Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Colca Canyon

We thought we had fully exhausted the list of interesting things to do in Arequipa until we were told about The Canyon. What canyon? We had the choice of the two deepest canyons in the world. Well lets go then! Could we go by ourselves or did we need a guide? Most tourists go with a guide. Most...but not all. Not the JeTZ.
We arrived in Cabanaconde, the town at the edge of the canyon and were swamped by Peruvians offering us cheap accommodation. We took the first one we saw and in the morning we headed for the canyon.
Actually we didn't know the way, but after we took this photo of TZ and the dog under the bench in the town square, the dog set off and seemed to be encouraging us to follow him.
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After about half an hour we began to wonder if the dog was in fact taking us to the canyon, as we had not begun our descent yet. Fortunately a little Peruvian girl pointed us in the right direction. It seems that the dog had been taking a scenic route!
So we turned tail (or at least the dog did) and began to follow her instructions. At this point we realised that we were staking the success of our whole trip to Colca Canyon on the advice of an 8 year old girl. However, after having taken a dog as a tour guide this was probably a step up in reliability. So with our chastised dog in tow we began the descent of Colca.
Click on the video below to hear our plans.

A short way into the trek we met a donkey herder. I confirmed with him that we were on the right path and then he said he had a question for me. What is this? He pulled out a tampon, the packaging, and its applicator. With my limited Spanish I didn't really know how best to respond, so I just said, "that is something for women. Women stuff. You understand?". I dont think he did understand because he just kept playing with the applicator and pulling apart the tampon and looking at the mess with a quizzical and naive expression. When TZ caught up and found this gnarly old donkey herder playing with a half deconstructed tampon kit, she froze in shock. We quickly left the donkey herder behind and continued our descent into the canyon.
If you look closely at the photo below, you can see the zigzag path we followed down.
Meanwhile, our faithful guide, the stray dog somehow disappeared. There was only a single track, so we weren't sure if he went ahead or returned to the town. After about 4 hours we arrived at a bridge where we paid the park entrance fee and were approached by a Peruvian women. She asked if  we wanted lunch in San Juan de Chucco - where we were heading.
Expecting San Juan to be a town we said "no thanks, we will decide when we arrive". However it turns out that San Juan was not a town, but a handful of little posadas (guesthouses). These places were about as authentic as you can imagine.
We have seen all manner of tourist places on our travels, and by now we can spot a local who is pretending to have a traditional lifestyle to attract tourists, and an indigenous person with a side business for tourism. These places were definitely the latter. We lunched at one place with magnificent views and lamented the fact that we had a bus ticket out of town the following day and hence could not afford a second night in the valley.
Our Peruvian hostess  suggested that we use the telephone. There are telephones in the canyon? We couldn't believe our luck! We would have to walk to Gloria's posada about 20 minutes away and use her phone. In the end, we managed to shift the date of our accommodation  in Arequipa. However, we had no luck contacting the bus company back at the top of the canyon in the town of Cobanaconde.
This was too good an opportunity to miss. So we decided to throw caution to the wind and extend our trip in the canyon for another night.
To see the risk we were taking on not getting a seat on the bus, click below to get a feel for the cramp conditions on these local buses.
Meanwhile, back at the posada of Gloria, we were stunned to make another discovery. Our guide, the dog from Cabanaconde was waiting for us there. We couldn't believe it was the same dog. Did he really walk for hours into the canyon and did he know his way back? I asked Gloria if it was her dog and she said "no, he was from Cabanaconde and had followed some tourists down". Yep, that was us alright! Anyway our furry friend was happy in the canyon, as he had found somebody else to take care of, a 3 week old puppy.
Back at Posada de Roy, our hostess told us that she had 5 children. We couldn't believe it, as she looked far too young. She told us that she had her first child at the age of 15. Apparently she had lived with her grandmother in a town. Her grandmother ruled with an iron fist. She was never allowed to socialise or leave the house except to go to school. One night her grandmother was away, so our rebellious hostess had a party where she met her husband. She fell pregnant and moved to the canyon from where her husband comes. Since then her life has been hard, but good. If you are going to be poor in Peru, it is much better to live in the beautiful countryside in a subsistence manner, than in the slums on the edges of large cities.
On hearing how we could not change our bus ticket in order to stay another night, our hostess suggested we write a note. She told us to say that TZ was too sick to ascend and that we would need to spend another night in the canyon. We could then wait for a passerby ascending the canyon and ask them to take the note to the bus company in Cabanaconde. After writing the note, we relaxed on the lawn, read a book, and waited for somebody to pass through. It was late in the afternoon and we didn't rate our chances. I spotted a couple of gringos, but unfortunately they turned out to be French backpackers, and by definition, unhelpful pratts.
