Arequipa, Peru is a hot, dusty city with a grand, white cathedral and an elegant Plaza de Armas for a central square. It’s best known among visitors as the gateway to expeditions into Colca Canyon- the second deepest on earth((The deepest is also nearby.))
I spoke to four tour agencies and found that the efficient market price with a little haggling was $36 for a guide, transportation, lodging, and three meals. I set to Googling over lunch to see which agency was best, but every source agreed they were pretty much the same. After a bit of decision paralysis, I decided I’d have more chance for adventure and elaborate selfie-taking if I attempted the canyon solo.
I got a bus ticket and some trail maps from a tour agency ($9 after haggling down from $12). The subway-like maps I received proved topologically accurate regarding which areas connect to which, but topographically useless. But poor maps may yield better adventures.
I stuffed my daypack to bursting with water, my SLR, and Nature Valley bars and loaded my ukulele case with warm clothes for the nights. For dinner I stuffed myself with spicy pizza and craft beer and chatted with an Australian couple in the final week of their year-long globe-spanning honeymoon (takeaway: traveling the world with one’s beloved is as good as it sounds; or, Australians are just generally happy people.)
I took a 3am bus to the little town of Chivay and slipped into a tour group for a typical Peruvian breakfast of bread, butter, and watery jam. Even as free breakfasts go, it was rather disappointing.
The bus continued another two hours to El Cruz de los Condors where we stopped to watch Andean condors glide majestically on the canyon’s thermal updrafts. Condors are traditionally believed to be mountain spirits (apu) that have taken the form of great birds and represent the element of air. ((The animal-elemental pairs in Andean folklore are: puma/fire, llama/earth, and probably some kind of fish or dolphin/water))
After 45 minutes of above-average bird watching we drove another 20 minutes to the trailhead outside a little town called Cabanaconde.
Morning at 3300 meters was chilly, but I shed everything but my long T-shirt and applied abundant sunscreen. The sun was blazing bright, and at this altitude I could feel the skin cancer practically radiating off it.((UV strength at 3300m is about 50% higher)) I left the tour group behind and walked to the trailhead at the lip of the canyon. I wasn’t yet acclimated to the altitude, but found encouragement in that each step brought took me down into thicker air.
As holes in the ground go, Colca Canyon is one of the most impressive. Rock strata of all colors of red, yellow, brown, and black line the walls. In places hexagonal columns of extruded granite stretch hundreds of feet like the pipes on a titanic organ. You can hear the frothing Colca River even from far above. The first foreigners to navigate the canyon was a group of Polish whitewater rafters in 1981. Go figure.
I reached the river after a three hour decent with only a few craggy shadows’ shelter from the baking sun. I refilled my water pouch with filtered river water. It tasted barely suspicious at all.((As of writing this, I’ve felt no ill effects!)) I crossed the suspension bridge and encountered a fork that didn’t exist on any of the tourist bureau’s maps.
My plan was to lunch in the village of San Juan de Chucco, then hike another 2.5 hours to an oasis where I could find a hot meal and warm bed. A spray painted arrow indicated Posada de Roy (Roy’s guesthouse). I had no idea who Roy was, but had little desire to check out his presumably sketchy hut in the hills. Instead I opted for the lower path to “San Juan”. Or so I thought.
The path followed the river for a while before ascending the opposite canyon wall. The maps had made it seem like the village was just over the bridge, but I’d been hiking twenty minutes without any sign of it. Finally I found another painted rock advertising “Roy’s Posada.” I’d climbed enough of the canyon that I had no intention of going back down. It seemed I’d get to meet “Roy” after all.
After more steep switchbacks the path leveled off and started to follow a little aqueduct. I took this as a good sign that either the path would also eventually lead to the village, or that Roy’s the kind of baller who owns his own aqueduct.
I passed increasingly frequent rocks advertising Roy’s food, drinks, beds, and showers. Finally I reached the entrance, which was flanked by a pair of guardian donkeys.
I approached a complex of well-maintained buildings around a neatly trimmed lawn and observed people eating inside the central structure. Nature Valley had been no match for my Colca-sized appetite, so I entered hopefully. A Peruvian named Gabriel told me I could have a corn soup, an alpaca meat entrée, soda, dessert, and tea for $4.50. This was agreeable to me.
To my surprise, I noticed a group of four middle-aged American men seated around one of the long tables. All wore handsomely trimmed beards like my own. They asked where I was from and invited me to sit with them.
“Welcome brother,” said the eldest with a salt-and-pepper beard who introduced himself as Buddy. “What brings you to the canyon?”
“I’m traveling through Peru and heard it wasn’t to be missed. I actually meant to follow the trail to San Juan, but ended up here by accident.”
The four men shared a meaningful glance.
“Maybe it wasn’t an accident at all.”
“How about you guys?” I asked. “I wasn’t expecting to find four Americans here.”
“My brothers and I have been coming here the last five years to spread the word of Christ.”
“Oh, nice,” said I.
“Tell me, Steve,” said one of the men casually between slurps of quinoa soup, “have you given much thought to the coming of the messiah?”
