Trekking into the Colca Canyon

After a restful week in Arequipa, we were ready for another beat-down trekking adventure. Arequipa is a main launching point for the surrounding canyon country and Jason had been itching to trek the Colca Canyon, which is about 200km north of Arequipa.

Colca Canyon, Peru

View of the Colca Canyon from the start of the hike

The Colca Canyon is one of Peru’s spectacular natural sights, although it’s often overshadowed by the country’s other attractions (i.e. Machu Picchu). It’s twice as deep as the famous Grand Canyon in the United States and is actually the world’s second deepest canyon – just few kilometers shallower than the nearby Cotahausi Canyon.

We decided to set up our base in nearby Chivay, a popular market town that still retains a lot of its traditional country origins.

Chivay, Peru

Town of Chivay, Peru

Chivay, Peru

The market bustling in the mornings in Chivay, Peru

It’s a logical entry point into the canyon country, and holds it own with many hiking trails and some of the most impressive and expansive Incan farm terracing on the continent.

Incan terraces from Coporque to Yanque, Peru

Incan terraces along our bike ride

We spent our first day in Chivay on rented bikes, touring the surrounding smaller towns further up the valley.

Scenery around Chivay, Peru

Beautiful day for a bike ride (Chivay, Peru)

We started off making our way to the nearby town of Coporaque. There are a couple of ruins in the small town but we didn’t stop long. Out of Coporaque is a (mainly) downhill ride to the orange bridge which crosses the Rio Colca and brings you into Yanque.

Rio Colca, Peru

Unfortunately, the downhill out of Coporaque meant a crazy uphill from Yanque back to Chivay. My thighs are burning just thinking about it.

Donkey Crossing in Chivay, Peru

Warning: Donkey Crossing

Just a warning to non-bikers: it is NOT a quick ride. We were told it’s a quick 2-3 hours bike tour. We took about 5-6 hours because we were not anticipating the intense uphill riding (i.e. walking our bikes uphill) we encountered at the end of our circuit.

Biking around canyon country, Peru

Biking and photography at the same time!

Successfully warmed up, we embarked on our 2D/1N trek into the Colca Canyon the next day. Although almost all tour companies in Chivay offer Colca Canyon treks, it’s pretty easy to do the trek solo.

Colca Canyon, Peru

Trekking into Colca Canyon

To properly experience Colca Canyon trekking, you have to make it as far as the little town of Cabanaconde. (Only about 20% of Colca Canyon visitors get this far – most only make it to the scenic viewpoint of Cruz del Condor). The shortest way to the canyon floor is the 2-3 hour hike from Cabanaconde to Sangalle (aka ‘the oasis’).

Colca Canyon, Peru

It’s a 1200m descent on steep, zigzagging paths, where upon reaching the bottom of the canyon, you can stay overnight in basic thatched-roof bungalows (S/.15 or CDN $7/pp) or campgrounds.

Colca Canyon, Peru

The ‘oasis’ is almost immediately visible once you start the trek into the Colca, but like any desert oasis, it’s deceptively far. (and here’s hoping it’s not just a beautiful mirage)

Sangalle, Peru (Colca Canyon)

View of Sangalle (the oasis) from afar

Sangalle, Peru (Colca Canyon)

Getting closer to the oasis!

After 2.5 hours of watching the oasis grow closer and closer, we finally made it.

Sangalle, Peru (Colca Canyon)

What the oasis looks like, up close and personal

Sangalle (“the oasis) is beautiful. A rich patch of green bound in by the Rio Colca and the sheer canyon walls.

Rio Colca, Sangalle, Peru

Rio Colca cutting through the Colca Canyon

Bungalows (Sangalle, Peru)

The little bungalows we stayed in while in Sangalle.

With no electricity, no phones, and no internet access, there was no choice but for us to relax. I even finally perfected the art of lounging in a hammock!

Sangalle, Peru (Colca Canyon)

Thanks to Jason’s tutelage:

Sangalle, Peru (Colca Canyon)

After a evening of candlelight dining (out of necessity, not romance), card-playing, and star-gazing, we called it a night.

The next day, we left around 8am to start the tough climb out of the canyon. We were told it’ll take 3-4 hours, so we wanted to start in the cooler morning air. I’m a slower trekker than Jason, so I decided to get a head start on the trail, while Jason was packing up.

Sangalle, Peru (Colca Canyon)

Goodbye beautiful oasis!

As I was climbing up, I noticed that the trail seemed much narrower and steeper than the climb down. ‘How did I climb down this yesterday, with such ease?‘, I found myself wondering. Typically, the climb down requires more concentration than the climb up, since the trail is covered with loose rocks. Any momentary lapse in concentration would likely result in me losing my footing and slipping (not enough to make me fall flat on my arse, but enough to make me concentrate hard for the next 30 minutes).

