39 – Last Peruvian Wow – The Colca Canyon

By , December 28, 2014

November 1 to 3, 2010

Llama stampede near Laguna Lagunillas in southern Peru.

Llama stampede near Laguna Lagunillas in southern Peru.

I woke up at 5:00 a.m. and slipped out of the tent without disturbing Roz. It was still dark outside. I made a pot of coffee and then set up my folding chair on a bump of rock to watch the sun rise. At 14,000 feet, the air was thin and cold, but my coffee was thick and hot. Sipping my go-juice, I watched in awe as the emerging sunlight revealed a beautiful remote desert with dainty, deer-like vicunas grazing on the nearby hillsides around our campsite in Southern Peru. Sigh. Thank you wonderful universe.

Roz soon joined me, but she wasn’t feeling too well – the high altitude had kept her up most of the night. Since she was also feeling nauseous, we decided to skip breakfast and get to lower ‘tudes as soon as possible. Unfortunately, in order to get to the magnificent condors we sought in the Colca Canyon, we needed to climb even higher. So Roz put on her “big girl” pants and braced herself for more nausea.

On the other hand, Yuki – our Suzuki Samurai – was undeterred by the climb. Her 1300 cubic centimeter engine wasn’t big, but her heart was mighty and she pushed on until the desert road finally topped off at 16,000 feet. It was a new altitude record for Yuki so I gave her a big pat on her dash for her hard work. I pulled over at the summit and got out to take some pictures. Evidently I wasn’t the first. Surrounding me were hundreds of stone cairns, all about a metre high, presumably built by passing motorists. Or perhaps aliens? Aware that this altitude was only making Roz feel worse, I made haste with the pics and got us back on the road.

What goes up must go down and that’s what we did. Down, down, down a series of switchbacks that dropped us 4,000 feet into the valley town of Chivay, gateway to the the Colca Canyon. A gate blocked the entrance to the town and a smug little fat man informed us that we’d have to pay 35 soles each ($15 CDN) to enter the canyon. I thought that a was a little steep, but what could we do? With a little indignation, I paid the man and we drove into town looking for a place to fill our bellies. We soon found a nice restaurant on the main plaza. Nothing like a tasty, filling breakfast to take the sting out of being fleeced.

Satiated and at a sensible altitude of 12,000 feet, Roz was smiling again as we left Chivay and entered the canyon. Anticipating something of the magnitude of the deep, vast Barranca Canyon in Mexico (to say nothing of the Grand Canyon), we were a little disappointed at our first sight of Peru’s famous gorge. To be honest, it seemed like a bit of a joke. It wasn’t a canyon. Just a wide valley full of cultivated, tiered fields and tiny villages on either side of a little river called the Rio Colca. Still, it was ancient and beautiful, especially the fields below us where farmers plowed the dirt using wooden hoes pulled by oxen. Hard work … for man and beast!

We continued driving up the valley and eventually the terrain began to change. Whatever doubts I had about the canyon’s deepness soon evaporated. Within an hour, the Rio Colca fell away from our side until it was just a distant ribbon thousands of feet below us. We were in canyon country now and it was impressive. Along the road we stopped at many “miradors” or view points, and at each, the wind became progressively stronger.

By mid-day, we rolled into the last village in the canyon, Cabanaconde, and rented a nice room at Pablo’s Hotel. Roz was still a little off, but after a quick nap she was feeling well enough to walk to a mirador at the edge of town to look for condors. Unfortunately, a German tourist there informed us that we had just missed the condors by a half-hour. D’oh! Despite the lack of raptors, we were still entranced by the sheer size of the canyon before us. As the sun set, distant granite walls seemed to change shape and colours. It was magic.

With the night settling in, we headed back to Pablo’s for some dinner, where I ate alpaca for the first time. Like all the food we’ve had in Peru, it was delicious – a bit like deer meat. We made a plan to get up early the next morning and go condor hunting. With a camera of course. (This time.)

The next morning, we parked Yuki at a mirador beside a few buses and, with our coffee cups in hand, we joined a few dozen other tourists who had also come to see the condors. For over an hour, we humans scanned the air above and below, but the mighty birds never appeared. Correction: I did spot one baby raptor flying way below me and managed to get a quick picture of it, but that was it. Regardless, we remained entranced by the canyon and were delighted by the blooming desert flowers that splashed colours all around us.

With a final slurp of coffee, we hopped into Yuki and backtracked the previous day’s route to leave the canyon. I had a blast driving down the narrow dirt road and passed many buses along the way. I’d rather they eat my dust instead of the other way around. But then I noticed a Mercedes Sprinter behind me closing fast. I guess its driver didn’t want to eat my dust either and now he was intent on passing me.

Being the moron that I am – I sped up. (Remember, this blog is about how NOT to travel through South America!) Pretty soon, the two of us were careening down canyon roads way faster than either one of us should have been driving. And sure enough, just as we entered a village, the Sprinter went to pass me. That was when two donkeys tied together walked right into our path! The Sprinter driver and I locked up our brakes and skidded towards the wild-eyed beasts in a cloud of dust and flying stones. Braced for impact, I was relieved to see we had stopped just two inches short of the terrified animals. Holy fack!

