A hiker’s paradise in Peru (No, Not That One)
Ruins didn’t interest me. I’d happily leave Machu Picchu to its thousands of daily visitors. What piqued my interest about hiking in Peru was raw geology. The country sits on the collision line of two tectonic plates. Their bashing together over tens of millions of years threw the Andes mountain range over 20,000 feet into the sky and pushed up deposits of gold, silver and copper, within striking distance of the miners who’ve been hunting for treasure there since before the time of the Incas. In southern Peru last autumn to report a story on a copper mine near the city of Arequipa, I decided to carve out a few extra days to visit Colca Canyon, a spectacular sliver of the Andes that is far less crowded than Machu Picchu. A 50-mile-or-so-long chasm, eroded by a river of the same name, the canyon plunges nearly 11,000 feet deep (the Grand Canyon, by comparison, is 277 miles long but only about 6,000 feet at its deepest point). Hundreds of trails lead from Colca’s rim to the canyon floor. For a rock nerd like me, it sounded like paradise.
Mountainous Peru has a poor rail network, but buses go everywhere. The day before I set out for the canyon, a three- to six-hour ride north of Arequipa, Javier, my translator on the mining story, drove me to the bus terminal to buy a $5 ticket. Javier had introduced me to the local delicacies, including grilled alpaca and cuy (fried guinea pig), and peppered our conversations with the American English expressions he learned as an exchange student in the 1990s. (“Cool beans, man,” was a favorite.) Javier recommended seat 17B. “I’ve studied the probabilities, and that’s the safest seat—aisle, opposite the driver—if there’s a crash,” he explained. “But your bus probably won’t crash.” He said he was joking, but the next day—as I sat on a bus with cracked windows and dirty purple cushions, while being jostled along rocky dirt roads, only a few feet from jagged mountain drops—I wasn’t so sure.
A string of villages sits along the rim of the canyon, interspersed with farms that raise alpaca and llamas and grow farm potatoes, onions and corn on stepped terraces. I chose to base myself at Cabanaconde (population 3,000), the last town on the road. At 10,800-feet, the village centers around a church and town hall, a layout the Spaniards implemented across their South American empire. The canyon floor is about 4,000 feet below the village, which makes it convenient for daylong treks followed by a good meal and comfortable hotel. Many travelers camp in the canyon, but exhausted after my work trip, I wasn’t up for roughing it.
On my first day, I tackled a two-hour trek down the canyon, one of the shortest routes but made more challenging than I expected by the high altitude’s thin air and the steep, rocky path. Mule trains, carrying supplies and a few tourists, passed me every so often. At the bottom of the canyon I reached Oasis Sangalle, a shockingly green little park, next to the Colca river, with a grassy lawn, a swimming pool, two cafes and a dozen cabins without electricity or running water. I lay under an avocado tree next to a lounging steer and finished reading Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,” feeling some shame that unlike the author’s epic trek—an 1,100-mile journey on the Pacific Coast Trail—mine was just a few miles and would likely end with pisco sours and a wood-fired pizza at a restaurant in Cabanaconde that I’d sussed out the night before.
The afternoon sun beat hard on my back on the climb up the canyon. I stopped to eat a wild avocado, which tasted sweet and citrusy. After three hours of plodding, the terrain leveled into green fields divided by walls of piled stones.
The following morning, I took a bus to Mirador Cruz de Condor, a viewpoint a few miles from Cabanaconde where the endangered Andean condors scavenge for food every morning. After watching the regal birds waltz for a while, I walked a path along the canyon’s edge. Within minutes, I was alone. I sat on a rock and stared down into the canyon contemplating the awesome forces that shaped this place: the glacial waters, the lava that cooled to rock, those tectonic plates below the earth’s surface. I over-ruminated and missed the public bus, so I hitched a ride back to Cabanaconde in the hold of a truck with women from the Cabana indigenous group who had been selling trinkets and snacks to tourists. They wore intricately embroidered hats and dresses, woven with colorfully dyed alpaca wool. Their hats were flat, while Collaguas women, from another local ethnic group, wear tall hats. I later learned the different shapes reflect representations of the groups’ respective mountain gods.
Early the next day, before taking the bus back to Arequipa, I hiked up a hill behind the hotel to a ruined stone church. It was 5 a.m. and already warm. Only the church’s walls remained, and on either side stood big wooden crosses. An old woman, carrying sagebrush, knelt by one and lit the brush. A sweet smell drifted over us. When I turned to head back down the hill, I noticed a pig and a donkey side by side in a pen, seemingly gazing at the sun rise. I stopped and watched with them. The light didn’t run across the valley like I imagined it would. Instead, it lit up everything at once, as if a switch had been flipped.
Getting There: There are daily flights to Arequipa via Lima, and multiple bus lines operate between Arequipa and the Colca Canyon villages. Bus tickets are around $5 and the ride can take three to six hours, depending on your destination. If you’d rather skip the bus, you can always book a private tour and transfer with Lima-based operator Aracari ( aracari.com ).
Staying There: The hilltop Kuntur Wassi in Cabanaconde has colorfully painted, TV-free rooms and soaking tubs big enough for two, as well as a restaurant and bar. The English-speaking staff offer guidance about hiking and organize tours (from about $50 a night, arequipacolca.com). In Chivay, the biggest town around Colca, Casa Andina Classica is a charming small hotel with stone-walled bungalows and a small astronomical observatory (from about $60 a night, casa-andina). Touring companies on the main square in Cabanaconde and other Colca villages can help you book rooms in cabins at the bottom of the canyon. In Arequipa, the upscale Katari hotel has elegantly furnished rooms and a rooftop grassy terrace overlooking Plaza del Armas (from about $120 a night, katarihotel.com).
Eating There: Pachamama, a few blocks from the main square in Cabanaconde, is a hostel with a dimly lit restaurant and bar serving wood-fired pizzas, innovative salads with mangos and avocados and a dozen varieties of pisco sours (pachamamahome.com). Bartenders can help sort out hikes, rafting and bike rides while you drink. Villages around Colca Canyon are also packed with motorbike carts selling street food, including mango, grilled corn and chicken feet. In Arequipa, try the grilled alpaca, or ostrich, and steamed asparagus with salmon and cream mousse at Zig Zag, a restaurant fusing Alpine and Andean cuisine (zigzagrestaurant.com). Most restaurants serve alpaca and fried guinea pig. The latter are served in a package including little feet and a head. It’s a greasy white meat that requires a lot of unpacking, like steamed crabs. Try it at Wasi Andino, a no-frills cafe with a balcony overlooking the Plaza del Armas (107 A Portal de San Agustin).
Washington Post | By JOHN W. MILLER