereotype that I was beginning to think was representative of all..!

The bus pulls in at the side of the road, we've arrived at the start of our trek - it's now that our guides get switched (at least for the two of us, Todd and our more Isreali friend who we demanded be kept with us as we had a good feeling about her) - and there's a collective sigh of relief. Our new guide gives a refresh explanation of what the next 2 days will entail, what we can expect to see, and what we can look forward to.

Essentially, Day 1 will involve walking down into the canyon - a long way down. We'll spend the night at a resort nestled in the base of the canyon called El Paradiso, and then we'll get up at some ungodly hour to trek back out of the canyon again, followed by the rest of the day on the bus back to Arequipa, stopping off at various tourist sights including hot springs and smoking volcanos.

The Colca Canyon is the second deepest in the world, at 4,160m, or 3,191m, depending on how you measure it. The deepest is the nearby, but entirely un-touristified, Cotahuasi Canyon which is 163m deeper. The Grand Canyon by comparison, is a mere 1,800m. Not even in the same league!

The numbers don't really matter too much - whichever way you look at it, it's a long way down, which means it will be a long way up tomorrow.

As we round a corner which get a perfect birds eye view of our hotel for tonight, the El Paradiso Oasis, located about 800 metres below us on the valley floor. We're a bit bemused at first, as from here it looks like there's a couple of swimming pools - which our guide confirms. Looks good, from here at least!

This seems as good a time as any to do a quick check with a few others in the group - how much is everyone paying, and is our S95 ($34/£21) a good deal? Somehow, we've paid by far the least, most people having stumped up the full S130 for the trip. Win! Although we're sure this will come back to bite us at some point...

On the walk down, Todd, Carly, and me, mostly find ourselves off the front of the group (with the exception of a French guy who almost knocks us off the path as he runs past us), happily walking along at our own pace and still chatting away like we've all known each other for years. Occasionally we realise we've got so far away from the group that we should stop, but then when our guide catches up he tells us that we're heading for a big unmissable bridge way below, so as long as we wait there we're free to continue. So we do, much to the objection of CP's quads later on.

After the bridge it's not so much downhill anymore, just up a bit, down a bit, wonder along until the lunch stop, where they serve up a pretty delicious Alpaca based stir-fry, which ticks off another meat that we wanted to try while in Peru. There's no dessert provided, but that doesn't matter, as we've all brought way to many snacks, none more so than Or who seems to have nothing else in her bag, and happily shares round the cookies.

After lunch, the group walks together as our guide explains lots of stuff along the way, mostly about different flowers and plants that we see. Some are highly poisonous, with one in particular a big problem if a stem snaps and the sap gets on your skin. If you somehow ingest some of it, then you're in serious trouble and need to get medical help asap, not an easy task at the bottom of the canyon. Then right next door is a plant that you can scrunch up in your hand to produce a natural cure for altitude sickness. We can't help but wonder how much fun the locals would have had figuring out which was which, as it's clearly not something that you'd want to get wrong very often.

This afternoons progress is sloooooooow, as in a bid to keep the group together we're stopping every 5 minutes - it feels like every other group is overtaking us (they are), and we're worried that all the best "suites" at our hotel resort will be taken by the time we get there! From here we can see our resort, and the path back out of the canyon that we'll be taking tomorrow...

We reach a vantage point from where we can see our resort way below us - it looks like it's only a few hundred metres away, and we bet with each other about what time we will arrive. The most pessimistic is about 15 minutes... 40 minutes of switchbacks later, and yes, we've arrived!

No winners here, so after having our rooms allocated (to our surprise, we get a double bed bungalow, Todd is sharing with the French guy who isn't anywhere near as mental as he seemed when he was powering down the canyon earlier, while the S130 crew are sharing 5 people to a room) we head straight for the pools to cool off and refresh - and it is refreshing!

Our bungalow, easily recognisable by the towel hanging outside, the bikini above the door, WMD the boardies hanging off the door handle:

As luck would have it, the resorts bar is running an all night happy hour (we get the feeling this may happen every night), which means we sample our first Peruvian beer (an improvement on anything that Bolivia had offered), and a couple of cocktails (should have stuck to the beer). It's also chance to chat with a group that are staying in the same hostel as Todd back in Arequipa - a clan of kiwis (if that is the correct collective noun?) and a Canadian, surrogate kiwi, called David.