As an old man pulled the braying donkeys from the road, Roz scolded me for my stupidity and made me let the Sprinter pass. I grumbled that I could have taken the guy if those donkeys (or Roz) hadn’t gotten in my way. Yeah, I’m an ass. (ROZ: Well at least I’m not included with the donkeys! As opposed to numero uno burro- TROND! To his credit, he did see the error of his ways when I reminded him that since we only had two days left on our Peruvian travel visa, if we crashed, not only could we possibly end up in a hospital, but Yuki could be confiscated for overstaying her visa! I know, I’m such a bore.)

Calmed down, we carried on and drove long and hard – back through Chivay and then over that crazy 16,000 foot pass where we had to stop for a few more pics of the cairns and a stone witch. (ROZ: This time the altitude didn’t affect me quite as bad – thanks in no small part to the wonderful coca leaf! I had had my first cup of coca tea the night before at Pablo’s. I was not only pleasantly surprised by its light, lovely herbal flavour, but more importantly, by its soothing ability to take away some of the “altitude anxiety” my body was feeling. So before we left the condor-hunting mirador earlier that morning, I had bought some coca leaf candies from a vendor and was sucking on those as we climbed up again. A consequence of my energy returning was that poor Trond now had to endure my rant about how f**ked up it was that such an amazing medicinal plant – harmlessly used for thousands of years by the people of the Andes – was now a target of the U.S.’s unwinnable “war on drugs” – which was really just an excuse for the military-industrial complex to fund their activities in Latin America. Like I said, I was feeling much better. Still, just google “coca leaf” and you’ll see what I mean. And for a good fictional read that also gives an overview of how a beautiful plant is transformed into “paste” and then into cocaine, I recommend Mark Jacobs’ “Stone Cowboy”).

As the afternoon shadows got long, we started looking for a camp spot. But not just any camp spot. This was going to be our last night in Peru. We planned to cross into Bolivia the next day so we wanted to find an EXTRA special campsite.

We soon found our spot near Laguna Lagunillas – a great gash of a lake in an otherwise barren desert. We pulled off the main highway onto a dirt track that I assumed was the old highway. A part of the path was washed out, but Yuki’s 4-wheel drive and high ground clearance allowed us to pick our way through the boulder field. Although the path was navigable, it seemed to be used only by llamas and farmers living near the lake. In fact, as we were setting up our tent, an old farmer in his 60s appeared and scared the hell out of Roz. But he was only saying hello and pointed to where he lived. I asked if we could camp on the old road and he said it was no problem. (ROZ: Shit, maybe I’ve read too many Castenada books or I was still feeling a bit out of it, but I swear that old man just appeared out of thin air. I didn’t hear a sound or feel his presence nearby, so when I turned my attention away from the stove and saw this dude standing right beside me, I jumped … and squeaked … and then smiled and said “Hola”! Ah, just another magical moment in Peru!)

We awoke at 5:00 a.m. to watch the sun rise one last time on magnificent Peru – a country that had exceeded our expectations in so many ways. Drinking our coffees, we were entranced as the morning sun lit up the lake and hills around us. It was gorgeous. Another old man walked past us and later, a woman and child. They were all smiles and must have been amused to see us camping on the old road.

To complete our final Peruvian morning, dozens of llamas magically appeared before us. They stopped and stared at us, unsure of how to proceed. Then a woman behind them gave a shout and they began to move towards us, passing by our camp on either side. We were delighted! Each llama was so unique and photogenic that Roz and I couldn’t help but snap dozens of portraits of these gentle and funny-looking fur balls.

We were in great spirits as we packed up and hit the road for another long day of driving. Along the way, we saw the aftermath of an accident between a taxi and a truck. Luckily, it didn’t look too bad and the occupants were standing on the shoulder talking to each other. But it was a good reminder for me not to drive like an ass…anymore. We passed through the dirty town of Juliaca and then got on the highway that would take us to the Bolivian border.

Before the border though, we stopped for lunch in the coastal town of Puno – a freshwater port on Lake Titicaca – and were delighted to see that it was full of dancers and bands from the region’s schools. Apparently, it was a prelude to the next day’s Puno Days celebrations. We found a restaurant on the main square and sat on the second floor balcony, enjoying yet another great Peruvian meal while being treated to an endless procession of dancing kids in regalia. What a farewell!

Satiated, we got back on the road and made one final stop in the border town of Yunguyo to change money to Bolivianos. With trepidation in our hearts, we finally said good-bye to Peru and drove over the border into Bolivia.

We didn’t expect to fall in love with Peru, but we did. And hard. Thank you lovely people, yummy food and endless ruins. You were amazing!

(ROZ: I hate to get the last word in, but hey, that’s what I do. Although trying to put into words what my heart feels for Peru isn’t easy. So many times throughout our three months here I was moved to silent reverence for the incredible timeless beauty of Peru’s natural landscapes. And that includes the ancient mountain people, who sit quietly on the ground as their llamas graze. They had such a place in their presence, a presence in their place. It resonated deep within me, on a cellular level, that this is how human beings are meant to be. Be, being … not becoming, not doing – just “being”. It’s who we truly are, our natural birthright that we seem to have forgotten in our lust for technology. Despite the jaw-dropping beauty of Peru’s diverse landscapes and the consistently delicious food I tasted – from the smallest village to the sprawling city of Lima – to say nothing of all the goats and camelids I fell in love with, more than anything I was blown away by all the peoples that settled here thousands of years ago, creating cities and cultures that still form the backbone of Peru’s diverse tapestry. While I don’t want to romanticize the current obstacles these people – and the majority of Peruvians – face in the 21st century, it still gives me hope for humanity that despite all the hardships, the people – and the land – endure.)


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