Cañon del Colca

We left Arequipa on a warm, sunny morning with the temperature climbing fast.  On our way up the busy highway leading out of town, choked with trucks and buses, we stopped to gas up, and I noticed oil all down the side of Jalene’s bike.  I had left her oil tank cap loose while finishing up work on her water pump the previous day, and a little oil had burped out with every sharp bump.  Her very clean motorcycle was now a mess, due to my own error, and I was pissed off.   I secured the cap properly, and we got back on the road with a cleaning chore on my list.

Once we cleared town, we left much of the truck and bus traffic behind, but we were still caught up in a lot of truck convoys heading north to the same goal, Cañon del Colca, with relief supplies and equipment for both the mines and the townspeople.  Apparently the earthquake damage was serious, although we had received good information that we should go ahead.  Our hostel, near the epicenter, was open and ready for us.  The road north to Chivay, at the upper end of the canyon, climbed steadily as we curved around the big volcanoes to the north of Arequipa.  We soon found ourselves putting on more layers as we rose through 4,000 meters (13,100’), where we saw a team of railroad locomotives hooking up cars of ore at a mine entrance.  It was remarkable to see the big engines up at such an altitude, but the tracks wound around and around, following the contours to reach the rich mining areas.  The Peruvians will blast and tunnel to put roads and rails in places almost unimaginable.

The road topped out at a freezing 4,900 meters (16,100’), and we stopped at the summit to use the little restroom built of rock and old timbers, and check out the hand made alpaca hats and gloves.  The ladies were knitting them right there, and wearing their own wares, not just for show.  It was darned cold, and we didn’t stick around long.  In a few miles we were winding our way down into Chivay, which sits on the eastern end of the canyon proper, and serves as the supply center for locals, and the base from which trekkers head westward along the canyon rim, or down along the river, following its flow deeper and deeper.  We turned west and followed the paved road a bit, which then became a fast dirt road, and wound our way along through irrigated terraced fields along steep hillsides, the kind you see in the picture books about Incan farming.

We passed through smaller villages where the earthquake destroyed the adobe-brick structures, or crumbled walls to expose the home within.  I wanted to take photos, but that seemed disrespectful to those struggling to recover.  I left the camera unused and simply allowed the images to burn into memory – I need not fear forgetting them.  Peruvian road crews with heavy equipment and trucks were hard at work along the road, and while we had to stop now and again to wait for a flagger, we got through with little delay.  Some of the friable rock cliffs above the road had let loose with big rockslides, but the cleanup was proceeding smoothly at an impressive pace.  Bus service was on schedule.

Along the way, we had to negotiate a tunnel about 500 meters (1,640’) long, which seemed like an easy task, except that it was curved along its length, and the road was dusty dry gravel.  The bus going through ahead of us created a thick dust cloud that hung inside the tunnel, blinding us to oncoming traffic, and even made seeing the tunnel walls almost impossible.  I had to stop inside the tunnel to orient myself, and let the dust clear a bit, even though it meant that similarly blinded traffic could hit us from behind (Peruvian drivers don’t stop just because they can’t see).  After a tense few seconds, we could a little, and rolled through unscathed, but these kinds of experiences just give me more grey hair.

We arrived in Cabanaconde and found Hostel Pachamama, where we squeezed the bikes into the courtyard and parked for the night.  We had a room on the third floor, reached by a tight spiral staircase going up an outside wall, masonry of course, which felt like a dice-roll so soon after the earthquake, but here we were.  The people were very friendly and we enjoyed quite a lot of comfort and great food here.

The next day, Jalene took a hike down into the canyon while I went off on my bike to see condors fly and explore down into the canyon depths.  She was warned that the hike, while difficult, long and steep, was do-able in one day but tackled by most people in two days, and told to call the hostel if she had any problems.  I was told that the track down to the river in the canyon bottom was very difficult for motorcycles, and that I should not try it.  Both of us, of course, dismissed the warnings.

I wished Jalene a good hike, and then rode out to Cruce del Condor, the site where I was guaranteed to see the huge birds rising out of the canyon in the morning as the thermal updrafts gained strength.  As I worked my bike out through the narrow entryway to the street, I demonstrated my advanced skills by bumping one of the pannier boxes on the stairway rail, which tipped me over into a large cactus against the brick wall, sending about a dozen spines through my glove and into my wrist and hand.  I was trapped, but Jalene and another guest saw me and helped free me, trapped between a heavy moto and a cactus.  By some miracle, no spines had gone through the sleeve of my good Gore-tex riding jacket.  As usual, my ego took the most damage.