The next person to pass by our posada was a mule herder. The Peruvian was far more helpful and agreed that when he arrived in Cabanaconde he would pass on the note. He wished my wife to feel better and continued on his way.
That night we were treated to our hostess's hospitality and stayed in a lovely adobe hut. Unfortunately, at the last minute another couple arrived. They turned out to be French too and were in the adjoining room. Our shared wall only went 3/4 of the way to the straw ceiling. The partition was completed with bamboo. This meant that we were subjected to the unretarded sound and smell of French flatulence as we tried to go to sleep. In case you are interested it smells like frog legs.
That night the French were particularly noisy. First we tried to sing Waltzing Matilda in the vain hope that the Frenchies would hear us, realise how clearly we could hear them, and shut up. No such luck. Luckily TZ remembers enough of her French to fill me in with the correct phrases from time to time. After shouting tet toi (shut up) they finally got the point and we had a wonderful sleep.
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The following day started with a beautiful view of dawn in the canyon and lovely breakfast.  Good news had arrived for us. Our hostess had heard that morning from another mule herder passing by that our note had been delivered and our bus tickets changed at no charge. As you can imagine we were more than impressed. How often does it take forever to get a response to your emails? Here we were sending notes in poor Spanish by donkey, and getting rapid responses and positive results.
Regretfully we said goodbye and headed to Oasis, a 3hr hike away. Along the way we saw many beautiful villages. In one we stopped to eat the fruits of a cactus. One is sweet and the other is like a kiwi fruit with a strong citrus kick.
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When we arrived at Oasis, we had an important decision to make. Would we sleep overnight and get up at 3am to climb back to the top of the canyon in time to catch the bus to the condors? Or would we push on and sleep in Cabanaconde at the top of the canyon. We mulled over our decision at lunch.
Then continued to mull over it by their pool, which was constantly refreshed with flowing water from the river.
While enjoying the pool, we met some Peruvian kids who had come down the canyon for a weekend swim and would return the same day in order to go to school. We were thoroughly blown away by the differences in our lifestyle. These kids were so independent. A boy and a girl, neither older than 10, who would go by themselves to the bottom of a canyon and back in one day. Inspired by their fitness, we decided to push on to Cabanaconde that afternoon. Unfortunately we weren't half as fit as the kids. Moreover, because of the altitude we struggled to ascend in the predicted 3 hrs.
By the time we reached the top, it was dark and there was nobody around. Although it was hot in the sun and we were covered in sweat, dusk had  now arrived and the weather had turned bitterly cold. So now we were freezing and lost!
Previously we had been following signs like this one below. But the signs were all of a sudden strangely non-existent.
Luckily the lights of the town were visible from the top of the canyon, but unfortunately none of the paths seemed to lead us there. Where was our trusty canine? After fumbling about for ages we become a little hysterical. Finally we decided to forget looking for a path and head straight for town, across the fields. Easier said than done. The field were like terraced rice paddies. We had to climb and crawl across all sorts of barriers and streams until we finally arrived at the outskirts of town.
The following morning we saw the landscape we had traversed. Note the dark high ridges delineating the farms...we had climbed over those in the middle of the pitch black night!
When we reached the main plaza, we checked into the first hotel we found. More important than anything was that hot water was available. We were assured it was. Freezing and dirty I stripped off and jumped in the shower. The discovery that there was no hot water hit me with such force that all the demands of the day suddenly overwhelmed me.
I got dressed again and returned to reception and in my wonderful Spanish said "no estoy feliz!" I'm not happy! The manager promised us there would be hot water in 20 minutes but that two ladies had just now finished showering. What tosh! We left and went to our hostel from our first night in Cabanaconde. We showered and collapsed in bed, delighted to finally be warm and safe!
The next morning we rose very early to catch the bus to Cruz del Condor. Here people gather to see a most spectacular sight. Between about 8am and 10am, as the hot air rises, you can watch condors circling in the canyon. They are such beautiful, graceful creatures. If it wasnt for all the gringos and their telephoto lenses it would be a wonderfully serene experience.
Finally we headed back on a 6 hour bus ride to our comfortable 'home' in Arequipa, the Dutch operated hostel. Here we would spoil ourselves with inhouse DVDs and delivered pizza!

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