Day One of Trekking the Colca Canyon: Condors, Altitude Sickness, and an Endless Battle Between Body Vs. Mind

Well, I made it down the second deepest canyon in the world, and halfway up the other side to stay in a tiny, family-run hostel- but let’s start from the beginning.

The Colca Canyon, near the city of Arequipa, is infamous in the area for offering treks where tourists and backpackers alike can enjoy nature and incredible scenery. Rather inexperienced, I happily obliged to trek Colca for three days and two nights. I never did a trek before in my life and well, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. This seemed like a great opportunity to try something new, get out of my comfort zone, and at the very least, it would make for a great story.

My first time in the Andes!
My first time in the Andes!

With the trek beginning at 3am, I tried to get to sleep by 10am, knowing I was going to need every every last bit of energy to do this trek- especially because I lacked a gym routine in my life for the past 5+ months I’ve spent traveling. This was also my first time entering a zone of high altitude. I did my best to pack conservatively since I’d be carrying my bag the whole time. I brought some altitude medicine and coca candy for emergencies. That evening when I began packing, a typically loud Friday night fiesta filled the streets with sounds of live music and MCs. The part sounded like it was outside my window. After surrendering to ear plugs, I managed to sleep for three hours. Excellent. Don’t you know, as soon as the 2:45am alarm went off, the party finished and everything was nice and quiet…because God thinks He’s funny when He does stuff like this.

One excellent comfort was that I managed to make friends with an awesome French girl, Laurine, while shopping for alpaca hats the day before. By pure coincidence, we booked the same tour, so I looked forward to a familiar face. Yes, in the world of backpacking, meeting someone you get along with and seeing them a second time makes them a familiar face. After getting into the van I drifted off to sleep for about an hour en route to the infamous condor lookout point.

All of the sudden, I woke up around 6am unable to catch my breath. My heart was pounding out of my chest uncontrollably. Oh crap, here it comes. I should have taken my medicine upon leaving Arequipa but I had no idea this was coming. I peered out the curtained window to see that we were almost level with the peaks of the enormous snow-capped mountains and volcanoes. Luckily I was able to ward off most of the harsh cold with my hat and gloves, but it’s not easy to catch your breath at such altitude in the cold. An immense and powerful wave of nausea began to consume me. I rushed to take my medicine and eat my candies, but I was too far gone. Crap. I prayed that I wouldn’t throw up in the van (the best way to make friends with your trekking group) and tried my best to regulate my breathing and rest.

In case anyone wants to know what I look like when I feel like I'm experiencing heart failure, I took a selfie. I know- just, shhh.
In case anyone wants to know what I look like when I feel like I’m experiencing heart failure, I took a selfie. I know- just, shhh.

Two hours later, we descended from the 4100m altitude into the nearest town to have breakfast. The friendly group I was with exchanged names and all spoke Spanish, which was quite nice. We were each served a piece of stale bread- a nourishing meal for the challenging trek ahead. I ordered a scrambled egg, but nearly gagged at the smell of it combined with my sickness. The rest of the group remained unbothered- either coming from higher places like Bolivia, or just more tolerant. However, everyone kindly showed concern for me and offered me different remedies or support.

After breakfast, we descended further to Cabanaconde, a beautiful lookout point to admire condors and the landscape. These massive birds were absolutely majestic, it is no wonder that the Incans viewed them as part of their trinity along with the puma and the serpent. My sickness came and went, but the condors were certainly an excellent distraction. It’s amazing to see how high they fly and how effortless they make it look, as their huge wings allow them to just glide across the sky with minimum flapping in between. The regular-sized birds that you and I are used to looked like little bugs next to the condors. The condor is a monogamous animal. When one dies, their mate will fly as high as they can and then stop- to plummet downwards and commit suicide. Romeo and Juliet and it’s finest.Colca Condor 1Colca Condor 2

To no delay, we were dropped off to meet our guides and begin our trek. Our group was separated and rejoined with others as some were trekking for two days, and some for three. We were told that the first tow days were split into descending into the canyon, while our third day would be spent climbing out. Our group became acquainted quickly- 3 experienced trekkers: 2 French, 1 Swiss; my French friend from the alpaca shop, a German girl, 2 Spanish girls, a Chinese-American woman with her 8-year-old son, and me. (I’m almost always the only American wherever I go…Sad, isn’t it?)

Well, to sum things up, that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. My feet were slipping around in my running shoes, which could barely grab onto the ground beneath me (ugly fashion faux pas hiking shoes were everything I ever wanted in these moments). The trail was quite wide, but all dust, covering me from head to toe.

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Breathing through my nose was no longer an option. What was supposed to be a three hour hike really took us five. Many times I walked alone and other times exchanging stories with the Spaniards and German. None of us were a match for the experience trekkers. About two thirds of the way through, my body stopped obeying me. My legs were shaking. I was misstepping. If I made any further mistakes, I was not far from just falling down the canyon.

If you can see the small spot of blue at the bottom of the canyon- that's the oasis we would hike down to by Day 2, and then begin our trek out from on Day 3.
If you can see the small spot of blue at the bottom of the canyon- that’s the oasis we would hike down to by Day 2, and then begin our trek out from on Day 3.

Why the heck was I doing this?!

At one point, our guide asked how I was doing. I replied, “Well” but I felt tears welling up, so I threw on my sunglasses and kept walking. Toughen up, Jessica. Between the altitude sickness, sleep deprivation and lack of food, I was dead meat.

IMG_5365

Finally we got to the bottom of the canyon and crossed the bridge over the river. We headed up toward a tiny village called San Juan de Chuccho. It was rustic with thatch buildings and no electricity. Yet, I don’t remember the last time I was so grateful for a bed- or just not to be in vertical position. This. Was. Brutal.

Colca Day 1 Hostel

We didn’t have our small-portioned lunch until about 3pm, twelve hours from waking up. My “lomo saltado” (a traditional Peruvian dish of beef tenderloin strips, sauteed onions, tomatoes and french fries) came with about 3 little strips of meat and a mountain of onions. After lunch, I headed straight to bed for a three hour siesta. Thank God. Basically, I woke up for dinner and went back to bed for ten more hours.

The view from the hostel at the bottom of the canyon.
The view from the hostel at near the bottom of the canyon.

Here I was, stuck in the second deepest canyon on Earth and tomorrow I had no choice but to keep walking.

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