Safely released from cactus bondage, I rode out for Cruce del Condor.  I walked three steps to the wooden rail after parking, and there they were, right in front of me, some passing within a rock-throw.  It was deceptive at first, the size of them, with nothing but canyon air behind them, until I saw one glide low over a slope below, and I saw its shadow on the ground.  Compared to the brush-clumps it skimmed over, I could then see how long its wingspan stretched and the size suddenly hit me – these are giants!  These big birds are made for soaring, and the only time I saw one flap its wings was just after taking off from a cliff ledge, and then it was more for control than lift, as they have a way of simply tipping forward off the ledge and letting gravity do the hard work of acceleration.  After that they soar upward on the wind and thermals, climbing until they are dots overhead, heading off over the ridges.  Just east along the road a half-kilometer was another area where the condors gathered after clearing the inner canyon, and I sat on the motorcycle and watched 50 or more massive condors wheel overhead as they rapidly gained altitude and moved of to the south.

While looking at the photos of the birds later, I was struck by the resemblance to big military cargo planes.  A soaring condor’s wings become several inches thick where they meet the body, and merge seamlessly across the top.  The trailing edge of the wing is continuous across the bird’s back.  There are no abrupt changes in dimension, just smooth curves and long lines, free of sharp angles.

After watching the condors for an hour or so, I decided to ride to the west, where the canyon deepened, and the map showed some possible routes down to the river.  I took the first right that looked promising, where a yellow sign indicated I could reach some of the villages on the opposite side of the canyon.  I started down a small, rocky but firm dirt road, which led downward at a moderate but constant steepness.  I soon came upon a woman walking her cows back up the hill.  I asked if the road led to the river, and if it was in this same condition.  I got a firm assurance on both topics, and so off I went.  The road wound down and down, fording a few little runs of water.  I was enjoying the ride immensely, having just enough challenge to make it fun, but not dangerous so far from home in such an isolated place.  I had brought tools and spares, plenty of water, and some leftover food, so I felt okay if trouble arose.  The road continued down for 8-10 miles, descending steadily through rock, gravel, and dust.  After about a half-hour I came upon a woman sitting on her cloth bundle of stuff beside the road, and she flagged me down.  By this time I was about two-thirds of the way down into the canyon, and it was extremely hot and very dry here.  My American ears heard her explain that she might have missed her friends who were supposed to pick her up and take her out of the canyon to town.  She asked if I had any water and I held out my Camelback hose.  She indicated she had no cup, so I showed her how to bite down and suck it like a straw, which she gratefully did.  I assured her that if she were still here when I came back out, I would take her up with me (wondering how the heck I’d make it with her on the back through some of the deep, slippery flour-dust sections, which felt exactly like riding over green, slick rocks in a river crossing).  About 20 minutes later I found myself winding down through a rough and rocky road to the river.  Of course, just above the river, a city bus came up and I fortunately had a wide spot to pull over and let him by.  Buses go everywhere here, why was I so surprised?

Down at the bridge over the river, I came upon 6 hikers who looked sunburnt, hot, thirsty, and a little desperate.  The temperature was really, really hot now, and the sun was fierce.  I asked if they were okay, and they said in a French accent that they had lost their guide and wanted to know where to go next.  They asked me for water.  They needed it much more than I, and I let them drink my Camelback dry, the whole 2-liter bag.  I pointed to a shady area and said I would let others in town know they were down here.  I was thinking all this time about Jalene, and felt a little reassured by her habit of always carrying a lot more water than she thought she needed.  Today that would save her, judging by these folks. I thought about waiting to see if she showed up and wanted a ride out, but with no water and terrific heat, I decided to go back up, reasoning that if I had a flat tire I would need time to deal with it, or hike back up the road.  The food I thought I had packed was not to be found.  I knew that Jalene would make good decisions if she ran into problems.  What I did not know was that the trail she had taken came down to a different place along the canyon bottom, and I never would have seen her.

I rode out of the canyon without delay. The trip took about an hour, and went just fine.  The lady at the roadside had apparently caught the bus, and so there were no passengers to haul up.  Once safely near the top, I took a break and looked again for any food or something to drink in my panniers, but only found that the plastic bottle of fuel additive I was carrying had worn through by rubbing against something, and had soaked into everything, leaving me with a pannier stinking like kerosene.

I was really hot and thirsty by the time I reached our hostel, and I let them know about the French hikers.  I asked about Jalene, but no news.  I started to worry a little, but I was hopeful she was okay.  I soaked up the spilled fuel additive with rags, and laid them out in the hot sun.  Along with the stinking gloves and tools, they quickly dried, thankfully leaving no smell behind.

Jalene, as it turns out, had much more of an adventure that day than I.   She tells the tale so well in a video she made – be sure to go to her website and follow her down the trail, and see what she found!  But we are all safe, had great adventures, and we were reminded once again to listen to the locals regarding the trails, and that local farmers and herders really know the conditions of the small roads.

And Peruvian buses will go anywhere, on time and on schedule.

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Lots of great photos & video here! Plus, a bonus video that I keep forgetting to share with you. When we were in Lima, Peru, I captured an everyday moment of living in hostels on the road. If you're curious about what a typical "home" looks like for us these days.