Colca Canyon Trek (part 2)

Day 3 - Sidetrip to the Huaruro Falls (5km - 300m ascent - 300m descent)

Siesta over, we headed off for the 5 km return trip to see the Huaruro Falls. It involved a climb of 300m as the track pushed deep into the narrow upper part of the Huaruro Canyon, following a narrow path high above the river. We could hear the falls before we saw them; rounding an elbow in the canyon they appeared in the distance, a white ribbon seemingly spouting out of the sheer rock face.

We climbed up to a grassy bowl at the head of the canyon at just over 3000m, kept green by the microclimate created by the spray of the falls. Here we spent the next 30 minutes sitting and watching the impressive sight of the water racing down a steep gully from the 5000m plus heights, before thundered out of a deep cleft in the canyon wall. It fell in surges, spraying out mist as it crashed into a small pool to feed the rushing torrent that carried it down the canyon floor. It was definitely worth the extra climb to see.

The Huaruro Falls burst out of the cliff

The path into the steep upper canyon

Light and shade in the Huaruro Canyon

First view of the Falls at the head of the canyon

However, the sun vanishes early in this narrow canyon and it was time to head home, retracing our path back amongst the curious pods of deciduous trees and past silver-stemmed black-flowering bromeliads. We returned as the evening light was fading, tired but happy with the walk so far and a chance to see what life is like in the isolated villages of this remote part of Peru.

Day 4 - Fure to Llahuar (7km - 150m ascent - 770m descent)

The canyon wall above Llatia

Today was to be an easy walk, so we could sleep in a bit later. Still, in this canyon country the sun rises later still; the crests were bathed in light, but the sun was just starting to work its way down the opposite canyon wall when we set off. From Fure, we backtracked across the waterfall, climbing slightly across deep shade of the canyon wall before descending for a kilometre to a junction in the tracks.

Here we headed off in a new direction, following a loose shaly path that zig-zagged steeply 250m directly down the slope, through a group of flowering agaves and into the sunlight, now starting to climb slowly up our side of the canyon. On the way down we could admire the centuries-old tracks on the opposite wall, some meandering across steep traverses, some zigzagging their way straight up to the canyon rim and beyond, all in some way connecting the dispersed villages and fields of the Colca Canyon.

Prickly pear in the shade

Candelabra cactus

Flowering agave spikes

Sun on one wall, shade on the other

Floral apacheta

Nearing the floor of the side canyon, we crossed an old terraced field of prickly pear, spattered with colonies of cochineal, and finally reached the other side of the Huaruro River via a ricketty suspension bridge.

Crossing the Huaruro

The inner gorge of the Huaruro

Directly ahead lay the village of Llatia, but we skirted it by turning south to start a long traverse of the western wall of the Huaruro Canyon as we slowly headed towards its junction with the Colca Canyon. This track was what the locals call "Inca Flats" - very little overall change in altitude but lots of steep ups and downs. The canyon floor slowly fell away beneath us as we traversed, opening up spectacular views of the narrow winding course of its inner gorge.

The rugged beauty of Huaruro

Strolling across the Inca Flats

Ancient water canal winding across the slope

Heading back to the Colca Canyon

It was a very pleasant walk; the morning light highlighted the profile and shapes of the canyon walls as we wandered by groves of poison trees (whose sap is so caustic it is used to brand cattle), slopefuls of prickly pear and xerophylic shrubs, plus the odd straggly and out-of-place eucalypt. Bromeliads clung to the steep rockfaces above and below us we could see the smooth curve of an old canal system taking water to the village below. We followed its course before eventually descending steeply to reach it and cross it. From time to time, people passed by on their daily business greeting us with buen dias and holas - an old lady, a father and child, a man clearing the track with his machete, a mule train - life rolls on at its own rhythm in the canyon.

Not far below the canal, we stopped at a point where we could see the junction of the Huaruro and Colca Rivers beneath bare orange rock walls. Then, with one last look back up the ruggedly beautiful Huaruro Canyon, we commenced a long series of zig-zags on a rocky path down through old terraces and fields of prickly pear in the shade of spreading pepper trees.

