AREQUIPA & COLCA CANYON
Overnight buses can lead to real confusion – waking up in a different location, wondering what day it is and sometimes whether you have slept through your stop altogether! On this occasion we were being asked to get off the bus at 6am and told we had arrived in Arequipa which had us slightly confused as we had anticipated arriving quite a few hours later. We stumbled off the bus, a little lost only to arrive at our hostel and be told that I’d actually booked for the night prior and therefore they had cancelled our booking!We worked it out eventually and went to get some much-needed coffee in downtown Arequipa. We walked to the main square, Plaza de Armas which is surrounded by grand, large buildings made of sillar, a white volcanic stone. Arequipa is Peru’s second most important city after Lima and also the second most popular tourist destination after Cuzco due to its proximity to many Southern Peru attractions including Colca Canyon, which we were to explore the next day.We were awake early for the 160km journey to Colca Canyon, winding around the Colca Valley as we drove to our first stop. The Colca Canyon is one of Peru’s most-visited tourist destinations and is reportedly twice as deep as the Grand Canyon at 4,160m at its deepest point. The canyon is also home to the Andean Condor, the 4th largest bird in the world with a wing span of up to 3.4 metres! Our first stop was at Cruz del Condor where you can watch at close range as the condors fly past the canyon walls and high in the sky above. CONDORS. ARE. HUGE. Like, really, really big and that is when viewing them from a distance! They are certainly not the prettiest of birds but they are most definitely impressive. We watched as they soared around, simultaneously accumulating way too many blurry condor photos but even our good photos do not really do their size justice! Just for the fun of it, here are some more condor photos: We continued on, arriving at the point where we were to begin our hike further down into the canyon. The view from the top was fantastic although I must admit it was completely different to what I was expecting. As far as canyons go, I am really only familiar with the Grand Canyon in the United States and Kings Canyon in Australia which are completely different to Colca Canyon which to me more so seemed like a large valley. Yes, now would be an appropriate time to look up what constitutes a canyon but I’ll leave that for you who are playing at home. We walked down slowly and I was very quickly missing the hiking sticks I’d learned to use and love. At times our trail down into the canyon was quite steep and I could feel my knees beginning to hate me as we zig-zagged our way down. Eventually we had made our way to a bridge at the bottom where we stopped for a quick break before a short walk up-hill on the other side to our accommodation for the evening. Looking back across the canyon at the path we had walked down it looked so small in comparison to the canyon as a whole. See if you can spot it in the second picture below!Our second day had us walking along one side of the canyon but climbing up and over before heading down once more. On the way our guide explained about the different types of plants in the canyon including edible fruits of different cacti and other trees. We also learned about different animal noises thanks to the group of English boys doing their best impressions along the way which while incredibly irritating, momentarily took the focus off the amount of hiking we were undertaking.We walked through a small village, which is now almost uninhabited outside of an annual festival that is held in the town. One “lucky” family is given the honour of having to pay for the festival – food, drinks, entertainers etc I feel like the cost would outweigh the honour but nevertheless it is about the most populated the town ever gets with Peruvians from near and far arriving in time to enjoy the hospitality.Continuing through the town and passing over one side we once again looked down into the canyon and with time we could see the “oasis”, an area full of palm trees and pools of blue water, also our campsite for the evening. We zig-zagged down and around, over bridges and back up hills before making our final descent into the oasis. This is what it is all about – pools surrounded by palm trees overlooking rivers and mountainsides. We enjoyed the water and the chance to relax before some cards and dinner and yes, in the picture below, that is the track out to follow the next day!!!!The following day arrived and if I had to describe it in one word, that word would be: HELL. So physics comes in to play here – what comes up must go down… or vice versa. We were up at the crack of dawn to hike out of the canyon and yes, that was necessary because the moment that sun hits the wall of the canyon you are going to wish you were already at the top! Hands down, the one disadvantage of hiking into one of the deepest canyons in the world is the fact that you also have to hike out and I can honestly say I did not enjoy this one bit. Nevertheless, I did make it… even if it was after every single group had made it and the rest of my hiking group was waiting hungry and patiently at the top! Here I must give credit to Will because he put up with my s#!t the whole way up and still managed to have time to encourage me.With us (as in me) FINALLY at the top we continued walking on to the nearest town where we had breakfast awaiting us. Feeling invigorated once more we continued on, driving along the Colca Valley where the local people maintain the ancestral traditions of the land and continue to cultivate the pre-Inca stepped terraces. Looking down into the valley is quite impressive, with the different terrace levels and sizes creating patterns in the valley wall. We took our last views in of the Canyon before we continued on to a nearby town. In this town I held probably one of my favourite birds of all time and by that I mean “I have no idea what your actual bird type name is but you look super cool and that’s all that matters” sort of bird. The guy who owned this bird was all about having it land on my head wearing his hat and then my arm, digging its super sharp talons into my bicep but hey that’s cool I have a crazy bird on my arm so whatever. Also noteworthy was the small church and incredibly cute donkeys nearby.Finishing off our adventure we stopped at some hot springs which really were the perfect antidote to hiking out of ridiculously steep canyon all morning. On the bus back to Arequipa we stopped at a viewpoint where you could see volcanoes out of every direction which was pretty impressive, along with fields full of llamas doing their thing out in the wilderness. Another 3 day trek down exploring more beautiful landscapes and staring down more crazy switchbacks. It was another fantastic adventure although maybe not the best option after just finishing a 4 day trek to Machu Picchu. Nethetherless our bodies once again taught us we were capable of a lot more than initially anticipated and we returned to Arequipa, ready for the next adventure.