Colca Canyon, Peru

Concentrating on the trek down

However, on the climb up, I was concentrating way too hard for it to seem right. After about 20 minutes up, I realized that I had taken the wrong trail (Groan!) And by ‘wrong trail’ I meant the crazy-steep, really narrow trail that perhaps only mountain goats were sure-footed enough to take. So I had to turn around, edge slowly back down, and start all over again. By then, Jason had already caught up with me! So much for my head start 😛

On top of that, (oh, you’re gonna laugh) after we trekked up for about half an hour, I suddenly realized that I had left my iPhone in our bungalow. Back in the oasis. Back at the bottom of the canyon!

So Jason decided that I should keep on going, while he turned back around to trek back down into the oasis to get it. He gave all his valuables to me, tied his backpack to a nearby post, and sprinted back down. I continued my slow ascent up the canyon. Every 10 minutes or so, I would turn around and see if I could catch a glimpse of him.

Two and a half hours later, I was finishing the last leg of the trek out of the canyon and I still hadn’t caught sight of him. I was really getting worried – until some power trekkers caught up with me near the top and told me that they had seen my husband (i.e. the only other Asian person in the canyon) further down. About 20 minutes after I reached the top, he rounded the corner into view.

And he had my iPhone with him. That’s my hero! 🙂

Colca Canyon, Peru

My hero!

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Eating: (and Savouring) Arequipa

Our next stop was Arequipa, Peru – a beautiful city surrounded by impressive volcanoes on the country’s southern coast.

El Misti, Arequipa Peru

The majestic El Misti volcano that’s visible from almost anywhere in the city of Arequipa, Peru

After finishing the rather tough trek to Machu Picchu, Jason and I just wanted to sprawl out in relative comfort for a few days. So we rented a beautiful little apartment in a Spanish-style house for a week – complete with a full patio set and a fancy, modern BBQ!

Spanish-colonial house in Arequipa, Peru

Our home in Arequipa for the week!

We made immediate use of the BBQ upon arrival. We picked up some summer eats (i.e. chicken, vegetables for grilling) even though we’re in the middle of winter here in Peru.

Arequipa, Peru

Jason in his natural element – barbequing meat

Eating on the patio in Arequipa, Peru

Me, in my natural element – eating!

It was great to be able to cook up something that reminded us of Toronto in the summer – chicken on the barbeque, grilled veggies and cold beer!

Arequipa, Peru

Another fantastic home-cooked meal by Jason

Arequipa is a very liveable city: beautiful little neighbourhoods, an impressive main square, and clean, pedestrian-friendly streets.

Arequipa's main square

The palm-tree lined main square of Arequipa

It felt very different from drab Lima and tourist-choked Cusco. We actually didn’t check out many of the tourist attractions while we stayed in Arequipa.. Instead, we just “lived” in Arequipa for the week: walking into the city every day, window-shopping, checking out cafes, people-watching, grocery-shopping, and of course eating food.

Eating ice cream on Calle Mercaderes in Arequipa, Peru

Eating ice cream on the pedestrian-only Calle Mercaderes in Arequipa, Peru

We spent an afternoon walking around and eating whatever looked good to us.

Ceviche in Arequipa, Peru

Ceviche: a must-have in Peru. This dish pictures here cost us 11 Soles (CDN $5)! It might be a little sketchy to have cheap ceviche, but we lucked out with this dish – so delicious and fresh!

Portuguese-style tart in Arequipa, Peru

Portuguese-style tart – as delicious as it looks!

A strange thing I kept seeing on the streets of Arequipa were these little stands that were labelled with the words “Queso Helado”. I looked up the definition – it literally translates to “Iced Cheese”. Sounds gross, yes? I tried it anyway.

It tasted delicious – sweet, light, icy, creamy with a touch of cinnamon. Upon further research, I found out that this delicious dessert had nothing to do with cheese. It uses the unfortunate description of cheese because of the way it looks when you prepare it. It actually consists of sweet milk and sometimes a touch of coconut or cinnamon for flavour.

Queso Helado in Arequipa, Peru

Queso Helado stand: she scoops out the sweet, icy treat into little plastic cups and sprinkles a bit of cinnamon on top. So good!

And then for dinner, nothing says Peruvian cuisine like cuy (guinea pig). The thing to do in Peru is to try this delicacy. In Cusco, they bake it which dries it out a bit. We were advised to try cuy in Arequipa where they fry it, which helps retain some of its juices. But we were going to do something completely different: we were going to prepare our own cuy! Warning: kind of gory picture coming up!

Pre-cleaned cuy (guinea pig) from the butcher

Cuy (guinea pig) cleaned and gutted by our local butcher.

