Hiking high and deep, CONAL HANNA marvels at the spectacular scenery of Peru’s Colca Canyon.

The term ‘grand’ can be subjective. Sure, the Grand Canyon might get all the plaudits, but then what do you call a canyon twice as deep? At the very least, it’s one hell of a hike.

As well as hosting part of the world’s largest jungle (Amazon) and highest lake (Titicaca), Peru is also home to the world’s two deepest canyons. Proving once again that size isn’t everything, it’s the second deepest of these – Colca Canyon (3191m) – which is the more popular with tourists.

Being surrounded by several 6000m peaks highlights just what a massive gash in the Earth Colca Canyon is. The bus drive to it was spectacular enough. Starting in Arequipa, a highland colonial city, the bus climbed some 2500m to an altitude of 4800m, passing wild llamas and alpacas grazing on the plains. The barren, windswept landscape made for a scenic toilet stop, even if the altitude-induced wheeze brought on by the 20m walk left me slightly concerned for the three-day hike ahead. Thankfully, the bus still had to plunge some 1500m before we caught our first glimpse of the canyon.

Most striking from the bus window was the absence of anything to see – just a giant hole in the landscape. And no matter how close the bus came to the road’s edge (and it was a damn sight closer than I was comfortable with), peering down we still had no chance of seeing the bottom.

We were dropped at the unassuming town of Cabanaconde, where we sat in a shadowy wooden café drinking coca-leaf tea while a guide talked us into using his services. His proposed route seemed plausible enough, certainly in terms of distance walked. We went to bed confident about the trip ahead.

What we didn’t pay enough attention to, however, were the altitude changes. Day one was a five-hour hike, all downhill, which to me sounded a good thing. But while it might not require the aerobic fitness of climbing, I was soon to discover the strain on joints and muscles that walking continuously down on unforgiving gravel can provide.

Our reward on that first night was a natural hot spring spa, in which we nursed blistered feet while our guide Salvador caught trout for dinner in the nearby river. The night’s accommodation oozed rustic charm. Cosy reed huts could almost have been romantic, but for the lack of privacy caused by the large gaps between each reed. Not that it mattered. We were far too tired to consider romantic notions, anyway.

The next day we were off by six, gradually reclaiming the altitude we’d lost the day before. Despite the early morning, we were feeling a smug sense of self-satisfaction until we passed some young children on their way to school. They walked this steep terrain every day.

At a miniscule town three hours later we took a well-deserved break, using the time to practice our broken Spanish on a young woman washing blankets in a tub with her feet, while her shy toddler hugged her skirt. It was nice to be in a town so remote that travellers retained some novelty value.

Alas, we couldn’t relax forever, and we began our onward journey. Unlike the barren gravel surface of day one, the landscape here was far more fertile, and allowed gorgeous views over the valley spearing off the main canyon. Soon, however, the trees were replaced by seriously thorny cacti as we returned to wild west country.

Ten hours after setting off that morning, we arrived at our second campsite, known as The Oasis for its swimming pool and lush riverside setting. While the beers were warm and the showers cold (I generally prefer it the other way around), there was no doubt we found it akin to paradise.

Day three was short – only a three-hour hike – but in that time we had to climb 1100m in altitude, dodging mules carting supplies to The Oasis. The journey was slow going, every step requiring a mental effort to continue. It was worth it, though. The view from the top might have been no different to that we’d seen two days earlier, but now we felt like we knew something of the chasm that stretched before us. We’d seen both its charming beauty and gruff underbelly; looked up in awe from below and down in wonder from above; and what’s more, we’d conquered on foot the second deepest canyon in the world. A grand idea? You better believe it. •

Big bird
One of the Colca Canyon’s biggest (literally) attractions is the condor. A family of these giant birds reside at ‘Cruz del Condor’, about a 45-minute drive from Cabanaconde. The best time to see the birds is early morning or late afternoon, but there’s no guarantee how much action you’ll see – some days are amazing, others not so flash.
The best way to get there from Cabanaconde is to share a public bus with the brightly dressed local women, who travel out each day to flog their wares to day-trippers from Arequipa. Be warned, there’s very little shade and buses can be irregular. Take a hat and water.

Checking out Colca Canyon
• Numerous companies run one- or two-day tours to the Colca Canyon from Arequipa. One-day tours are extremely amibitious. It’s a 10-hour round trip out there, which doesn’t leave much time for sightseeing.
• Public buses also run from Arequipa to Cabanaconde and take five to six hours. In Cabanaconde, you can find accommodation, food and a guide to take you hiking.
• Maps for hiking the canyon can be obtained in Arequipa, and experienced hikers may wish to consider going alone. You should have suitable emergency gear and proficient Spanish to attempt this.
• If you’d rather hike with a guide, our group of five paid US$40 a head, which included two nights’ accommodation, seven meals all cooked by Salvador, local knowledge and some as-you-go Spanish tutorials thrown in. Money well spent!