Where the mule is king
20.01.2013 - 22.01.2013 25 °C
"Oh My God", "this is madness" and, more often than not, "what the ***k" - these were the utterances you would have heard if you were anywhere near me on our trek to the bottom of the Colca Canyon - the worlds deepest canyon, at 4,160 meters (more than twice as deep as the grand canyon in USA).
To get to the canyon we got a local bus which took us on a 6 hour journey over a 5000m snow covered mountain pass where herds of the very rare vicuña graze on the slim pickings. I was really worried about altitude sickness so I was busily masticating coca leaves like a local. They must have worked as I had no real ill effects other than feeling like I had been run over by a bus.
The bus takes you along the rim of the Colca valley from where you can see the little villages perched along the sides of the canyon. The road was only built int he 1970s so that gives you an idea of how remote this area is. The bus was filled with locals, the women in their magnificiently colourful traditional dress, with their multicoloured bundles of produce. These women can carry heavy loads. In fact, come to think of it, we have yet to see a man carrying such heavy loads. Hmmm.
The last part of the road is unpaved and fords streams and many large potholes, all the while running along the edge of the canyon with sheer drops to the valley below. Not for the faint hearted. Aine was busily looking the other way most of the time but on the odd occasion I got her to look out our window she turned very pale and buried her head in her hands! On arrival at Cabanaconde, the last village on the road, we checked into our hostel and went on a recce to see where the next day's trek would take us. We walked slowly to the nearest viewing point, every step being an effort in the thin air at an altitude of 3,600m. When we saw the path down to the valley and the path on the other side of the canyon, Aine really had second thoughts. It is VERY steep. We were later asked by our hostel owner if we wanted him to guide us for the 2 day hike, and Aine was all for it but I thought we could do it without his input so we declined his offer. Bear in mind that afterwards, everyone else we meet on the trek had a guide!
Next morning the two foolhardy hikers set out. The path took us along the edge of a cliff and was about 4 to 5 feet wide in places but then 2 to 3 feet wide in other places which wasn't too bad!!!!. After a couple of km of this slowly descending path, the way became very steep turning into a zig zag path down the cliff face. I was swallowing back my fear and I confess on occasion to snapping at Seamus as he wanted me to pose for photos. Not very good timing! About half way down we met a young girl coming up on a mule accompanied by 2 other riderless mules. She was about 13 years old. I told myself that if the girl could do it I could do it and this kept me going. Meanwhile Seamus was trotting along like the mountain goat that he is.
The heat was horrendous and we eventually made it to the bottom of the valley where we had a chat with the local ranger who was into some evangelical religion so we talked about God for a while in pigeon Spanish. I was very amiable to the conversation as by this stage I was very friendly with God having invoked him all the way down the canyon!
We crossed the bridge over the Colca river and were met by a woman called Gloria who herded us to her little restuarant in a tiny village on the cliff edge. Gloria cooked up a storm on a wood burning adobe oven. Delicious veggie soup follwed by an alpaca stir fry. Delicious. There are no roads down in the valley so everything must be transported by man, woman or mule. This is the way it has been for thousands of years and will probably continue to be the way in the future if these villages survive. Everything is hard work, and these people know all about it. Tending the fields and terraces by hand, harvesting by hand and moving goods around by mule. We have it so easy.
After our lunch with Gloria we had to hike up again, cross another river, trek into 2 more villages before our final descent into the oasis at the bottom of the canyon.
But now came the difficult part. From the other side of the valley we could see that the path crossed over a land or rock slide and it did not look inviting. On getting to this part, I really had to force myself to go forward as after about 15km, there was no going back. God was invoked again, as was Evelyn Ryan and every other saint and angel. The path was made of freshly, but barely compacted, material and was about 9 inches wide. It was terryfying. But we made it. No way would I have done this 2 months ago but our hiking in Argentina had kind of prepared us for this kind of thing. A big hug from Seamus on the other side helped of course.
The last part was switch back steep paths downhill to the oasis, in which there are a few little hostels with swimming pools filled with warmish water from geothermal springs. We got our little room which comprised an earthen floor, bamboo roof, a bed and a candle. There is no electricity down here. Dinner was cooked up by the men running the hostel. There are no women working down here... probably too busy lugging heavy loads around further up the valley!
Over dinner we met a group who were with a guided tour and had a good chat with them. Hit the hay with our candle and got up at 5am to get on the track before the sun came up. The 1000m climb was all up. Switch back zig zag paths up the canyon side. Tough tough tough. We had to make way several times for mules heading up to Cabanaconde for provisions. How I wished I was on one of those mules! Although maybe not, as the mules seemed to have no regard for how close to the edge they went. After 3.5 hours we reached the top and savoured the view. But mostly I could not believe that we had trekked those steep slopes. A real achievement.
Back in Cabanaconde we had a much needed shower and with a sad heart got on the bus which took us out of the valley. Oh to have spent a few weeks in the Colca Canyon.