With the Inca trail passes selling out months in advance and our lack of forward planning throughout our trip, we chose the popular alternative Salkantay trek to take us to Machu Picchu. Day 1 and we were picked up at 4:30 in the morning by our guide Efra and taken on a sleepy 3-hour drive to Soraypampa, the starting point of our trek located at 3,700m above sea level.It was here that we met our fellow trekkers – Emily and Amy from USA, our chef and his assistant along with the three porters and horses who would be joining us on the trek. In quite the contrast to our Torres del Paine ‘W’ trek, this time we carried little more than a bottle of water with the horses left to carry the rest (sorry horses but oh so good!)Our breakfast table was set with the inspiring scenery providing the perfect backdrop to begin our 4-day trek. Fuelled and ready, we set off into the valley, surrounded by rocky mountains. In contrast, directly in front we stared at the snow-covered Salkantay Mountain which stood tall at 6,270m above sea level. The landscape was incredibly beautiful – between the mountains, fields and small stream flowing to our right it couldn’t have been more perfect as we began our 3-hour climb. Salkantay Mountain is probably one of the most impressive mountains I’ve ever seen and standing tall in front, it definitely inspired us to continue as we zig-zagged our way to our lunch spot, 500m higher than our starting point. If I never have to hear the word “switchback” again I’ll be happy, those steep climbs were hell! Poor Amy was recovering from a bout of food poisoning prior to the trip and really struggled with the climb, but luckily we had a spare horse that could carry her to the top. I feel I’d be lying if I said a part of me didn’t want be to be on the back of that horse as well!By the time we reached our lunch spot everyone was ready for a nap! We enjoyed the mountain of food cooked up by our chef and lied down for a while before it was time to continue. We had another 400m to climb before we reached Salkantay Pass, the highest point of our trek and although continuing seemed impossible at the time, the view from the pass was well worth it!After a number of photos and time spent admiring Salkantay’s beauty we began our descent from 4600m and continued on the path to Huayracpunko (3800m), our campsite for the evening. The contrasting colours of the different rocks mixed with the lush green pastures looked amazing as the valley widened out and the sun began to set around us.While I’m always looking forward to the downhill parts, in many ways they are just as difficult as the uphill and we stumbled along, slipping on the loose rocks as we made our way down. At one point we walked along original Inca steps, hardly noticeable until Efra pointed them out but then looking back you could definitely see a pattern in the overgrown path used so many years ago.We continued along, clouds filled the valley and the path began to flatten out. Soon enough, our campsite was torturously visible in the far distance so we pushed on, finishing our first long, 15km day of hiking. We ate like Incan Kings and stood outside admiring the moon-lit mountains surrounding us once more before bed.“Hello, Good Morning” was the sound we awoke to as Efra waited outside with two hot cups of coca tea. It had been a cold night however with our thermals, -20C duck down sleeping bags and additional blankets, we had felt quite cosy in our tent. We layered up before breakfast and not too long after we were on the move once again, leaving the chef and porters to catch up later on. Did I mention I love not having to pack up tents?We walked around the edge of the valley, watching as it transformed from rocky mountains to leafy green jungle. We descended further and continued winding around, the path was full of small ups and downs as it led us to a river bed and back out the other side.After lunch we continued, walking along a road, crossing the river once again and continuing deep in to the jungle. We passed waterfalls as we followed the river into the valley, hiking up and down, up and down continuously for hours before the road flattened out once more. We walked through a small village filled with livestock and children playing volleyball before continuing through to our second night campsite, La Playa (2400m)Day 3 and it was necessary to stretch our sore muscles following yesterday’s 18 kilometres of ups and downs. We walked gradually downhill for an hour where we began the Inca trail leading to Llactapata Incan ruins where you can also view Machu Picchu from a distance. This was a solid three hours directly uphill over the mountain and it just felt like it was never going to end! We would