Colca Canyon: Cold Hot Springs, Warm Beds, and Mike Fights a Crazy Lady!–June 2-5

Having enjoyed Puno much more than we had expected, we said goodbye to Lake Titicaca on Saturday morning and began the long journey to the tiny village of Cabanaconde, at the head of Peru’s large Colca Canyon. We were hoping to get off the Gringo Trail for a few days of peace and, hopefully, some more amazing desert scenery. Only 12 hours of bus rides, with a 3 hour wait in between, stood between us and the next segment of our Peruvian adventure.

The local bus in Peru is a lot like the buses that we described in India or Nepal, and we considered ourselves wily veterans of elbow to elbow, elbow to butt, butt on our shoulder journeys. That being the case, there is no longer novelty in these experiences, and so we opted for what we thought was the tourist bus. While it was a far cry more comfortable than the local bus, it was sort of a middle class Peruvian citizen bus, and so subject to the most annoying of travel customs that we had encountered in a long time: the travel bus salesman! For hour long stretches on two occasions of the six hour trip to travel hub Arequippa (that’s 1/3 of the trip for you mathemagicians), Sarah and I were tortured by extremely voluminous idiots strutting up and down the aisles while extolling the virtues of amazing diet supplements (according to the guy’s visual aids, they would keep the Incredible Hulk from sweating on the toilet while also providing a lovely burst of vitamin C) or the wonders of purchasing reader’s guides to just about anything useless in Peru. The Peruvians, apparently immune to this atrocity, simply slept through the tirades; I, on the other hand, yelled at the first guy and gave the 2nd guy my best “I am going to kill you slowly“ glare. There is a reason that they are simply bus salesmen, however, and they don’t attempt to understand their customers’ needs or interest levels–that and they know that the white dude ain‘t good for the soles (Peruvian money); thus, the annoyance continued despite my Gringo protests. Needless to say, both Sarah and I were extremely relieved to arrive in Arequippa and stumble out into the bus station with burning ears and pounding headaches. On the plus side, the view from the bus station was nothing short of marvelous, and we were happy to be free.

Our second bus was nearly uninhabited–Saturday night is a great night for a quiet bus ride–and, thankfully, salesman free. The area between Arequippa and Cabanaconde is supposed to be beautiful mountainous desert leading into the Colca Canyon itself, but we would have to wait for the return trip to enjoy the scenery during the day. The best part of the ride was when a young man who wanted to practice his English (for once, he actually really only wanted to practice) boarded the bus and began talking with us about life in the area; he liked Alan Jackson and played a song on his cell phone for us, and I gave him a book with four stories in English to help him learn more of our language. Late that night, we got into Cabanaconde and followed the hostel manager who met the bus to the main hostel in town. We had wondered how easy it would be to visit the canyon without joining a tour–we had heard varying descriptions of how to go about seeing the area–but five minutes talking to the manager left us with a good solid plan, and we looked forward to setting out early the next day.

Cabanconde, which sits at 3287 m, is only a few minutes walk from the top of the Colca Canyon. Allegedly, you are supposed to buy a tourist ticket just to ride the bus through the towns that sit at the top of the canyon, but in reality there is almost no place to buy them. We checked around the square, but anything that looked like an office was closed on Sunday morning. Rather than waste our time trying to spend money on something that apparently wasn’t as important as all the posters on the buses and around town claimed, we instead headed out for the canyon at the edge of town. It was sort of like a scavenger hunt, where we walked out to the bullfighting ring (no joke) before circling around it and heading to the old soccer field, then descending an old stone staircase and passing a set of cows at the rim of the canyon. Just above the rim was a lovely viewpoint, and Sarah and I also saw a condor flying at close range near that spot; it was much closer than we had ever seen one, and their wingspan really is amazing!

We spent the morning making our way down to the bottom of the canyon. After a brief gentle section near the top, the trail switch-backed steeply and aggressively down about 1,000 meters to the river below us. It went from warm to sizzling in about two minutes flat, and the trail was very dusty, but the views of the river itself were quite pleasant. We took it fairly slow in order to save our knees and my ankle for the next two days, and the plus side was that neither of us rode the trail with our butts, even in the most eroded sections of switchback. Once at the bottom, we had to walk along the road that they are building (ding ding ding ding: we know why they are charging a fee now–they need money to ruin the area!), but the red layers of canyon wall were impressive enough to distract us from the heat and the dust of the rocky dirt road. While nowhere near as colorful or colossal as the Grand Canyon, we were still in a pretty magnificent place, and the area we were heading for was right on the river and decidedly green and verdant.

We left the road and followed a trail that appeared to go nowhere from the road but actually led to a tiny rural hostel that rented stone cabanas built into the natural landscape of the hill. Strangely enough, the hostel advertised orthapedic beds…even stranger, they actually had them, and we enjoyed a lovely nap on some of the best mattresses we’d slept on in ages underneath the dirt and stone walls with a reed exterior of our $10 cabana. The nice lady who ran the place only made lunch at a certain time before sharing the rest with her husband; we were too late for this, and so spent the exact same amount on crackers and cookies that may or may not have been delivered in the past decade, but she promised a good dinner that night at only a fraction of the cost. Supposedly, they had hot springs, but all we found were a couple of nice tile pools with ice cold river water; it was nice to soak our feet for a few minutes, but the ice baths ended there. We were curious about whether the springs just change naturally with currents or whether the road construction and other development had made the hot water run cold.

