A bleary 5pm wakeup call kept us well clear of ascending the 3km sides of the Colca Canyon under the blazing heat of morning. We soon discovered hat, despite our enthusiasm, there was no need for our headtorches. The moon shone brightly from above and we could pick our way up the trail with no more difficulty than in the daytime (all the standard clumsiness from Lou accounted for, naturally).
In true boot camp fashion I bullied Lou up the track, giving her promise of the birthday presents that I’d carried secretly in my pack since leaving Chivay the day before. We made good progress and within an hour and a half via seemingly endless switchbacks saw the maize fields at the top of the Canyon glowing in the light of the early morning. A short walk with aching legs (mercifully along the flat) took us to the nearby town of Camanaconda where we devoured what must have been the least exciting birthday breakfast ever. I almost managed to produce a sense of occasion by putting a lit candle into a bread roll, but it was a stretch.
Feeling our legs begin to stiffen up rapidly, we hopped on a bus to head to the five-star hotel in which Lou’s friend Leander had managed to get us all a ridiculously good deal. On the way we stopped off at the renowned viewing point of Cruz del Condor (Condor’s Cross) where between the strangely specific hours of 6am and 11am the birds would pass the tourist hoardes, permitting extensive photography. We showed up a little late and sat on the wall overlooking a fairly sheer drop into the Canyon’s rocky bottom making jokes about condors waiting around the corner smoking and placing bets on who would be the next to do te “tourist fly-by” but our banter stuck in our throats when, out of nowhere, a condor rose from the depths of the gorge.
The bird was absolutely vast. I couldn’t begin to speculate on it’s size apart from ´bloody big´. Gliding effortlessly on its huge wingspan, the bird silently slid past the lookout point severel times, feathers angling in the wind. Despite its size, it gave a sense of complete control and incredible power. I was very, very glad not to be a smaller bird or lizard at that point.
Apparently growing tired of the lack of easily-presented food, the condor disappeared as soon as it arrived, and we caught the next bus from teh dusty lookout, heading via a winding walk to the Cocla Lodge where we compensated for our early exhertions by lazing around drinking beer in the hotel’s thermal pools next to the rushing river. By Lou’s admission, it was certainly a unique birthday.
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For Lou’s birthday we decided to split from Cusco and head over to Arequipa to trek the famous Colca Canyon. Reputedly the deepest in the world (I reckon someone has been stacking stones at the top to get an extra few feet on that one), it’s a famous hangout for the definative Andean bird, the condor.
Our plans became steadily less plan-like as we got further from Cusco. Strolling around in the heat of the morning in the centre of Arequipa (we couldn’t understand why it wasn’t raining), the decision was made not to buy a tour from one of the many agencies, and try and sort one out in the nearest town to the Canyon, Chivay. On arrival to Chivay, we decided to try and speak to a local to arrange a private tour guide. This quickly changed into a decision to just sort of show up and try and do it ourselves. Which is obviously what we ended up doing.
Standing at the brink of the yawning drop after being dropped off at the side of a dusty track by a clanking bus the next morning, I realised that I’d left the bag of food for the day that we’d purchased in the bus station…in the bus station. Any feelings of profound stupidity were soon dispersed however, when a group of hikers showed up with their guide to exactly the same spot. We’d made it here for free and, by the looks of the well carved trail that wound around the sheer faces of the canyon dropping down into its distant bottom, these guys had spent some fairly unneccesary monery.
We began our descent ahead of the group, an incredible route baked by the heat of the morning sun that grew as we got further down, dropping about 3km. Towards the start of the route, we ran into a Peruvian bouncing happily up the final section of the uphill climb. We exchanged a few pleasentries and he continued on his way. “He wasn’t even breaking a sweat!” Lou exclaimed when he was out of earshot. General predictions for our physical state for the same climb the next morning were not as optimistic.
We had lunch in a community in the bottom of the canyon and began a process of climbing and traversing across to Oasis, a welcome sight in a strangely green tucked away corner of the canyon base. Looking down from our vantage point we could see crystal blue swimming pools nestling between wooden huts.
A short descent and river crossing later and we found ourselves easing our tired legs in one of the pools and drinking a celebratory beer or two. We even managed to see a double rainbow arching over the canyon before night fell and we were forced to retreat from beneath the speckled starscape and bed down in one of the huts before an early morning start to climb out of the Canyon.
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