Unfinished Business in Peru’s Colca Valley

After a few easy days back in Arequipa, I was excited to hit the road again. Maybe not so excited for the long and familiar climb out of the traffic of the city, but it was between me and the Valle del Colca, so I tried to keep my eyes on the prize…

As I slowly climbed above the sprawling city, smoke began to fill the air. I looked back to see a small brush fire that was rapidly growing in size, moving its way up the mountainside and jumping over the section of road I’d previously climbed. The wind had picked up and was pushing the fire in my direction and my lungs were already feeling it, but with no real alternative routes, I had no choice but to try to haul ass up to 4150m, where the gradient would ease off a bit. For a few hours straight I didn’t stop for a break to have a snack or even snap a photo. Only moving forward with an occasional glance back to see if the billowing smoke was getting closer.

As I reached the pampa, rounding around the edge of Nevado Chachani, the smoke finally began to clear and my lungs could breathe a sigh of relief.

The switchbacks were done, but the climbing was far from over as I still had to make my way up to the final 4850m pass before beginning the descent into the upper slopes of the famed Colca Canyon, one of the deepest in the world at more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon.

The last time I was in this region I had attempted to plan a route through this area from the Valle de Los Volcanes, however, a particularly rugged stretch of terrain at the very bottom of the canyon still had no road through at that point, which forced me to change those plans.  Luckily, in the few years since then, a dirt road through has been completed, giving me a chance to finish the route I’d always intended.

From Chivay, it was easy cruising along a quiet paved road in the terraced hills. Any of the quiet villages along the way made for perfect spots to stop for a break in the shade of their main square, prep a nice pan con palta for lunch, and chat with locals about the history of the valley and the surrounding volcanoes.

Slowly the road began to climb again and the views of the canyon below become more impressive with every kilometer. Looking for a nice place to stay for the night amongst the vertical terrain, I stopped at a small farm/restaurant perched on the cliff and asked if I could pitch my tent. With the lack of tourists around these days, they were excited to see me, and I was equally excited for the food they could whip up fresh from their garden.

I spent the evening listening to a band playing traditional Andean music as it echoed off of the canyon walls from a village more than 1000m down the cliffside, on the opposite side of the valley. In the night, I was serenaded by my personal guard dog/bear growling at every little moving object it could spot in the garden.

The following morning I continued along the road, this time climbing up above 4000m (13,100ft) again before unveiling a long and winding road, dotted with cacti, that gradually descended deep into the valley below.

After an amazing stretch of twists and turns, I made a late-afternoon restaurant stop in the village of Huambo for a typical mountain of rice topped with a fried egg and a few boiled potatoes from the surrounding hills. I debated on continuing down into the canyon or finding a hotel for the night since the steep terrain below seemed questionable for pitching a tent based on my topo map. A chat with a couple of locals in the town’s Plaza de Armas gave a few hints on places I might be able to camp along the road, so I decided to buy a few supplies and keep on moving.

Upon leaving the village, the road immediately turned to dirt. Switchbacks slithered steeply over the Río Huambo. Considering the total lack of traffic, I was starting to get a sense of why this road took so long to complete.

About halfway down I spotted an old and unused road zig-zagging down the hillside that looked to head straight to the river below. This seemed like my best shot at a campsite that wasn’t right next to the road, so I made my way down the boulder-strewn and overgrown path, trying not to think about how much of a pain in the ass it would be to push back up in the morning.

I reached the bottom of the track and found a perfect flat spot next to the river. Unaware at the time that I’d soon be bombarded by tiny mosquitos that seem immune to the repellant I’d picked up in Arequipa. Nights are typically freezing in Peru, so mosquitos were not something I was used to dealing with, though I did enjoy sleeping with my sleeping bag unzipped instead of my typical down cocoon.

The next morning I pushed my way back up to the road and began my descent toward the Colca River. I arrived in Canco at around 11 am to find a tiny isolated village tucked into a little green oasis amongst the canyon walls. I can only imagine what getting here was like just a handful of years ago, when no road in existed. In total, around 10 families live here, with most earning a living by growing mangos and avocados.

Just as I was about to continue out of the village I heard a shout from the field below. I looked over to see a man waving me over with his arms. He introduced himself as David, the local school teacher, and invited me in for some lemonade, which I of course couldn’t refuse!  There I met his whole family and a few of his neighbors, eventually getting talked into staying for lunch. They were making Estofado de Pollo that would feed many of the people working in the nearby fields and I would be in charge of prepping the peas from the garden.

Staying for lunch and getting to know more of the locals eventually turned into sticking around to walk through the hills to see some rarely visited Pre-Incan tombs, giving a real glimpse at just how long people have inhabited the area.  A trip down to the river made for a perfect place to relax during the hot afternoon.  All in all, this is one of the most interesting places I’ve visited in South America.

For the night, David was kind enough to offer up a large field above the roaring Colca river, which made for a perfect spot to camp. While I didn’t exactly crank out many kilometers this day, it was easily one of my favorites in recent memory.

The next morning I went back to David’s house to share breakfast with the family and help his son practice a bit of English for school before hitting the road once again for the Valle de Los Volcanes…


My route for this section: