My calf muscles have ached for three days and walking down stairs is so slow and painful it’s almost comical. Why? Because a few days ago we decided to hike down the steep slope into Colca Canyon here in Peru, a natural wonder more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the USA. The descent caused me to discover muscles in my legs that I didn’t know I even had and it was a travel experience I will remember long after the stiffness fades.
We started our descent down unto the canyon early in the morning to avoid the afternoon heat. Our journey began from the Pachamama Hostel in Cabanaconde, a relaxing and welcoming place filled with colourfully patterned fabrics, lap dogs, paintings on the walls and the smoky scent of the enormous stone bake pizza oven.With a breakfast of homemade bread and crepes in our bellies, Lee and I and our friends Sandi and Donn from the USA strolled out of the tiny mountain village and out onto the trail.
We chose to hike our way down the canyon without a guide, but we ended up getting one for free anyway – in the form of a slightly scruffy golden haired dog who had been sleeping on the street outside of our hostel. We had showed him a little affection earlier by stroking him on the head and ever since that small gesture he refused to leave our side. He was a welcome companion on our walk and we named him Diego.
The trail started off very rocky, resembling an uneven dry riverbed strewn with large rocks. After a short while, it flattened out and treated us to a stunning viewpoint, before the real steep descent began.
We had chosen the steepest of two routes down into the canyon, the other one was more flat but much longer. Lee, Sandi, Donn, Diego and I spent the next several hours back and forth on switchbacks, alternating between watching our footing on the loose rock and staring in awe at the enormous gaping canyon around us.
Diego seemed to be familiar with canyon hiking and he outpaced us, running ahead to relax in a shady spot until we caught up with him. As we descended, the sun started to climb in the sky and the air became hotter, soaking our shirts with backpack-shaped sweat stains. If you are attempting the trek- make sure you bring lots of water. It’s heavy to carry at first, but you will be glad you have it when you are halfway down.
As we got further down the slope, the vegetation and the colour of the rock slowly began to change. My ears popped once or twice and I felt it easier to breathe in the lower altitude. We could see the oasis at the bottom of the canyon – our final destination. It’s cool blue pools were visible even when we were thousands of feet above it – tantalising us in our hot and sweaty trek.
The last hour of the hike was the hardest – our legs had begun to ache and the bottom of the canyon was so close yet still so far away. We concentrated hard on putting one foot in front of the other, keeping the thought of a cold beer and a plunge in the swimming pool to keep us going.
Finally Reaching the Bottom of the Canyon
After the dry and arid cacti-studded landscapes of the canyon, it was a shock to walk into the lush and green oasis of Paraiso Las Palmeras Lodge at the bottom. Jumping into the cool waters of the pool felt amazing on our hot and tired bodies. I settled into a hammock and could have swung there for hours, but there was so much more to explore.
In an attempt to find our way down to the river, we went on a detour and when Diego discovered a ripe avocado on the ground we found the source and had a very healthy snack straight from the tree.
When we eventually found the overgrown path down to the river, we lounged down there for ages – climbing on the rocks and skipping stones on the water.
Sunset comes early when you are at the bottom of the second largest canyon in the world and after dinner and a few rounds of beer and Farkle we went to bed early, exhausted from our adventures. We needed the sleep anyway… we needed to be up and ready at 6am to take the mules back up the canyon. Yup, there was no way we wanted to attempt the hike back up on our aching legs. Besides, we hadn’t ridden a mule before – so that would be another travel first!
Riding Mules Back Up the Canyon
I wish we could have stayed in the oasis longer, but we only had a small taste of paradise because we needed to take the mules back up the mountain early in the morning before the sun got too hot.
Straddling these beasts of burden somewhat awkwardly, we giggled at each other as they took us on a sure-footed climb up the path. Riding a mule up the canyon is much more pleasant than hiking up, but it is a little nerve-wracking when the mules walk very close to the edge of the path.
My mule, whose name was Pacho, suffered from a serious lack of motivation. The other mules were motivated by our guide walking behind them and occasionally throwing rocks at their backside (ouch!), but Pacho was walking behind the guide and contemplated giving up many times. I had to pat his flanks and talk to him encouragingly to get him to keep walking up the steep slope, so that I didn’t get left behind.
I was slightly concerned as to whether our adopted canine companion, Diego, would be able to make it up the slope. Would he be able to keep up with the mules? He followed us for a while, then I lost sight of him. I was surprised at how attached I had become to Diego. I had cuddled with him by the river, fed him scraps at dinner and let him sleep in our hut at the oasis – he had started to feel like my dog. I didn’t want to lose track of him and I kept scanning the rugged canyon vegetation in the hopes of seeing that golden tail once more.
Finally, I spotted him again. From my position at the back of the pack, I watched him straggling a few switchbacks behind us, his tongue hanging out of his mouth. He made eye contact with me and I called to him, promising him some food from my backpack if he made up to the top. “Come on Diego, you can do it!” He perked up at the sound of my voice and kept climbing.
When we finally reached the top and dismounted from our mules, he was so far behind I couldn’t see him any more. For a few minutes, Lee and I looked out over the canyon and tried to spot him. Suddenly, we saw our furry friend several switchbacks below. We called to him and he started running the last few meters of the ascent.
He bounded over the mountaintop and straight toward me – it was like a cheesy heart-wrenching scene from Homeward Bound. Diego was rewarded with most of the bread and cheese I had in my backpack – I was just so happy to see him again.
On shaky legs we walked back into Cabanaconde just in time for breakfast. We had only spent 24 hours in the canyon and if you are able, I would recommend spending even more time. Colca Canyon is one of the most beautiful natural wonders I have had the pleasure of exploring and even though it’s hard on the calves – it’s very easy on the eyes.