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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Nazca Lines vs. Sandboarding Cerro Blanco

Natural mirador in Nazca, Peru

The natural look-out point in Nazca

We were told that visiting Nazca without seeing the Nazca Lines is like visiting Cuzco and not seeing Machu Picchu.

Or for a more Canadian reference, it’s like visiting Toronto and not seeing the CN Tower (But that’s actually very difficult to do since the CN Tower is pretty impossible to miss if you visit Toronto, so that’s probably not a great analogy).

Anyways, Jason and I have indeed managed to visit Nazca and not see the Nazca Lines.  Which we did not regret at all.

One of the little plazas in Nazca, Peru

Little plaza in Nazca

Nazca is a small, sun-baked town in Peru’s southern coastal region.  Its star attraction is the Nazca Lines, a series of mysterious lines forming various animal and geometric shapes (like the monkey, spider, or hummingbird) – some as big as a football field.  You can only really see them clearly from the air, and the town is full of airline companies waiting to take you on a 40-minute flight over the lines.

View of the Nazca desert from the PanAmerican Highway

Panorama of Nazca desert

During the high season, the cost of a flight over the Nazca Lines is about CDN $90/pp.  While Jason and I both share the belief that, when traveling, you shouldn’t let costs prevent you from doing something you really want to experience – after weighing the benefits vs. costs of seeing the lines from the air, we both came to the conclusion that we were totally okay with skipping the Nazca Lines flight.  We did some additional research that confirmed our suspicion that, although the sight of the lines during optimal conditions are pretty amazing, there were a lot of discouraging stories of crowded planes, poor context-setting by the guides (if any), crazy motion sickness on the tiny aircrafts, and just a general let-down after seeing the lines.

Mirador viewing tower in Nazca, Peru

Mirador viewing tower

We found out that you can catch a (slightly askew) glimpse of three of the Nazca line figures from the Mirador viewing tower just 20 minutes out of town, so we caught a local bus and paid 2 soles (CDN $0.70) to climb to the top of the tower.

Mirador viewing tower in Nazca, Peru

Mirador viewing tower – the next best thing for viewing the Nazca Lines

Nazca Lines from the Mirador Viewing Tower in Nazca, Peru

Our view of the Nazca Lines from the top of the Mirador Viewing Tower.

The view of the lines wasn’t that great but we could definitely appreciate the enormity of the shapes.  The landscape of the desert itself was worth the trip to the Mirador viewing tower.

On the natural mirador in Nazca, Peru

Awesome desert scenery

The next day, we used the money we saved on something we both really wanted to try: sandboarding on Cerro Blanco – the world’s largest sand dune!  Standing at an impressive 2078m, it’s just roughly 100m shy of Whistler Mountain in British Colombia, Canada.

Cerro Blanco in Nazca, Peru

Near the peak of Cerro Blanco

Our trip started at the ungodly hour of 5:30am, where we were driven to the edge of the mountains that surround the sand dune.  Inaccessible by sand buggies, we would have to hike at least 3 hours to get to the top of the behemoth.

Cerro Blanco in Nazca, Peru

On our trek to Cerro Blanco. You can see the Cerro Blanco, the highest sand dune in the world, far off in the background.

Combine searing desert heat with the high elevation, it’s quite a dizzying hike up to the top.  It takes about 1.5 hours just to get to the base of the sand dune and as you look up to the top of monster sand dune, it takes every effort just to not turn around and go home.

Approaching Cerro Blanco

Approaching Cerro Blanco. Trust me, it’s a lot bigger in person! (TWSS – for you, Kpoo)

At the foot of Cerro Blanco

Cerro Blanco looks like a small pile of sand behind us. To accurately picture its size, imagine a sand-covered version of Whistler Mountain in the background.

But as we neared the top and starting taking in the eye-popping views, we were glad to have soldiered on.

Climbing up the sand dunes on Cerro Blanco

Climbing up one of many sand dunes

Climbing up the sand dunes on Cerro Blanco

Climbing up one of many sand dunes

The smooth sand dunes against the dry Andean mountain ranges made for some surreal landscapes.

On top of Cerro Blanco in Nazca, Peru

Gorgeous view from atop the sand dune

On our way to the top, we practiced on some smaller dunes.

Sandboard practice on Cerro Blanco

Trying not to fall

Sandboard practice on Cerro Blanco

Trying not to eat sand

When we finally reached the top, we strapped in for the crazy vertical drop.

On top of Cerro Blanco in Nazca, Peru

Finally! We made it!

Our guide quickly made the sign of the cross with his hands before dropping off (what seemed like) the edge of the earth.

At the top of the highest vertical drop on Cerro Blanco

Smiling to hide the intense fear!

We had no choice but to follow him.  From the top to the bottom, it takes 25 minutes going at top speed.  We took over an hour to get down 😛

From halfway down Cerro Blanco

The view up  from halfway down Cerro Blanco. It was so steep!!

Sandboarding is not at all similar to snowboarding (with the exception of strapping a wooden plank to your feet).  The wooden board sticks to sand like ‘a fat kid on cake’.  Our guide gave us a piece of candle to apply wax  to the bottom of the board.  Every couple of minutes, we would come to a standstill – requiring us to unstrap our boards and re-wax the board.  The clunky board is also pretty difficult to control.

Re-waxing my board halfway down Cerro Blanco

Spending more time sitting on top than cruising atop the sand

We also had to constantly remind ourselves to keep our mouth shut, lest we wanted mouthful of sands when we fell.  It’s pretty difficult to remember to keep your mouth shut though, when you’re screaming your lungs out as your hurtle down the monster sand dune.

I half-expected to be a superstar sandboarder (you know, since I’m a superstar snowboarder back in Canada..haha), but my expectations were quickly quashed  when I realized that I would be spending more time rolling around in the sand than cruising atop it.  I got sand in places I never thought possible (and continued to discover bits of sand days later!)

Sand dunes near the top of Cerro Blanco

Love the contrast of the sand dunes against the clear blue sky

Regardless, it was a really fun (albeit grueling) experience.  In total, we spent 3 hours trekking up, 2 hours sandboarding, and another hour trekking out of the desert to where a car picked us up and dropped us back at our hostel.  I’m glad we tried sandboarding, for our first and likely last time.  At least until they install ski lifts that take you to the top.

To mend out aching muscles, we decided to gorge ourselves on protein and ordered a monster platter of meat and a couple litres of beer when we got back in town.

Huge meat platter in Nazca, Peru

Our pile of muscle-healing protein

Ok fine, the litres of beer had nothing to with mending our muscles.  It was more for rinsing the sand out of our mouths.

Sandboarding on Cerro Blanco in Nazca, Peru

Our last time sandboarding 😉