5th-12th October 2018
Two weeks spent in the desert and now here I was, back in the highlands again. And not only in the highlands but in yet another historic UNESCO city.
And of all of them, this was probably the most charming so far. Its central plaza was a large space, filled with colourful gardens and surrounded by colonial buildings made of sillar (earning Arequipa its name, ‘The White City’) which comes from volcanic mountains nearby.
Admittedly, the city itself didn’t have too many attractions which called out to me. There are a few small museums, but none of them seemed interesting enough to pay the entrance fee, but I did enjoy the atmosphere and the cool mountain air as I spent time wandering its streets, filled with cafes, artisan shops, churches, and the market, which was one of the oldest in the country. Even the place I was staying at was a rickety building which had been converted into backpacker digs.
The reason that I had come here – like many others before – was mainly because what lies just outside. So, after a couple of days, I took just a small bag of possessions with me and headed out for the Colca Canyon.
The bus left at the ungodly hour of 3am and it was mostly full of daytrippers who were on a tour. I wasn’t paying full price though as I was just along for the first part of the journey. By the time the sun came up, we were entering the valley and I watched it through the window.
The bus made a few stops before dropping me off in Cabanaconde, but I didn’t mind. One of them was to see ancient terraces which had been built by the Incas and the valley’s earlier inhabitants, the Collaguas and Cabanas, for farming.
We also called at the ‘Cruz del Condor’, but unfortunately, I didn’t see any condors in the ten minutes I was given before asked to get on the bus again. Just a lot of tourists taking selfies. Apparently, we were there at the wrong time of the year.
When I was dropped off in Cabanaconde, I thought it quite a charming town and made a mental note to make sure I spend a bit of time there when I passed through again. An American guy called Sam got off the bus too and together we began the hike to Llahuar.
The first day was harder than I was expecting, considering it was mostly downhill. The views were great as we plunged into the canyon though. A few hours in, we reached the river at the bottom where there were a series of geysers. I have videos of them here.
We stopped there for lunch. The area smelled of sulphur and I could feel the earth beneath my feet humming as I ate. It was a strange place. The ground was white, covered in ash, and warm. When I went to the river to refill my water I had to be careful as parts of it were scolding hot.
After lunch, it only took another hour to reach Llahuar. On our way in a dog tried to bite me, which took me completely by surprise. You get a lot of bother from dogs in rural parts of South America – especially if you are white – because they don’t recognise you and are being territorial. Usually, you just need to slowly back away, wave a stick, or pretend to throw rocks at them to get them to leave you alone, but this dog didn’t give me any warning or make a sound. He sneaked up on me while I was walking and I only realised when I became aware of something pulling upon my trousers. I snatched my leg away just in time and luckily, he didn’t break my skin. It was very odd behaviour though.
Most people who stay in Llahuar stay at Llahuar Lodge, and there are several reasons for that. It visually stands out as you approach the village and has a wonderfully placed restaurant area over-looking the canyon.
The main reason, however, is the hot spring pools they have built by the side of the river. They are at an almost perfect temperature of 39 degrees, and a perfect way to unwind after a hike. I spent a good couple of hours relaxing in them while enjoying the view.
One thing I will say about Llahuar Lodge though is that the food is not great. The dinner option is quite cheap but not very tasty and definitely not what I would deem to be a ‘hiker’s portion’. I was glad I brought some of my own supplies with me to supplement their meals.
The following morning, Sam went off in a different direction as he wanted to hike to Huaruro – a side-trek which can be added on to the canyon trail – but I decided to leave it out as I had heard it was an arduous journey and only a mediocre waterfall. I began walking towards San Juan de Chucho, my destination that day.
For the first half of the walk, I shared my path with some other people who had also stayed at Llahuar, but most of them were heading to Sangalle – also known as ‘The Oasis’ – so later on I was mostly alone. I had heard Sangalle was a little touristy and I wanted to see some of the other side of the canyon too.
I passed through several villages, including Belen, Matala, and Cosñirhua. By the time I reached San Juan, it was around noon. I was surprised it was that early in the day. I could have happily stayed there, as it looked quite scenic – and Gloria Hostel, in particular, looked inviting with its pretty gardens – but eventually, I decided that I might as well just finish the trek. The hike back to Cabanaconde was said to only take three hours from there.
I greatly underestimated how difficult the climb back up would be. In the past few months, I have done many treks – most of them have been much higher in altitude than this – and I therefore believed I was prepared. The truth is when climbing out of the Colca Canyon you are ascending over a thousand metres in altitude in just a few miles. It is so steep that most of the trail is a relentless zigzag up the mountain and there is very little relief. I actually think the lower-attitude may have made it harder because it was very hot and a lost a lot a water through sweating. I carried 1.5 litres with me and it was not enough.
By the time I reached the top, over three hours later, I was dehydrated and every part of my body was aching. I had climbed out of the canyon, but I was still on the outskirts and about a mile away from Cabanaconde. Luckily, a bus was passing by and I managed to get a ride. When I did finally reach Cabanaconde, the first thing I did was go into a shop to buy two drinks full of electrolytes.
I had a well-deserved beer that night and even treated myself to a pizza at Pachamama Hostel which had a wood-fired stone oven. The owner also told me that even though it is more difficult to see condors at this time of the year, if I headed back to Cruz del Condor in the morning and stayed for an hour or so I was guaranteed to see at least one, so I got up early and went back. It seemed luck was on my side because I didn’t just see just one but several this time (videos here).
Originally I had planned to head to another village called Yungay that day so I could experience Colca Canyon life at a more relaxed pace, but during my time looking for condors I began to feel ill.
It started with cramps in my stomach and waves of nausea. I was feeling drained and my limbs were in pain too, but I didn’t know if that was just because I had overdone it the previous day. By the time the bus arrived, I realised that I was coming down with something and it was best to get back to Arequipa.
The bus ride was hell. It should have taken three hours but ended up taking five. It was one of those coaches with no air conditioning and the few windows it had were tiny. The sun was out and every seat was taken, so it was unbearably hot and there was no air circulation. My seat didn’t recline and I was in the aisle so I couldn’t get comfortable no matter how tired I was. During the journey, my temperature rose. It was one of the most unbearable few hours I have ever been through in all my years of travelling.
When we finally arrived into Arequipa, I was very weak. I caught a bus straight to my guesthouse and claimed a bed in their dorm. They only had top bunks left, so I had to make do. I had a full-blown fever by then and I didn’t sleep much that night. I tossed and turned and kept having to get up to use the toilet. My body was aching so much that climbing in and out of that bunk was an ordeal.
By the next day, I was feeling a bit better. My temperature dropped a little and a lower-bunk became free so I changed beds. The hostel’s resident cat became my companion and was almost constantly curled up with me throughout the next few days which followed, as I rested. Recovery took a while. I am still not quite sure what was wrong with me, but it seemed most likely either a flu bug or water poisoning.
I originally planned to climb El Misti (a nearby summit of 5900 meters) but it seemed I was going to have to give that a miss. I was booked to do the Salkantay trek in a week’s time, and I wanted to make sure I was fully recovered by then.
When I was feeling well enough to walk again I went to see the Convento de Santa Catalina. Known as Arequipa’s ‘city within a city’, it is over four hundred years old and has been the home to hundreds of cloistered nuns over the years. Most notably Ana de Los Angeles, who was sent to the convent as a child by her parents to be educated before they found a husband for her, but she defied her parents’ wishes and instead devoted her entire adult life to the order. She was said to have performed miracles and made many prophesies which came true. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1985.
Once recovered, I said goodbye to Arequipa and booked a night bus heading to Cuzco.
For more photos and videos, click here.