walk towards a corner only to turn the corner and find that the hill continued again and again and again! Emily walked in front of me and I watched as her body language indicated enough for me to know there was more hill awaiting me around the corner.Suddenly, it seemed like the tallest of trees were surrounding us and we realised we were reaching the top of the mountain FINALLY! We collapsed in a heap, almost in disbelief that we had actually made it to the top and with a further ten minute walk, we arrived at the Llactapata Incan ruins. From the ruins we had a magnificent view of the mountains surrounding us, as well as Machu Picchu. We lied on the grass, recovering from our huge climb only to then began our descent back down the other side of the mountain. Three hours to climb up, half that time to climb down. It certainly still took its toll on our weary bodies but we stumbled along, reaching the river bed once more.We walked past the hydroelectric station before arriving at our lunch spot, also home to the train station where we would catch the train to Aguas Calientes, pit stop for the thousands of tourists visiting Machu Picchu. The town is located in a pretty impressive spot, surrounding by large rock walls covered in greenery with the river running through the middle of town. We were completely wrecked and checked in to our hotel where we had our first showers and relaxed after three big days of trekking.We were up before 5am ready to catch one of the first buses to Machu Picchu. The day had finally arrived, something we had been looking forward to for so long and now after trekking 50 kilometres in three days, we would finally be rewarded. The bus ride was slightly daunting, although it was dark; the edge of the road was still visible as we zig-zagged up to the entrance of the site. We joined the masses already lining to enter the site and then at 6am we entered, walking along a path and up some stairs before we had our first view. I don’t care how many pictures you may have seen of this place, seeing it in person is incomparable. I try and avoid the word breathtaking as from a literal sense it doesn’t really work but when it comes to Machu Picchu, maybe I can make an exception. Do I think you should see it in your lifetime? Definitive answer – YES.The sun was yet to rise as Efra took us up the stairs to the best viewing point of the site. We laughed at the alpacas standing on the cliff face, something we had seen on book covers and postcards and assumed they were probably photo-shopped but no, there they are ready for the shot. We took photo after photo, feeling like none of the photos were doing justice to the beauty and enormity of the site and its surrounds.
Efra spoke to us about the history and we watched as the sun began to hit Huaynapicchu and then continued to light the whole site. For those who may not know, Huaynapicchu is the mountain you generally see in the back of most photos whereas Machu Picchu mountain is opposite, further from the site itself. The actual name that the Incas used for the site is unknown, likewise for the mountains, Huaynapicchu and Machu Picchu (only so called today as that is the Quechua words for big mountain and small mountain).Once the sun had risen we continued to walk through the site as Efra pointed out various features before leaving us with time to explore ourselves. As you walk past high walls of carved stone, through doorways and tunnels, you wonder how such a complex system of buildings was ever constructed while imagining what more you may have been able to see should it ever have been totally completed. On one hand it seems mind-boggling that they would choose such an isolated place, but as you walk the grounds and look out over the surrounding mountains it does seem like a majestic setting akin to no other.After hours of walking and admiring, sitting on the hill and occasionally laughing at the hoards of tourists that from a distance looked like tiny ants making their way through the different passages, it was time to leave Machu Picchu. We took our last photos, still trying aimlessly to get that one photo that captured exactly what we felt as we stared out in that last hour before we said goodbye.
While you can take the train direct from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes, there was something really rewarding about having trekked for days in order to make our way to Machu Picchu. We had the opportunity to retrace the steps and paths that were built so many centuries ago and then arrive at such a sacred place, with its undefined history giving it a mysterious quality that only adds to the whole experience. Photos do not do it justice – you need to experience it for yourself!