That was the first thought that popped into my head on September 6th. It was 4:30am. Darkness shrouded the room, which was bare except for one bed and a side table. A cool wind crept in through the cracks of the walls of the bungalow. It pushed on my face and it made me want to bury my head under the warm blankets that covered my body.
I was at the bottom of Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world (3270m), and in a little under a half hour I had to be up and ready to hike nearly a mile of incredibly steep terrain. If you had asked me on August 6th where I’d think I’d be in a month I certainly would not have said “At the bottom of a canyon in Southern Peru.” But, the unknowing atmosphere of the trip - “where I am going to end up next?” - is one of the great many joys I have discovered while traveling down south.
I prepared myself to jump out of the warm safety of my bed and into the biting air. My muscles ached in protest. The day before I, along with a group of 8 and a guide, had descended down into the canyon and trekked through tiny towns, terraced farmland and river beds to get to our final destination: a collection of bungalows surrounding a central gazebo which served as a kitchen, dining and social setting. And even though the trek was mostly downhill, the paths between these tiny towns and river beds proved to be anything from a slight uphill grade to paths that had me gasping for breath once I reached the top.
I quickly dressed and strapped on my headlamp. I shivered as I got outside, but I knew I would be sweating soon enough. Our guide met the group outside and within minutes we were heading up the path. Our guide was a young woman not much older than I. She powered up the path in front of us, setting an ambitious pace. Twenty minutes in, we stopped for a break. I was sweating, my coat now seemed useless, and it slowly dawned on me how far away the top of the canyon was. It was going to be one hell of a trip up. I looked out over the canyon. The indigo night sky had turned light blue and one could just see the first rays of sunlight peeping out far to the east. I readjusted my pack, took a swig of water, and dug my boots back into the dirt.
The path was dusty and full of rocks. It reminded me of Huaráz, of the Santa Cruz Trek and of Máncora. In between breaths I chuckled to myself. One month, I thought to myself again.Flashing memories suddenly poured into my head.
Two days in Máncora:The beach and burying my toes in warm sand. Scurrying around at 3 in the morning trying to find a hostel because our tent had been overrun by mosquitos. Nearly falling off my paddleboard because I thought I saw a shark, only to realize that it was a 10 ft long whale shark. Trying my first ceviche (a classic Peruvian dish consisting of raw fish) and vowing to never eat it again. Sitting on the beach at night looking at the unbelievable amount of stars that decorated the sky. Renting jet skis and trying our luck with the bigger waves. Getting thrown into the ocean by my friends.
I continued to put one step in front of the other, the bungalow shacks were becoming smaller and smaller.
Eleven days in the Ancash Region: Huaráz, the Cordilleras, and the trek. Walking around the streets and the markets. Goods for sale at every turn. Making note of all the different indigenous women's dress – their skirts and their hats – which indicate social status and what village they come from. My first bout with altitude sickness as well as food poisoning. The splitting headaches and the unhappy stomach. Waking up before 5am on numerous occasions to go on treks and hikes. Laguna 69 in all of its glistening aquamarine beauty. Walking through a small indigenous community and meeting a young boy, Diego, who was absolutely fascinated with my digital watch. Being floored by the beauty of Alpamayo and Artesonraju. Huascarán National Park – a place where I will most certainly be visiting again in my life – and all its splendor. The glaciers and the valleys. Snow–capped mountains and their bare sister peaks. Feeding a donkey my only apple and watching him indulge in that strange treat. Meeting other fellow mountaineers, climbers and dreamers. The aching muscles.
I paused on the side of the trail to eat a passion fruit and a granola bar. Sweat rolled down my back. The sky was getting lighter.
Four days in Lima: The sprawling capital of Peru. The buildings, the people, and the noise. Catching up on the latest cinema blockbusters and having our fill of delicious food. Walking on the rocky beach and haggling with expensive taxis fares. Playing with two beautiful St. Bernards, Lola and Pepa, that we encountered in a park. Exploring Lima’s historic district, which reminded me immensely of Europe. Going down into the crypts of Basilica and Convent of San Francisco and staring into the empty skulls of lives long past. Getting lost in the market district and having our directional senses put to the test amongst hundreds of vendors and stalls. Stuffing our faces with chifa (chinese food) which was some of the best I’ve had. Exploring the quiet and lovely districts of Miraflores and Barranco, lined with shops and restaurants. Going to the “Magic Water Circuit”, a spectacle of over fifteen fountains ablazed in colored lights and different formations. Walking through the halls of Lima’s Art Museum and forgetting time exists for a while.
