Saturday, December 10, 2011

Backpacking in Colca Canyon, Day One

The drive to Colca Canyon was remarkably beautiful, despite being deadly dangerous. In particular, I truly enjoyed driving through the high-altitude Andes, which looked gorgeous under a blanket of fresh snow. The highest pass was at about 4,970 meters/17,000 feet, which is the highest I had ever been in my life.

We also passed some pre-Incan terraces, which had been continuously cultivated—using the same farming techniques—since the 15th century. For that reason I found the terraces fascinating, and because of their perfect geometry I found them also aesthetically pleasing.

After about four hours of driving, we arrived at Cruz del Condor—the best place in the world to see the Andean Condor. However, not on the day we got there: the fog was so thick that we could barely see our stretched arms. So even if there were thousands of Condors flying above our heads, we had no chance to see any of them. (We had more luck on the way back, but more about that later.)

Also our hike to the bottom of the Canyon started in a thick fog. Luckily, after a half an hour or so, the fog partially lifted and we got to see the beautiful Canyon, and even a few Condors flying above it.

Colca Canyon, at 13,650 feet (4,160 m) depth, is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and it might be the world's deepest canyon. In fact, two Polish expeditions, one that took place in 1981 and the other from 2005, proclaimed Colca the world's deepest canyon. As such it was also recognized by the Guinness Book of Records and National Geographic Society. However, others claim that Cotahuasi Canyon—another canyon nearby—is a tiny bit deeper. The argument is ongoing. (Isn’t it amazing that, despite all the amazing technological advances, we cannot conclusively answer this question?)

No matter what the outcome of this argument, I think the point is moot. Colca Canyon might be the deepest in the world, but it’s not even half as spectacular as the Grand Canyon. First, the walls of Colca Canyon are not as vertical as those of the Grand Canyon, and also its “deepness” is measured in a misleading way. In case of the Grand Canyon, what you see is what you get: its depth is measured from the Colorado River to the canyon rim on which the view points and access road are located. In the case of Colca Canyon, the depth is measured from the Colca River to the top of the highest mountain peak located near the canyon, and not to the canyon rim, where, e.g., the Cruz del Condor, Cabanaconde, and the beginning of the hike, are located. This means that the hike to the bottom of Colca Canyon is way easier than the hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and it’s only around half the distance and two-thirds of the elevation change.

Second, also in the beauty category, the Grand Canyon is the uncontested winner. The rocks of Colca Canyon are mostly grayish, whereas in the Grand Canyon you can find a spectrum of colors from orange to brown, from red to violet. This doesn’t mean that Colca is not pretty, it’s just not as beautiful as the Grand Canyon.

All in all, the hike to the bottom of Colca Canyon was quite easy, and it took us about three to four hours (including the breaks to enjoy the views and to snack). On our way we met several locals in traditional outfits, we saw several interesting plants (including a cactus from which the Incas used to make purple and blue dies), and a few interesting animals (e.g., the Condors, but also parrots, hummingbirds, and a fox), which made the hike more interesting. We also had several interesting conversations with our hiking companions (two couples: one Dutch, one Canadian) but, to be honest, at that point in time we would have preferred to be exploring the canyon on our own.

That night we spent in simple cabins, in the small town of Juan of Chuccho, where we also were served a quite good dinner. If we had asked for it, the main course could have been a fried, freshly-caught-and-killed, guinea pig. We were appalled by the idea, and we were grateful that none of our co-travelers felt like eating it either. Instead, we all got a chance to taste “frozen” potatoes—another Peruvian specialty, tasting a bit like dried soaked prunes—and we learned that Peruvians cultivate several thousand different species and subspecies of potatoes! Before that evening I had thought that Ireland, Poland, and Russia were potato kingdoms, now I know that this title should go to Peru.