I debated awhile as to whether I wanted to try cuy in Peru. I knew it was a delicacy and people had told me about what it’s like (note: it’s a little gamey, not very meaty, and tastes like chicken). You see, I had a guinea pig as a pet when I younger. I have a personal thing about never eating any animal that I would own as a pet (i.e. dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs, goldfish, cat, bunnies). However, Jason mentioned that I owed it to my blog to try cuy – since the blog is partially about our travel adventures in food. So I put my big-girl pants on and bit the bullet (or guinea pig?), and made the conscious decision to try the Peruvian delicacy.

We bought some Peruvian spices, picked up a pre-cleaned cuy from the local butcher, and some more grilling vegetables. Warning: another kind of disturbing picture coming up!

Marinating cuy (guinea pig) at home in Arequipa

Marinating the cuy. Jason kept putting the guinea pig in these little poses. Sigh.

Barbequed cuy (guinea pig) at home in Arequipa

Cuy on the barbie

Barbequed cuy (guinea pig) at home in Arequipa

The finished product: barbequed cuy with grilled vegetables.

The guinea pig was actually as described: tasted like chicken and not very meaty. Not my favourite thing to eat, but it was better than expected.

The next night, to make up for the traumatic experience of eating an animal that can be a pet, we went out for a nice, fancy dinner. Date night! Our first one since we started our travels over a month ago.

Zingaro in Arequipa, Peru

Date night at Zingaro

Travelling for 6 months means we have to stick to a pretty strict budget. Jason and I typically stick to street stalls, little hole-in-walls, or places that seem to serve mostly locals – which is totally fine by us since we prefer to eat that way. But once in a while, it’s nice to scrub the backpacker dirt off our faces and get all dolled up for a nice night out.

Bread basket at Zingaro (Arequipa, Peru)

Complimentary bread basket! We haven’t seen that at any of our meals since we left Canada. Why yes, I’ll have 5 refills please.

Our rare splurges requires quite a bit of research though, since we don’t want to walk into just any ol’ tourist-trap restaurant. We checked online for restaurant reviews, read through all the comments, cross-referenced it with travel blogger recommendations, and then cross-referenced it some more with other travel literature. Sounds a little obsessive-compuslive, eh? Well, when we only get to splurge once a month, it better be on a really well-prepared meal.

Zingaro kitchen (Arequipa, Peru)

We got a prime spot where we watched the chefs at work in Zingaro. They weren’t messing around – it looks like an episode of Iron Chef in there all night.

We ended up choosing Zingaro for a few reasons: 1) we wanted to have traditional Peruvian cuisine 2) it looked like the restaurant catered to locals and tourists.

Jason and I had slightly different impressions of our the meal. He wasn’t that fond of it, I thought it was fan-frickin-tastic! I’m perhaps a little biased because seafood is probably my favourite food group.

For an appetizer, we ordered the rocoto relleno (stuffed peppers), which is made using the very spicy rocoto pepper (which looks deceptively like a normal red bell pepper). Good thing both Jason and I love spicy food, otherwise we would’ve both been pretty surprised by how spicy the pepper was. It’s stuffed with ground meat, egg, olives, and then covered with melted cheese. It was amazing. I, unfortunately, don’t have a good picture for you, since we gobbled it down before I even remembered to take a picture of it. This is what it looked like, if you’re curious.

I ordered the chupa de camerones (shrimp chowder) – but it actually translates literally to ‘suckage of shrimp’. Which doesn’t sound as appealing….but might be more accurate. Why, you ask? Because this hearty bowl urn of soup is filled to the brim with succulent, suck-able shrimp and crayfish. The aromatic broth seeps into the shells, heads, and tails of the shrimp – just begging you to slurp the deliciousness up with happy abandon. Then, there’s still the flavourful potatoes, corn, egg, and melted cubes of cheese to savour after all the ‘suckage’. Seriously, a bowl of heaven. (Gimme a second while I close my eyes and reminisce).

Chupa de camarones at Zingaro (Arequipa, Peru)

Chupa de camarones (shrimp chowder) – a bowl of deliciousness

Jason ordered the ceviche – which he thought was too chewy, but I adored. It was the way ceviche is supposed to be prepared – with pieces of raw fish that’s marinated in citrus and hot peppers. I’ve noticed that a lot of ceviche we’ve had uses cooked fish (which might be safer), but a really good restaurant will use sushi-quality fish to prepare it. The few pieces of sweet potato to balance the tartness of the citrus juices was perfection.

Ceviche at Zingaro (Arequipa, Peru)

Delicious and fresh ceviche

Arequipa definitely served up some delicious delights. Some of the ones mentioned above originated specifically from Arequipa (i.e. chupa de camerones, rocoto rolleno, queso helodo), so make sure to definitely seek those out if you’re ever in this wonderfully gastronomic city.