The sun had started to rise even more. The small towns perched on the canyon walls came into focus. Our group had split up, everyone going at their own pace.
One day in Pisco: A small and dusty town along the coast. Walking along the beach and finding broken but beautiful pink scallop shells. Having a toast with some very strong Pisco Sours (Peru’s national drink) at a restaurant in the late afternoon. Laughing at the fact that we were having “Pisco’s in Pisco”. Rummaging around in old World War II planes, gutted and vandalized, that were bolted to the hot ground to stand as reminders of a time long ago.
My legs ached with every step. It hurt the most when the path became large stone steps.
Two days in Huacachina: one of the wildest landscapes I’ve ever seen. Dunes that reached hundreds of feet surrounding a small desert oasis. Trying my skill at sandboarding and more often than not, getting to the bottom with a mouth full of sand. Drinking maracuya (passion fruit) juice while the sun turned the dunes gold. Going to a pisco distillery and winery to learn about the process of making pisco, an art that has been practiced for centuries. Scampering up a massive dune and walking along the top of it to catch the last glimpses of the sun for that day, and sequentially running down said dune and laughing the whole way.
I rounded yet another switchback.
Three days in Cusco: the capital of the Incan Empire. Returning to a cafe more than once because we found the food amazing. Playing with the hostel’s cat, a bright orange tabby. Getting lost in the small streets of the historic district and learning about the Inca in past and present. Making sure I wore sunscreen because it was hot and beautiful every single day.
More than halfway there. We were about 2 hours into the climb. I thought of the old man I met yesterday selling passion fruits and water. Our guide said he could hike up the canyon in 1 hour and 48 minutes. He was 70 years old.
One day in Machu Picchu: one of the main highlights of the trip so far. Waking up at 3:45am to be out of the hostel by 4:30am to then stand in line for an hour to catch the bus to the gates. Walking around absolutely incredible ruins, which seemed to be perfectly preserved, and imagining what it would have been like to see the city in the height of its glory. Hiking up Huayna Picchu, the mountain which is the classic backdrop to every Machu Picchu postcard, and looking out over the ruins, the valley, and the surrounding mountains as the sun drenched the view. Admiring the llamas that call Machu Picchu home. Running into an alum of my alma mater and thinking how it’s funny that things like that occur. Having the feeling of just being completely dumbfounded and utterly grateful because you’re standing in a place that you’ve only seen pictures of, that you’ve only dreamed of one day stepping foot in.
I breached the first part of the path that was graced by sunlight. It felt warm on my back and blinded my eyes.
One day in Ollantaytambo: a small town nestled in the Sacred Valley. Walking around tight streets and being amazed at how quiet it was. Looking at history by gazing out over the ruins on the mountain sides which towered above us.
I could see the rim of the canyon, it wasn’t much farther. My black pants were absolutely covered in dust.
One day in Arequipa: the white city. Walking into the main square and being dwarfed by the twin towers of the massive white cathedral. Looking out from the hostel window and seeing Misti (5822m), the volcano which stands as a guard and as a harbinger to the city, its last eruption in 1985. Walking down the paved white streets and being instantly reminded of coastal towns in Spain, places I keep close to my heart. Learning about artesanal alpaca weaving and wasting the afternoon away wandering in and out of quaint shops, which sold anything from antiques to alpaca clothing.
I could hear other hikers chattering above me. This was the final stretch.
Yesterday: hiking down into the canyon. Waking up at 2:30am to catch a bus from Arequipa to make sure we arrive at Cruz del Condor by 6am, a lookout point where condors can be seen soaring overhead. I marveled at their beauty and their immense size.
The whole canyon was now washed in the morning sun. It was quarter to 8am.
Today: hiking back up the canyon.
I took the last few steps onto flat ground. I felt relieved, proud, and utterly exhausted. I spit on the ground, releasing a combination of dust and sweat. Turning around, I looked out to the beauty that surrounded me, the canyon that cracked into the earth.
One month. Not too bad, Peru.