Following the water canal

The narrow inner gorge

Last glimpse up the Huaruro Canyon

Descending past the stone terraces of Llahuar

A grove of dark green densely-foliaged pacay trees signalled our arrival at Llahuar (2150m), perched on a shelf above the river junction. We were greeted by the jovial owner of the rustic lodge here, a cool wind blowing up the canyon and the sight of a solitary condor, shadowed on the opposite rock face and dwarfed by the immensity of the canyon wall.

It was only late morning, but the lodge here was our destination. The afternoon would be ours to relax, explore the Colca River and soak in the thermal pools.

The junction of th Colca and Huaruro Rivers

Bridge over the Huaruro

The Colca River at Llahuar

Another floral apacheta keeping evil at bay

The fair Nello soaking in a thermal pool

The pleasant terrace of Llahuar Lodge overlooked the Colca River and a grassy verge above the thermal pools below. It was a great place to sit in the pleasantly cool breeze sipping a river-chilled beer after an afternoon soak in the thermal pool at the river's edge.

The views down river were impressive, with the strong contrast between the two walls of the canyon; barren sunbaked north-facing walls, bare apart from dry grasses and the odd shrub and more-protected south-facing walls, covered in prickly pear and xerophilic shrubs.

View from Llahuar Lodge - the contrast between north and south facing walls

We enjoyed our afternoon on the canyon floor, and our quirky circular room of stone and bamboo at the lodge. The day was topped off by a candlelight dinner of trout, caught by our guide Elias, in the warm evening with the sounds of the rushing river below us. It was a good way to celebrate the end of the Colca Canyon Trek with our pleasant compañeros over a glass of chicha (a fermented maize drink and preferred tipple of the locals). True, we still had a bit to walk tomorrow, but that was scarcely going to raise a sweat.

Day 5 - Llahuar to Colca River Bridge (4km - 50m ascent - 150m descent)

Curious fish-scale pattern of the tussock grass


We were back to the early morning starts, eating breakfast by torchlight in the cool pre-dawn - not because of a long day's trekking ahead, quite the opposite. Today we would only walk a few kilometres before meeting a 4WD vehicle for a trip through the mountains down to the Atacama Desert and back to Arequipa. So, after a feast of pancakes at the Llahuar Lodge, we set off shortly after 6am, following our speedy lodge host and Elias along a narrow track about 30 metres above the river bed in the early morning light.

This was once again "Inca Flat" terrain, with a series of ups and downs across the rocky slope, before we made a short, sharp descent of a loose conglomerate cliff to river level, to pass beneath the pinkish-tan rock walls of this constricted part of the canyon.

Heading off in the pre-dawn light

Palms in a sheltered niche

A jumble of pinkish-grey boulders

Coloured rockface above a side gully

Adios Colca Canyon
Once again we climbed, as the river dropped even further away, passing dry terrace fields of prickly pear, to descend and climb a deep eroded gulley. The canals leading to these arid fields had been washed away when the gulley flooded a year ago. However, on the far side of the gulley, where the canals still carried water, the fields were verdant with fodder and vegetable crops. Such are the hazards of life in the canyon.

End of trek group photo

Big boulders in the Colca

Cactus in bloom

From these fields we could see a vehicle road for the first time in four days; our trek in the canyon was near its end. We strolled down through the fields, crossed the suspension bridge across the Colca River and it was over. Not the excitement of emerging in a Machu Picchu to end the trek, not a hard struggle up the canyon wall to emerge exhausted but satisfied at its crest, our walk ended with more of a whimper than a bang. Still it was a logical place to finish - the deepest part of the canyon lies inaccessible quite a few kilometres further on - and, after all, we had already celebrated our enjoyment of the different parts of the canyon that we were able to explore.

By car from Colca to Arequipa

Not long after we arrived at the trek's end, the 4WD appeared and we all climbed in to head up the long set of switchbacks that would bring us out to the "rim" of the canyon. In fact, Colca does not have a definite rim, its edges being loosely defined by the tops of the undulating mountain ranges on either side, which led to an interesting debate amongst the group about what actually constitutes a canyon and how you define its depth. Regardless of how it is defined, Colca remains an impressive part of the world and well worth a visit.

