Descending Earth’s deepest canyon

Welcome to the Colca canyon, the deepest canyon in the world. Its maximum depth reaches 4160 metres, which is about twice the depth of the Grand Canyon.

Yet again I have to get up at 2.30 am for a 3 am departure. In reality the minivan arrives only around 4, after a couple of calls to the company’s mobile number – although this by now appears a standard operating procedure in these parts 🙂 In the minivan a guide called Pepe greets me. Pepe will turn out quite a character. We are 14 in total in this group: France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, USA, Mexico, Peru and Estonia are represented. Pepe refers to us by country: “Hey, Germany!” “¡España!” For obvious reasons I cannot remember the three hours it takes to reach Chivay. After breakfast in Chivay we start our way on the picturesque road along the canyon, which brings us to the Cruz del Condor viewpoint. During this time Pepe starts playing various extracts from the rock scene of the nineties, and more than that, sings along with full voice!

First impressions from the canyon:

The main attraction here are the Andean condors who live nearby. The air temperature in the mountains changes very fast, hence the condors fly only at very particular hours, usually about 8 to 9 am. We were lucky and got to see the promised condors – quite a few in fact, at some point I counted 11 of them in the sky. Of course, we were not alone to observe this – the viewpoint was choke full of tourists. Anyhow, the sight of the mighty bird gliding in the sky is quite impressive.

There is no full clarity as to which canyon is actually the world’s deepest. There is a view that the neighbouring Catahuasi canyon is 200 metres deeper. Pepe claimed that a recent Polish expedition discovered another canyon nearby, Kanka, which is still deeper, yet the locals prefer to hide the discovery, so as not to hurt the tourism in the other two canyons, which already possess the tourist infrastructure and where the population depends on visitors. 20 years ago Colca canyon was quite inaccessible. Today there is a good paved road, which makes it possible to visit it from Arequipa on a two day trip.

After watching the condors, we arrived in Cabanaconde village, whence our descent to the canyon would start. The trek takes about 2-3 hours one way, we descend from about 3300 m to 2100 m into an oasis at the bottom of the canyon. The night is spent in the oasis. With characteristic sarcasm Pepe explains the rules of engagement on a mountain path: let the mules and other animals pass while keeping to the mountain side of the path, no running from snakes, and be alert and listen to the mountain (I’ll explain why that was necessary in my next post).

A procession on Cabanaconde main squire celebrates an unknown occasion:

On the way to the canyon:

Colca Canyon.

The oasis somewhere down below. The distances here are deceptive, the oasis looks way closer than it really is.

The other side of the canyon:

Such trips are a great way to get acquainted with everyone in the group. Even the most introverted person is forced by the very situation to establish contact. I for one slept in the same hut with two Germans. The hut’s door could not be closed and the walls had many openings. At night a dog visited us, and one of the Germans politely got it out. When they heard my name, they started explaining how their adore Russians’ celebrating talents. I agreed. The Germans were in great physical condition, they run down the 1200 metres of the descent in an hour or so. For comparison, it took me 2,5 hours, and I was the first of the rest to arrive downhill. I wore proudly my blue tennis shoes, which perhaps fit better scrolling around Paris rather than trekking in the deepest canyon on Earth. The Germans of course commented on the shoes.

I must say that the group turned out quite interesting. About half of the people were teachers or university professors, perhaps because such tourism requires time, which they have in summer. I was particularly impressed by one girl from New York, who was describing to me her stay in Shatila, the Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. She spent two previous summers there as a volunteer. The girl spoke Chinese and had lived in Senegal. She works in Brooklyn as a teacher with children from underprivileged backgrounds. Way to go, Eileen.

There was also a nice French couple on a six month trip around South America. The guy is a film producer and described to me his fascinating recent projects: a documentary about the Serbs from a border village looking for Albanian wives; another about illegals deported from USA to Mexico whose only dream is to return; and another about a national park in Congo caught in the midst of the civil war. Exciting.

The conversation by the dinner table in the evening was in English French and Spanish. I happened to speak all three, so had to switch fast. The computer in my head paused at times, but it was fun anyway.

The river at the bottom of the canyon:

The stars in Peru are quite different from the Northern Hemisphere. One can see the South Cross and the rest of the unusual constellations. In the canyon they seemed particularly large. Some people went in front of me with flashlights:

The Moon came out

The next day we had to get up at 5 am and trek up. The beginning of the trek took place in moonlight, so I had to follow those with a flashlight. But it is easier to go when you are familiar with the path. Anyway, to climb 1000 metres at an altitude is no joke – your heart beats real fast and you can’t catch your breath. The legs would hurt a couple of days after too!

Our group:

On the way back we could see the terrace agriculture, particularly developed in the canyon. These terraces, built in pre-Inca times on the slopes, possess a particular microclimate, which allows growing various plants. The difference of average temperature between the levels can reach 5 degrees. Most of the plants grown there are various types of potatoes, of which Peru possesses thousands.

On the way back we visited thermal baths with volcanic heated water. Very hot! But could be alleviated by an ice cold mountain river right outside. Afterwards we got out of the minivan in the highest point of the road back, at 4800 metres. The llama sends her regards!

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