Now we know which way we should have gone, my Aussie friend Christina and I are baffled as to how we got so lost on the Colca Canyon trek near Cabanaconde in southern Peru.
We’d already dismissed the hot Peruvian hostel owner’s advice to leave at 7 am in favour of a lie in. How hard could it be to descend into a canyon and back out again in one day?
After a leisurely breakfast, we strolled towards the town centre at 9 am in search of the ‘Sangalle’ path. It’s just at the end of a street that leads off the main square, so this was easy to find, with a bit of help from the locals.
But then, somehow, things went pear shaped. Perhaps we were too busy chatting or taking photos, but we found ourselves weaving through terraced maize fields, following vague paths towards a point where we could see the canyon drop down below.
There was a cute little dog following us, which we nicknamed ‘Puppy’. We decided he must know the route so we strode on behind him, losing more and more altitude as we went.
But soon the paths became harder to spot, and harder to navigate. After trying one side of a mini-canyon, where overgrown shrubs got tangled in our hair and our legs were scratched with cactus spikes, we opted for the other side.
There was a local man with missing teeth wandering up the path. He seemed crazy. We asked him if this was the way and he replied in an indecipherable mumble of Spanish. Did we detect the word ‘peligroso’ – Spanish for dangerous?
Never mind. We decided to push on. We shouted ‘gracias’ and continued on our way, squeezing behind the back legs of a wild horse on a very narrow path beside a cliff. In hindsight, we were the crazy ones!
Eventually, the path ran out. As we backtracked, we saw hundreds of other tiny paths and it dawned on us that these were just worn down by the locals. South America might not have a reputation for safety, but there was no way the path we’d taken was recommended as a moderate hike for tourists.
On the way back through the maize fields, we asked another man the way. After various attempts at ‘Hola’, ‘Perdon senor’ and ‘Disculpe’, we think we detected a quick exasperated exhalation of breath, but he didn’t even turn round.
Meanwhile, the dog was barking like crazy and following paths in any direction. Would we ever find our way?! We contemplated returning to the hostel in defeat (if we could even find that!).
Finally, a kind woman in the fields pointed out the way and we clambered over maize terraces until we found a wide, well-trodden trail. This was it! An hour and a half later and we were on our way!
We showed our tourist tickets to the park warden (you need to buy one for S.70 to visit most of the attractions in the area) and finally began the descent into the canyon.
It took us almost two and a half hot and dusty hours to reach the bottom. The path winds forward and back the whole way down, so at least it’s not ridiculously steep, but it does take it out on your calf muscles.
At one point, Christina screamed as we passed a man who had been resting silently in a patch of shade behind a rock. It was almost too much for us!
The ‘oasis’ at the bottom is a small hostel with wooden huts, a bar, a camp fire and, most inviting of all, a pool with miniature waterfall. It’s name couldn’t be more appropriate. We set about consuming their entire supply of fresh oranges and realised how desperately we wanted to stay the night.
So much so, in fact, that we asked the woman who owned the hostel to call our place in Cabanaconde to see if we could convince our friend Diego to come and join us, and bring our swimming gear and tooth brushes while he was at it! When we told him about this later, he was very relieved the line hadn’t connected!
We were left with no choice. We had to head straight back up the canyon just 45 minutes later, in the heat of the afternoon. Even the locals thought we were insane. They tried to sell us donkey rides for S.50 each, but we didn’t want to feel like we’d taken the easy way out.
Laden with litres of water, we began the long slog back to Cabanaconde. It took discipline not to down every last drop in the first hour. The sun was incessant and the dust clogged our noses and throats.
Somehow, we pulled through the ordeal, and emerged at the viewpoint after 3 hours of uphill climbing. We were overjoyed to have made it, especially because it was still daylight and the prospect of being stuck in a canyon after dark with one weak head torch between us had not been inviting.
We were actually lucky to have timed it the way we did. As we strolled back through the maize fields and into town, we were able to watch the sun set, casting an orange glow over the surrounding countryside and mountains.
If you’re thinking about doing the Sangalle trek, there are a few lessons you might want to take from our experience:
– If the locals tell you to leave early in the morning, do it!
– Keep your eye on the path as you make your way through the maize terraces. On your way down, there’s a sign and a sharp right. We think this might have been where we went wrong.
– If you follow the dog, you could end up anywhere.
– You should really spend a night chilling at the oasis if you have the time to spare.