“Avoid the ones who employ the pretty girls,” was the advice from Alexandra, the talkative Dutch lady owner of our hostel, “they don’t know what they’re talking about and you’ll end up on a bus for a day with people who don’t know better.” She was, of course, talking about tour operators, of which Arequipa is awash, and tours which don’t cut the mustard.

So it was then, that we ended up in a minibus with a driver called Snr Alejandro, a charming Swiss couple and our guide with a penchant for dubious jokes and American 80s Rock, Pepe. Our destination was the Colca Canyon for a three-day trek-tour. Colca is reputed to be the world’s deepest, although it faces competition from a near neighbour and no-one seems quite able to make their minds up. According to Pepe – real name José Luis Olivera Villacorta – the owner of the accolade tends to be the canyon that needs more tourist business. Nevertheless, at twice the depth of the Grand Canyon in the US, it’s fair to say that Colca is pretty immense.

So, after a stop for lunch in the small town of Cabalaconde, we drove for five minutes to the canyon’s edge, where a half-finished football stadium was a legacy of a former mayor’s failures. What would they do if they kicked the ball a bit too far one way? They way down took around two and a half hours and, despite being punctuated by Pepe’s entertaining mini-lectures on the merits or otherwise of hallucinogenic cacti, canyon life and ancient agricultural terracing, our knees were wobbling and our toes a bit sore by the time we’d zigzagged our way to the bottom. 4000 feet is a long way down!


After getting to the bottom, we had a short uphill climb to the level of the villages along the canyon’s edge. It was here that we all realised that the uphill part, due to take around three hours the following day, would be hard work. “Like this but times by twenty?” panted Alex, one of our Swiss companions. “I think those mules sound like a good idea…” We had thought that the Swiss would be more used to hills.

The agriculture, produce and setting around the villages was idylic. Cacti grew juicy and refreshing fruits such as tuna (not the fish), while avocados, apples, pears, potatoes, corn and more all seemed to be in abundance. According to Pepe, the people of the canyon are pretty much self-sufficient, which is probably a good thing given their location. No nipping to the chippy here. Other harvestables also exist, such as one of the most valuable assets in the canyon, the immobile little Cochineal insects, which live on cacti and when crushed produce a vibrant dye used in makeup and clothing.

Against the image of this idyll however, Pepe described a lifestyle on the point of lasting change. Electricity only arrived in the canyon around few years ago, and with it came the inevitable exodus of the young, inspired by TV and adverts to seek a brighter life in the cities. Young children are left with conservative grandparents who need and want them to work in the fields rather than go to school: the existence of traditional life is, according to our guide, on a knife-edge, and in terms of Peruvian ambition, it’s still too early to know if this is a positive development or not.

We arrived at our hostel tired but enlightened. A dinner of ubiquitous Peruvian soup, Alpaca and coca tea was very welcome, and an early night was only slightly delayed by a lengthy session of joke telling by Pepe. You know, the one about the Peruvian with a stolen watch, and the one about Tarzan and the sheep…

The view in the morning lacked a bit of sky!

As Thursday began we tucked into more coca tea and a large helping of pancakes for breakfast (what no bread and jam?!) As we walked through the neighbouring villages we were taken past a stall were we could buy and sample the fruits of the cacti we had seen. We were entertained as we did by a boy of four who had no school due to some kind of teacher INSET day. Peruvian teachers have lots of holidays. Lots. Having said that, levels of attendance by children are apparently incredibly hit and miss, and often depend on factors such as the welfare of flocks in the fields and whether or not a meal can be provided during that school day.

Pepe, Alex, Valerie, Helen and Paul accompanied by a little friend.

In the main of the three villages we found out more about canyon life – the parties, the church, the dress, the dances and the harder parts of life. To find out about Pepe’s story of and appeal for the Health Centre at Tupay, and to find out how you can help, go to our ‘Thanks to…’ page.

The carrot for our three-hour morning walk was clearly to see after a while, as we looked down on our lunch spot. At the bottom of the canyon an old village has been developed and now taken over to become ‘The Oasis’, complete with hammocks, blue swimming pools, showers and loungers. When we arrived dusty and hungry, it was a delight to jump into the pool and dry off in a hammock. By now, Alex and Valerie had firmly decided that the afternoon’s challenge of exiting the world’s deepest canyon should be met by mules, available for hire at the oasis. For us though, after much soul and pocket searching, it was shanks’ pony to the top, come what may. So after a couple of hours poolside and a good dinner (reputedly cooked skillfully by Pepe) we got our walking stuff back on and faced the challenge.

The walk up was by no means at terrifying as Wayna Picchu but was far more exhausting. Waving our Swiss friends goodbye as their mules headed upwards, we soon had to resort to counting the twists in the path and resting after every twelve. It was hot, dusty, sweaty and unrelenting as we climbed the 1200 meters to the top. Pepe, having already made an about turn to retrieve his forgotten phone from the Oasis, seems to find it a struggle himself. Feet ache, legs ache and mouths get very dusty and dry. The smug satisfaction of getting to the top in around two and a half hours however, coupled with a cold beer in Cabalaconde made it a feat worth achieving.

We made it!

After a few Pisco sours and more of Pepe’s jokes we hit the hay fairly spent. Luckily, Friday was pretty much a bus tour, and not much to write home about, as we journeyed along the rough roads at the canyon’s edge. The first stop was spectacular however, as crowds of tourists lined a point on the road where the iconic condor can be spotted in the mornings, circling around the canyon’s wide expanse. With wingspans of up to three and a half meters, it was certainly a case of cameras at the ready folks…

A long bus journey followed, stopping for a good buffet of ‘typical food’ and at the highest point on our trip of nearly 5000 meters (16,400 feet). As Pepe blasted out some Guns’N’Roses, Bon Jovi and more, we wound our way sleepily back to Arequipa, and from the peaceful and majestic and slightly troubled Colca Canyon, the chaos of the big city slowly crept in around us. A stunning three days.

One Comment to “Condors, Mules and Bon Jovi – Colca Canyon”

  • Amazing pictures, as always — and nice hat, Paul!