After breaching the outer border of Cabanaconde, we were immediately lost as the trail seemed to disappear entirely on the ridge of the canyon’s edge. But that’s not even how this adventure started.
We awoke around 6:30 AM to prepare for our hike along and through Colca Canyon, down to the tiny village of LLahuar. We opted to entrust our primary backpacks with Caesar, taking only my backpack and Teresa’s small side-bag with us. It was freezing that night to the point where we slept fully clothed and wrapped in as many blankets as we had, and we didn’t think we’d need sunscreen the next day because of it…an embarrassingly rookie assumption. But our goal was to pack as light as possible, so I dropped almost everything I didn’t think was an absolute essential.
On our way out into the town, we picked up a bunch of small, tropical bananas, a couple of passion fruits, a few jugs of water, and some other snacks.
We started by going the wrong way, down the path we’d walked the evening prior when we really took in the surrounding mountains. On the way, we came across a little dog who we offered a banana to. She licked it a bit but didn’t seem interested. This single gesture sparked a daylong companionship in which this little dog who the villagers referred to as Princessa (the only name she responded to despite our initial label of “Marie Antoinette”) came along with us for the entire 5 hour journey.
It was unbelievable…at first, when we were finally pointed in the right direction by some friendly locals herding donkeys, I assumed Princessa would come with us to the edge of the town before turning back. After all, she was clearly at home; almost every villager we passed knew her by name. But she kept right on, scouting ahead in the initial stages where the path disappeared and we just had to go by instinct as to where the trail would likely lead, along the ridge. After about 20 minutes, it reappeared.
As we trekked, terraced fields lined the one ridge in sight on our side of the canyon that was higher than the one we walked. To our right, the canyon plunged more than 1500 metres down, a river snaking along the bottom from where a tall, skinny falls poured out from within the Andes.
It got hot very fast, and we had begun to realize, after about an hour or so, that the sun would really become a problem if we weren’t weary of it. Princessa was way ahead of us. Without fail, she always took the route that provided her with the most shade, and would often loaf underneath a rocky protrusion or the odd shrubbery. For a long time, there were little options for Teresa and I. We sipped our water sparingly as it turned out to be a resource we valued more than ever, depleting more rapidly than we had anticipated with no human life whatsoever for miles around us.
That’s another thing I should mention, an aspect of travel that fills me with excitement every time I think about it. We were hiking through the Andes Mountains alone. There were people on the trail, certainly. But the scale of it all was so vast that we almost never saw them. The first people we saw were a young couple who looked beat to death, also trailed by a dog, but dark black and about 4 times the size of Princessa. They carried tents and honestly seemed as though they were about to collapse, but they pressed on diligently. It was impressive, to say the least. It was 3 hours on the trail before we came across them. We had the world to ourselves out here.
About half an hour before that, we came to a stream at the lowest point along the trail we’d hit so far. This was our first real break. We nibbled at some bananas, and this time, Princessa willingly ate piece by piece and happily lapped up some much needed water along with us. She was a real trooper on this journey and Teresa and I were still exchanging astonished comments at the fact that she had come with us all of this way. There was no doubt in our minds by now that she would be by our side for the rest of the day. But after seeing the young couple and their travel companion, we realized it was probably more common than we first assumed.
At this point, the path was beginning to get a little difficult on our bodies. The inclines weren’t so bad, but coupled with the gravelly, soil-ridden terrain, it makes for some tough climbing. Going downhill, we were always slipping and sliding, sacrificing the skin on our hands to break our increasingly constant falls. The heat was unbearable. Eventually, we could see JJahuar in sight, but it was so far in the distance that we knew it would be some time before we reached it, and we were on our last litre of water.
We also started to feel bad for Princessa. We came to an open road with little opportunity for shelter except for one cliff side that just managed to prevent the sun’s rays from penetrating our skin. I carried her in one arm as far as I could, but for a little dog, she was surprisingly heavy and I couldn’t hack it any longer. The cliff side was a necessary blessing. We snacked on a passion fruit here, shared a bit more water with Princessa and moved on.
Now, we were on a solid gravel road and although much of it was uphill, it was a lot easier than any part of the gravelly mountainside. We’d hit the bottom, crossed the river, and were now on the northern part of Colca Canyon. About half an hour later, we came across the first segment of LLahuar, and another couple who we’d seen on the bus coming into Cabanaconde.
The town, which consisted of about 10 buildings, seemed deserted, but the couple told us they had just bought water off of a lady who was tending some of the fields. She also happened to be blind so we had to be patient as she felt her way around the farm to the cooler where she charged us about 3 times the normal amount for water. When you’re in the middle of nowhere, you don’t have a choice and you don’t complain about it. That water was the sweetest thing to ever hit my lips.
The little plot of one-room huts, and the home of Claudio and Yola, was on the other side of a different river, one that forked with the first river we crossed. When we arrived, we pretty much collapsed on their large, porch-like outdoor restaurant. We were cradled in the Andes, burnt to hell, and dead tired at about 1:30 in the afternoon. It was a very accomplished feeling, and we were ready for round two the next day.
Yola got us set up in one of the huts, which are as basic as they get. One bed, that’s it. No other furniture, no other anything. A roof over your head and a bed to sleep in is all you need after a day like we’d just had. Not to mention some delicious local food from a great cook. Dinner is communal…all 7 of us who made it to Yola and Claudio’s home had a 4 course dinner together, complete with drinks and dessert. Between Teresa and I, we paid about $40 for all of the food, including what we bought to take with us the next day, and a place to crash for the evening. It was a pretty sweet deal.
We were far more mentally prepared for the next day, but as it would turn out, we wouldn’t have to be. We relaxed on a patch of lawn that evening, staring up at the sky and mountains. Bliss.