Vern: The minibus to Colca Canyon picked us up an hour late at 4:40am. We climbed in with five other trekkers (one of them hurling abuse at the driver for getting lost since she'd been on the bus since 3:15am) and tried our best to get a little more sleep. Two and a half hours later we stopped for a basic breakfast and then after one more hour we pulled over at Cruz del Condor - a view point over the canyon near a condor nesting place.
"This is pornography for geologists!" exclaimed Justin, a geo-tech from San Francisco on a break from a work contract in Arequipa. He excitedly started snapping photos of one of the worlds deepest canyons and its dykes and sills and and and a bunch of other stuff which I tuned out. And just then, for the rest of us, a condor rose from the depths of the canyon and swooped over the waiting crowd. Snap-snappity-snap, everyone tried to follow the soaring scavenger with their viewfinders. Another bird joined in and then another and another until, like a choreographed climax, seven enormous condors glided above us. We watched the birds and tried our hand at wildlife photography for a while and I now have around thirty photos of empty sky and blurry UFOs to edit down.
We were driven a little further on to outside the village of Cabanaconde which sits above the canyon and from here started the descent down a dusty zigzagging path into this vast crack in the earth's shell. Our guide, "Rolo" didn't speak quite enough English to be called bilingual, as advertised, and his passion for flora and fauna was called into question within 10 minutes of the hike when he asked Justin whether Justin could get him a job in the mines. The slope we walked down was dry and peppered with cacti but on the other side they'd dug irrigation channels and built Inca-style terraces on which were green and full of plants. "Fruit teas", was Rolo's answer when we asked what they farmed. A bit luxurious for subsistence farmers in a tiny village we thought. After a little more probing we established that he meant 'fruit trees'. Rolo slipped in his cellphone headset on and started up a conversation with a friend and ignored his trekking party for the rest of the descent. Justin, overwhelmed by the smorgasbord of rocks and sand and dust, did his bit to plug the silence by pointing out the hexagonal cooling fractures in the cliff faces (silica freezes and breaks in this shape it turns out) and how fragile shale is and and and other stuff.
We reached the bottom, crossed a bridge over the river Colca and peered up at the canyon walls. It is similar in depth to the Grand Canyon but the sides are not as sheer. We climbed up a little bit and settled into a very basic lodge for lunch in the village of San Juan de Chuccho. The group in our minibus had divided into two: four people doing a 2 day 1 night trek, and three of us doing the 3 day 2 night trek, each with a guide but we were reunited at lunch. Here Justin decided he hadn't walked enough today and downgraded to the 2 day trek leaving us effectively on a private tour with Rolo. So the other group raced off and we had a siesta in our little bamboo bungalow. That night, under the milky way and more stars than I have seen in a very long time, we enjoyed a candle-lit dinner (no electricity in the village) for two - date night!
The following day after coca tea and pancakes for breakfast, we followed the river to the town of Corinhua which means "The Smoke" because a single family lived down here years ago and the plume of smoke from their fireplace was spotted from outside the canyon. Here we tried an extremely sour variety of prickly pear used as a mixer to make Pisco Sour locally (known as Colca Sour) and a delicious sweet orange prickly pear called 'tuna fruit'. Rolo also pointed out a white fuzz which grows on the underside of cacti that when squished released a deep red liquid used for nail polish and clothing dye. At P$200 a kilogram, this is the cash crop for the small time farmers and they ferry as much as they can out of the canyon on donkey back for sale in town.
We continued on to Malata, the biggest of the villages with a colonial church made of mud. This town's name means 'the bad place' as rebels and raiders lived down here in the shadowy canyon at one point but Rolo assures us that the people living here are nice enough these days and apparently throw the biggest fiesta every year where all 150 people living in these little villages close to the earths core come and drink heavily and then fist fight a bit for bragging rights.
And then a rocky slope took us down to Sangalle or 'The Oasis' a lush patch of land in the mouth of the canyon fed by a small waterfall. Four or five rustic resorts have set up in this pleasant setting and we checked into our little adobe hut in one of them. We had a swim, a nap, played some volleyball and ate dinner. This little lodge was swarming with trekkers (completely opposite to the previous night) and we enjoyed the company.
The next morning we woke up before dawn and started the tough uphill slog to get out of the canyon in the dark. Determined not to be average (3 hours) we took few breaks and devoured pre-breakfast chocolate for energy and after two hours and twenty minutes we were out and back on flat land. We had a yummy fruit salad breakfast back in Cabanaconde and bid farewell to Rolo. We'd booked a night out here before going back to the city. We checked into the hostel attached to a bar/pizza-place which ranks 7th in the world, in Lonely Planet's 'Best bars off the beaten track' list. We rested, walked to a viewpoint, played ping pong and watched marching nuns circumnavigate the small town followed by a trumpet-blasting brassband: a precursor to the following days Corpus Cristi celebrations. Then we sat down to a delicious cheesy pizza with alpaca meat (common round here and not immediately distinguishable from beef) and had a few Pisco cocktails.
The following day, we took the minivan back to Arequipa via the hotsprings in Chivay where we boiled away our muscle strain. Back in the city we visited the massive city-within-a-city Saint Catherines Convent, colonial cloisters where nuns have been living separate from society for four hundred years. A huge Corpus Christi parade filled the main square: religious officials walked solemnly over huge artworks laid on the ground made of flower petals or coloured sand and kicked these to disarray with each slow step.
On our final day in Arequipa, back in our quiet hostel, we plotted out the trip to Bolivia. The strikes in Puno, the closest border crossing, were still violent so we worked out a lengthy alternative, whereby we traveled south and into Chile, spent a night in the beach town, Arica and then took another bus north and crossed into Bolivia and onward to the continents highest capital, La Paz.