It is amazing how perspective can change. When I first arrived in Peru, regions of Lima felt like the Wild West. Upon returning, after a month exploring up north, the city felt tamed, almost docile. Streets that I deemed sketchy on day one now felt luxurious. Extended exposure to anything builds tolerance, and I think I’m slowly becoming immune to the chaos.
Back on the Pacific I met up with the south bound tourism current. There are many popular destinations along the coast of Peru, but most involve tour busses, guides, and itineraries; not my scene. I skipped the hubbub of Huacachina, Ica, Nazca et. al. and caught the 17 hour overnighter to Arequipa.
If I had to choose one, delightful, is the word to describe Arequipa. Peru’s second largest city consists of beautiful colonial buildings, millennia of history, delicious food, and a towering volcanic backdrop. The sunsets are stellar, the streets are clean, and a good americano is just around the corner. Even after a rough 24 hrs. where a poorly prepared taco reaped havoc on my stomach, I am still enamored. The city appears to be thriving with a strong tourism economy along side the operational hub for many agricultural and mining initiatives.
I started my visit to Arequipa the same was as most other cities, the free walking tour. There is always at least one enterprising group of young guys running these tours from the main square and it’s a great way to get your bearings and learn a bit about a city’s history. The tours also generally consist of a Pisco Sour at then end. Keeping with the trend of Arequipa, the tour here was informative, funny, and well organized. Most importantly, it clued me in on how to celebrate Abi’s birthday, a chocolate making class. Abi and I picked, roasted, de-shelled, ground, flavored, and set our own chocolates all while learning cacao’s history and tasting delicious samples. Fun fact, a Hershey bar is technically not chocolate as it lacks the required amount of cocoa butter to meet international standards. It’s just a candy.
After a few days of R&R in Arequipa I was re-energized and ready for the next adventure which lingered beyond the volcanoes. Outside the city limits is a high plateau region sitting, at its climax, over 4950m (16240 ft). Here active volcanoes stream smoke into the sky as large flocks of alpacas, llamas, and sheep meander about vast grasslands. If lucky you can even spot the rare Andean Condor overhead.
Up and over the plateau the Rio Colca has been slowly chipping away for millions of years, boring out one of the deepest canyons in the world. Six hours of winding scenery passed by my bus window until it dropped me at Cabanaconde; a small town on the rim of the canyon and the launching place for three days in the pit.
The hike gives an all too detailed preview right from the start. The river sits 1,300m below the trail head, and night one is spent on the bank. Just beyond the river, a never ending zig-zag of switch backs climb back out and over the cliffs of the river bend opposite. Yet another set of switch backs drops to the canyon floor; Oasis de Sangalle marks night two. Hidden from view is the last and most painful set of switch backs clawing up what appears to be a vertical face back to town, day three. Staring at this with fresh legs it seems challenging but doable, and the first decent begins.
On day two an idea emerged. One of the best hikes of my life was the Narrows (top down) in Zion National Park, UT. It’s a hike where the river is the trail and you wade through slot canyons for two days, it’s phenomenal and at the bottom of Colca Canyon the two don’t look all that dissimilar. After day one’s decent, the climb back up and down was less appealing and it was decided that a river crossing would be far more pleasant. Hiking down to the river wasn’t too bad, it looked shallow, and there were some natural hot springs to check out, what could go wrong?
About an hour after embarking on this journey the water got too deep for packs to remain on back so they went over head. A few feet later and keeping my head above water was becoming an issue. About face, back to dry land to sort this out. I packed all my belongings into a dry sack and swam across the deep channel to scout what was ahead. The findings were grim. More deep water, impassible cliffs at the end of each land route. The plan was shot and two hours later it was a return to the switch backs, now with wet socks and shoes.
There was however a silver lining to this washed up plan. A friendly stray dog that I had befriended at the first campsite sat on the trail as though he had been waiting, knowing the river plan was doomed. His semi dread-locked hair was both cute and a bit vile at the same time, but generally speaking he was well fed, friendly, and knew I could no longer be trusted to navigate. He would guide the rest of the way. A quick name storm landed on Chicha, and he moseyed along as I hiked up and down, waiting at each turn to make sure I hadn’t yet again gone astray. I reached camp and as quickly as he came, Chicha was gone, off helping another navigationally inept soul.
Day three was as brutal as it looked from a far...maybe worse. Wide open switch backs gave way to tight and steep ones. Each time the top approached a new, taller, steeper top appeared. Back in town with 30 minutes to spare before the bus departed I refilled my water, found a coffee, and snagged a window seat. I don’t think I have ever been as excited for a six hour drive.