Life on the edge - farmland on the rim of Colca Canyon

3200m above the canyon floor is the 5000m snow-capped
"rim" of Colca

Fileds and settlement near Huambo
Crossing a ridge, we descended to Huambo, the last of the villages in the Colca Canyon region and set amongst a mosaic of green fields in a side valley high above the river. From here we could see the snow-capped peaks marking the extremities of the far side of the canyon. Leaving Huambo, the road took us up above 4000m into the high rolling hills of puna grass, with occasional glimpses across the itchu tussocks to the snow-capped 6380m summit of Volcan Ampato, famous as the resting place of the ice maiden Juanita (the almost 500-year old mummified remains of a young incan princess sacrificed on the mountain's summit to appease Apu Ampato - not only were the incan people good stonemasons, they were the first serious mountain climbers!).

The high puna landscape dominated by 6380m Volcan Ampato

As we descended from the high plateau towards the coast, the terrain gradually became more and more arid, puna gave way to stumpy shrubs and cactus - cactus species changed to more drought tolerant ones until finally we entered a bone-dry quebrada where only a few hardy candelabra cacti grew in the grey dust. Yet here there were ancient terraces, built over 800 years ago by the Wari people when this was once a fertile landscape (take heed, all doubters that climates can change). We were entering the realm of the Atacama desert, the driest place on the planet where no rain has fallen in over 80 years.

Descending from the plateau the country became drier ...

..... and drier. Only the dry riverbeds had a few hardy plants

Remnants of 800-year old terraced fields and burial caves
where it once was green

The landscape was surreal, and the most surreal of all was the huge expanse of lush green lucerne and corn crops fed by misting sprinklers in the hot desert sun - part of a huge plan to make the desert bloom with the waters of the Colca River; dairy farms in the desert and atacama yoghurt. Coming from a waterstressed country where we are desperately trying to repair the damage of unsustainable irrigation schemes, I confess to being gobsmacked. Turning north, we made one last descent to the Colca River, now flowing through a broad valley; an oasis of green surround by high bone-dry walls of grey conglomerate and sand, lined with whitish sillar stone, the compressed ash of ancient volcanic eruptions.

Contrast between bone-dry hills and the oasis of the
irrigated Colca River flats

Heading off into the grey desert of Toro Muerte

The sillar boulders of Toro Muerte

Our destination was Toro Muerte, a recently discovered site of 800-year old petroglyphs carved in exposed sillar boulders scattered on a slope of greyish sand; fascinating insights into the culture of the Wari people, and even more fascinating insight into the minds of modern day idiots who seek immortality by vandalising such sites with their own initials or fake petroglyphs.

Some different petroglyphs carved in sillar

Toro Muerte boulderscape

800-year old petroglyph

The bleakness of the Atacama Desert -where it hasn't rained for 80 years

This part of South America is a surreal place and, as we sped back down the Panamerica Highway to Arequipa, I suffered much frustration in trying to capture, from the window of a moving car, the grey and tan flatness of the desert habitats, the lurid green of the irrigated fields juxtaposed with bare desert, the maroon and grey hills and quebradas, and the red rocky ridges. I realised why I prefer walking to see and appreciate the landscapes that I visit.

Grey and maroon hills west of Arequipa

Maroon hills and Volcan Misti

Desert landscape west of Volcan Chachani

Late evening in volcano country

Arequipa sunset

Finally, with the sun setting a brilliant red behind us and the dominating silhouettes of Arequipa's three volcanoes growing larger, we reached home. It had been a short day's walk and a long day's drive, but we felt content and overall really enjoyed the Colca Canyon experience, not in the least due to our enthusiastic guide and pleasant trekking companions. Thanks, Elias, Bill, Ruben and Ans and, to all the friendly inhabitants of the Colca Canyon whose paths we crossed - "que les vaya bien!".