The view from outside our cabana was tremendous–rushing river below us, green forest above the water, and red cliffs towering over our heads–and we sat outside enjoying the crimson glow of the fading afternoon sun before heading into the dining area for a cup of coca tea, harboring hopes that if we looked pathetic enough, the lady would serve dinner early. There were two other people camping in the hostel’s back yard; the two young men turned out to be students from, of all places, Flagstaff, Arizona! I thought it was funny that they were down there, considering that they lived only an hour or so from the most famous canyon in the world, but they explained that they were trying to spend three weeks in Peru within a budget of around $600, and life in the Colca Canyon is cheap. They had managed to see Machu Picchu and some of the other highlights around expensive Cusco and now planned to explore about every inch of the canyon from the sounds of it. While I had to smile at the irony of their surroundings, they will always remember this adventure on a shoestring fondly, and I wish that I had possessed either the guts or the ambition to undertake something similar when I had been their age. After saying goodbye to the guys, we wolfed down our long anticipated vegetable omelet and rice before admiring the stars outside our room and then hopping into orthapedic heaven for a good night’s sleep.

Our destination for the next day, a place known as The Oasis, required a climb back out of the lion’s share of the canyon before descending almost all the way back down. Learning from the blazing heat of the previous day, we got a really early start and managed to complete almost the entire climb before the sun really hit us fully. Most of this section was on the road anyway, with views identical to our previous hike and the dust identical as well. One highlight was seeing steam coming off of a geyser beside the river, and the views from the top of the canyon down the river valley were excellent, as well. We could also see why our legs were pretty wrecked that day…the switchbacks we had descended across the canyon were brutal!

We had to dodge a bulldozer that was making more road, a detour that introduced my calves to the hospitality of more than one cactus as I focused more on trying to alert the driver of our presence. Back on trail, as opposed to road, we moved into a much greener portion of the canyon, with occasional glimpses of a white-capped peak far above us. We were surprised to see what looked like a large resort below us, the shimmering hot spring pools looming large down in the canyon. In reality, it was only a tiny village, but the pools tended to catch your eye in the hot dry temperatures of the late morning sun. Sarah found a game trail that we followed through somewhat thick underbrush, and we soon found ourselves next to a fenced-in cactus farm. The main trail connected here, and soon we were down at the bottom of the canyon again in The Oasis, a popular daytrip from Cabanaconde.

We got a cabana similar to the one from the night before, although the mattresses were quite subpar in comparison, at a place with a lovely flower garden and a wonderful looking “hot spring” pool that was every bit as cold as the ones we’d visited the day before! It didn’t matter, though, because it was hot enough just to enjoy a regular swim, and the afternoon by the pool was a very relaxing treat! The woman who ran the place was very hard to understand, and she was very displeased that I wasn’t fluent in Spanish, refusing to slow down for me and repeatedly asking with a grimace, “no, habla Spanish?” We had the same conversation that I have successfully transacted countless times over the past four months, but I couldn’t help it that she wouldn’t move her friggin’ lips when she muttered, and I was doing the best I could. We managed to establish that she would rent us a room and feed us mashed potatoes and rice for lunch, and I was under the impression that I had ordered dinner for that evening too. This was partly due to the fact that she used the word for dinner, and I used the word for yes. Later, I asked what time it would be, and she smiled and told me 6:00…I understood this because it is not only one word but also one syllable and can be uttered successfully without moving one’s lips or speaking too quickly for someone who has admitted the crime of not speaking Spanish (to all of you Americans who can’t understand why people don’t “just learn the language in our country,” it takes up to six years to be fluent while simultaneously learning to read the new culture around you…patience is in order on our part!), and both Sarah and I held high hopes of another omelette that evening. To skip a longer story, she had given our dinner away to some people who came in right before dark and then tried to blame me for not speaking better Spanish; a fairly unpleasant encounter ensued, made worse by some intervening people who were trying to help us out. I was able to use my inferior Spanish to calm her down, and soon she resentfully threw a plate of watery spaghetti in front of us. We ate quickly and retired to our cabana before any more harm could be done. Not the best night for the Raffs, although we sure enjoyed her beautiful swimming pool! Me gusto…you old bat!

We needed to be back in Cabanaconde by 9 AM the next day, and the climb out of the canyon takes a good three hours minimum, so we had to get going well before dawn. I wasn’t about to try to negotiate breakfast with the crazy old hostel lady, so we would need to get up to town early enough to grab a bite and buy bus tickets back to Arequippa. We had to catch the night bus to Cusco that evening, and we wanted to get to Arequippa’s bus station well in advance, since complications are common and resolutions are slow in Peru. Anyway, we rocked the hike out of the canyon, buoyed by cool temperatures and growling stomachs; near the top, the sun rose across the canyon, and we watched a hummingbird suckle a cactus in the pink rays of early light. Not a bad end to our adventure in Colca Canyon; we had enjoyed a few days of near solitude, and now had a trek to Machu Picchu…the final “big ticket” adventure of our trip…in our sights. Back in Cabanaconde, we got some breakfast and boarded…of all things…the dreaded local bus. I sat there waiting for it to leave town, trying to figure out what would be worse: the 50 elbows jabbing me all over my body or another conversation with that dingy old bat!

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