“Not a ton,” I admitted. “I’m Jewish, you see.”
This seemed to perk them up. They asked if I’d had a Bar Mitzvah, if I’d ever visited Israel. They spoke knowledgeably and admiringly of Judaism and asked if I knew and followed all 613 commandments of the Torah. I steered the conversation to our respective trips to the Holy Land, and they showed me pictures of them praying on the Galilee sea and at the Western Wall.
One of the brothers told me the story of how he had been saved back when he’d been a hedonistic real estate broker in 1990s Miami.((I can only assume he wore lots of cool linen blazers during all this sinning.)) During a meeting at a McDonald’s, a client asked him if he’d given any thought to where his eternal soul would end up. Probably hell, he figured, so he asked Jesus for strength, and within a week he’d shed his old cussing, clubbing, womanizing ways and was born again in the service of the Lord.
I never learned which sect of Protestantism they belonged to (they did not approve of the Catholic church,) but these guys knew their scripture like a ten-year-old knows Star Wars. Their conversations overflowed with allusions, e.g.
“You know, when we were walking back to the village last night and our headlamps could only light a few steps in front of us, I was reminded of [biblical book and verse number] when the Lord showed the way to [that guy in the Bible] but only showed him the next few steps- just like we must follow step by step and have faith in the greater path.”
“Amen, brother! I hadn’t thought of that connection!”
After a meal that wasn’t nearly as awkward as it might’ve been, they thanked me for listening and not running away down the canyon. They picked up the tab for my lunch and asked if I’d mind if they prayed for me. “Sure,” I said, imagining at most something succinct along the lines of “Dear Jesus, please make sure Steve makes it out of this canyon. Best regards, the missionary bros.”
Instead, when we rose from the table the five brothers formed a circle around me and layed on hands upon me.
“Oh Lord Christ in Heaven,” intoned the eldest in a strong, clear voice. “We give thanks to you this day for leading Steve to us.”
“Ashkabeth a’nar isharanah!((I don’t have a great memory for languages I don’t speak, so I’m approximating the sound of it.))” replied another in what sounded like a Semitic language- Aramaic, maybe?
What followed was a most impressive two-minute prayer-jam session with the improvisational flair of a freestyle rap. I recognized various commonplaces- “The alpha and the omega!” “Thy will be done!”- that could be used as filler around which they could improvise. The eldest was clearly a pro at this kind of thing. Some of the others were a little clumsier, but showed ecstatic enthusiasm, crying out “Amen!” and the odd “Yesss, Jesus! Yesssssss!”
Amid the mighty invocations of Christ’s power were mixed very nice wishes for my safe travels and that my path may be a righteous one. We exchanged hugs and contact info- I’d send them a shot of Machu Picchu, and they’d send me the group photo we took once they returned from the dead spot at the base of the canyon.
Fortified by divine favor and delicious llama meat, I proceeded along the path of the righteous until I reached a small village. I found three Frenchmen drinking beers in the guesthouse and asked directions. They told me to walk until I was sure I was lost, then cross a pathetic stick bridge, then climb half a kilometer up the canyon walls to an old woman’s hut. The crone could offer guidance from there.
On my way out of the village I noticed a narrow stone aqueduct running along the trail and providing water to the inhabitants and I decided to follow it to its source. This involved leaving the trail and balancing on the aqueduct itself a few times, but almost an hour later I found a pool fed by a waterfall/stream coming down from the glaciers on the mountaintops above the canyon. I was also very certain I’d gone way off the proper trail, until I spotted an incredibly sketchy stick bridge.
I encountered a loose horseshoe in the trail, left there as either a sign from divinity or by errant donkey. Either way, I pocketed the lucky souvenir and climbed to the top of the ridge where a local woman had set up shop selling Gatorade and Snickers to tired wayfarers.
After some coca leaf tea((Locals claim this helps with altitude sickness, but there’s been no scientific study to support this. It does perk you up in a nice, less-jumpy-than-caffeine sort of way. It’s also a pleasant tasting herbal tea in its own right.)) I hiked for two hours more in the hope of reaching the oasis at the canyon center before nightfall. I descended back into the wide canyon center through massive, disused stone terraces. The ancient steps had the feel of a titanic amphitheater. The sun cast long shadows across the abandoned land before dipping behind the canyon walls.
I turned a bend in the canyon and beheld the oasis at the center like a real-life Rivendell: the Sengalle Oasis nestled on an island of rock at the bottom of the riven dell.
I reached the oasis just as dusk faded to night and negotiated a private cabin, dinner, and a two rounds of mojitos for $15. The next morning I overslept to 8am (the prevailing advice is to leave at 5am to emerge from the canyon before the brutal sun returns.) There was nothing I could do but top off my water and start climbing.
Two and a half hours later I reached the lip of the canyon, staggered into town, and found a Swiss man who sold me the most amazing yogurt, granola, fruit, nut, honey, pollen, berry bowl I’d ever had. I raised a glass of fresh squeezed strawberry juice to my parched lips and gave thanks to condor-Jesus for letting me reach the other side of his canyon.