This leads to more cocktails, but the fun is curtailed after dinner when our guide explains that we'll be getting up at 4am so that our climb out of the canyon will not be in the hottest part of the day. Good news for our hike in the morning, bad news for our cocktail consumption, and we make a premature exit to try to get some sleep.

Next morning, we're up early, packed and ready to go at 4:30am. That's us, Todd, Or, and the French guy. The rest of the group seems to have misunderstood the message about our early departure, so we're stood around waiting with our guide. Getting up early for something like this is fine, but getting up early to stand around waiting for other people, not so much!

We're about to send someone in to look for them, when finally the group appears, and we can leave. It's dark (obviously!), and will be for most of the hike up and out of the canyon, so we've all got our torches out, except for CP who has decided to omit this from her packed items. That's not a problem though - Or explains that as part of her military service, she specialised in navigation at night, so for her a torch is basically cheating, and she hands hers over to CP.

If the walk down the canyon gave an idea of people's fitness, the hike back up is the definitive results. Frenchie runs on ahead, followed by a group of me, CP, Todd, Or, and another girl who struggled yesterday but is powering today. We won't see the rest of the group until the finish.

There's an added incentive for us - the kiwi clan weren't leaving until 30 minutes after us, but had "joked" that they would probably catch us on the way up, based on the groups speeds yesterday. This turned into a bet. As the climb was expected to take 2.5 hours, the bet was that they would catch us by 6:30am, 1.5 hours into their climb. We, of course, were fairly keen for that not to happen, although we knew that we'd already lost some of our advantage by leaving late, so without being too deliberate about it, we're setting a decent pace! CP has claimed that the dark walk up was her favourite trek so far, so peaceful and surreal, not to mention relaxing as despite our efforts to increase the pace, we were still restricted by the guides pace.

After about an hour, the sun is starting to show across the canyon, and we decide that we can spare a few minutes for some photos, as the landscape is once again quite amazing.

Just like yesterday, we can see the finish about 30 minutes before we get there and it feels like we'll never get there, as the path zigzags up the steep slopes. Finally we're there, and the kiwis are nowhere in sight, the bet is won, and the spoils of victory (the prestige, and first pick of the fruit and snacks available from the obligatory stall at the top) are ours. David steams in on his own after about 10 minutes, but the kiwi's plod in around half an hour contest!

Once everyone else arrives at the top, a couple of the girls on mules (cheats!), we head into town for breakfast and then wait an hour for a bus to take us to the hot springs. There is a cool fountain in the town for us to look at whilst we waited.

While we wait, Todd realises that he has lost ring that he had designed and had made earlier in his trip - so after checking photos and seeing where it last appears, he runs all the way back to the top of the canyon, but finds nothing.

The hot springs are a bit of a disappointment, being much more like a swimming pool than springs, but at least it meant another clean for us.

Back on the bus after the hot springs and what...? Todds ring is miraculously sat in the middle of his seat. My suspicious mind thinks that someone "found" it and put it back there when they realised it belonged to someone, but the more widely accepted explanation is that it must have been caught in his pocket or bag, and very luckily dropped out while we were getting sorted for the hot springs. Either way, it's back, and we all now have a chance to admire it!

Some epic scenery followed as we made our way to our buffet lunch...but most of it was lost on me as I was suffering massively from a sudden onset stomach issue. As I'm hunched in to the side of my seat, I'm supported by CP... who's being as sympathetic as possible (or not) and starts randomly throwing stuff around her seat. "Whoa, this jacket just fell on me!" Wtf?!

Buffet was epic, we'd be warned by a mate (A Ray) to stay away from the buffet as they had all got sick from it when they did it a few months ago), but we decided to try our luck anyways and it was worth the risk!

The rest of the trip back was spent stopping off at cool (or not so cool) sites, like prayer rocks, llama farms and smoking volcanos. CP brought us a handmade wall hanging for the equivalent of about $4 from a really old looking lady and we ate cactus fruit almost straight from the source. Overall, it was an pretty fantastic way to spend a couple of days and a bit of a bargain to top it off!

Contrary to expectation (and initial results) crossing the border into Peru did not instantly cure my nasal woes, and I continue to deposit large chunks of brain (or whatever it is) into tissues, sinks, toilets, whatever receptacle is available. Maybe it's not an allergy to Bolivia after all?!

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