Friday, 12 June 2015

Descending the Colca Canyon

Cabanaconde, a small farming town on the rim of the Colca Canyon, seemed stuck in a time warp. The residents all wore traditional dress, the ladies wore long skirts and jackets with colourful embroidery. Here people ride mules to work and loads are moved by donkey. Though some houses were modern, most were still made of mud bricks or stone. Woman cooked on an open fire and the family pig was tied up in the garden. These were hardy folk who worked the agricultural terraces by hand. They were very friendly and we were always greeted in the street. It reminded me of how village life was in the UK some fifty years ago, with a tip of the hat and a polite word offered, even to a stranger. 

We overnighted in Cabanaconde at some 3,300 meters elevation. Even though we were provided with multiple blankets we had a chilly night. We awoke somewhat pressed, squashed down flatter under the weight of the blankets. It was Monday the 25th May, and the onset of winter was being in this high Andean zone. During winter, which lasts until September, temperatures often drop below zero at night. 

We set off on our descent down the Colca Canyon at about 7.30am. The rising sun had now flooded the valley and began to warm us, yet the air was still fresh. Leaving the dirt streets of the village behind and passing the bull ring and football field to our left we walked out to the canyon rim. We could see the narrow Colca River glinting in the canyons base some 4km and 1,200 vertical metres below. 

We took the less travelled route, which fell in stages through the terraces before becoming a precipitous zigzagging path. The hike was tough due to the terrain and thin air. Passing through the terraced terrain we noticed many of the fields were unused, which have may be due lack of water or/and the time of year, as the first frosts would soon be upon them. It is also an indication of the reduction in population in these rural areas as young people migrate to the cities for work and a “better standard of living” which in many cases is a sorely misguided move.

The maize harvest was coming to a close. Fresh maize ('choclo' in Spanish) has bigger kernels and is less sweet than the sweetcorn we have in the UK. The maize stalks where cut a few inches from the ground and where left lying to speed up the drying of the ears. We saw women carrying the maize bundles in a woven material sling on their back. They were taking them home to husk the ears.

What is difficult to get over in words was the sheer extraordinary beauty of this place. I'm very fortunate to have seen many varied landscapes and yet this imposing canyon must be in my top 5 most impressive places in the world. I wanted to inhale the sweet meadow scents, sit down and take it all in. I've never seen a place so imposing. It was almost impossible to take in the view - from the mesmerising snow-capped peaks, inactive volcanoes, impressive terraces, the ancient paths carved into the mountain sides, farming villages clinging on to a crag at 3000m, and far below the dangerous beauty of the canyon. The scale of this landscape was so vast; the depth of field and sense of perspective was a visual feast. 

And the best thing was the place was devoid of tourist, we had this Eden to ourselves. Only once or twice on the breeze we caught voices from farmers tilling there fields on the other side of the canyon wall, or heard the faint bray of a donkey.

By the time we reached the canyon floor the temperature was a sweltering 40 degrees. The heat radiated off the granite walls and the lack of shade became unbearable. We kept well hydrated and slapped on more factor 50 sun cream. Crossing the Colca River we joined a dirt track briefly before turning off onto a small plateau, which was home for a handful of people. One more descent, river crossing and ascent till we reached our rustic lodge just above the canyon floor. 

That afternoon we relaxed alfresco style in naturally heated thermal pools before enjoying a meal of fish, caught from the Colca River just an hour before. Chris snapped some stunning shots of the night sky and the stars shone so brightly it seemed like the sky was suddenly much closer. 

Our first glimpse of the canyon floor 1300 metres below

 Ancient terraces still in use and worked by hand

 Distant villages connected by a new track

Cabanaconde's fields continue right along the canyon rim

Feeling the heat already

Grazing on the fallow fields

These little beauties sang to us all day long as we descended the canyon walls

An "air plant" living happily attached to the branch of a bush

Can you spot Chris in red?

A sudden rumble made us look up just in time to witness this landslide further to our right, the rim above is where we walked down from the village


The Colca river at the base of the canyon

A further hour trudge up and down leads us to a tributary of the Colca with a tiny hamlet on a plateau

A shrine marks our departure from the main track

At last, made it, and what a welcome - natural hot springs - aaaahhhhhh!

Definitely worth all the effort to see that unpolluted sky

Essential breakfast of coca tea

Don't know what these fruits are but love their shape

Chris and Fraser recrossing the suspension bridge the next morning

The little hamlet had come alive with mules, donkeys and their owners

A farewell look back down at our tiny lodge

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