Having smashed (crawled) up the four-day Inca Trail a week earlier, my hiking confidence was at an all time high. Is hiking like childbirth? Because within days, I have forgotten the pain of Dead Woman’s Pass (the long, uphill climb at high altitudes – peaked at 4215m above sea level) and the Gringo Slayer (the knee breaking downhill slog), not to mention the atrocious bathrooms. There is people’s shit (literally) everywhere and I stepped right into it. I vowed not to speak of this again, except I’ve just blogged it… I was never good at keeping secrets.

Anyway, I will let the pictures of the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu speak for themselves. Because this blog is about the Colca Canyon which Lindsay and I hiked independently. The Colca Canyon is in Southern Peru. As one of the largest canyons in the world, visitors can trek into the canyon and camp overnight at the valley known as the Sangalle (The Oasis). Despite the spectacular landscapes, travellers are too distracted by the Inca Trail to come in droves. This makes the Colca Canyon perfect for those seeking a bit more solitude and serenity.

Starting the Colca Canyon trek.
The Sangalle (Oasis), the green patch at the bottom.
The Sangalle (Oasis), the green patch at the bottom.

There are many tour operators offering cheap, cookie cutter packages to the Colca Canyon. They generally depart from the Quips (Arequipa), Peruvian’s second biggest city with a population of about a million people. The hotel pick up is at 3am (brutal!) so you can arrive at some viewpoint (Mirador Cruz del Condor) to see special birds which only appear mid-morning. After that, you hike and spend one night at the Sangalle before hiking back out.

After the rigid programming of the Inca Trail, Lindsay being anti-tour in general and neither of us caring enough for birds to wake up at 3am, we decided to do it ourselves. After all, Lindsay has a beard now; he is practically Bear Grylls.

Our first challenge was to find a bus to Cabanaconde (Colca Canyon) from the Quips. We decided to take a local bus which left at 11.45am. There are no toilets on a local bus. If nature calls, tap the driver and he will pull aside for you so you can do your business on the side of the road. The local bus also stops in all the small villages to pick up and drop off passengers. The entire trip costs S17 ($6 AUD). It covers roughly 215km and takes an astounding six hours.

After some hairy bends, we made it to Cabanaconde, a one-donkey town with a population of 1300. We found our hostel and we started preparing for our hike. After reading blogs, speaking to fellow hikers and visiting a dingy tourist information office which provided even dingier maps, we planned our route.

The map we followed which was neither technical or to scale.
The map we followed which was neither technical or to scale.

We would follow the red line, going anti-clockwise, towards San Juan de Chuccho. We would then continue to Malata via Cosñihua and we would stay overnight at Malata.

On the second day, we would trek left past Paclla and some other towns which have fallen off the map, before heading back to Cabanaconde. We planned to skip the Sangalle as nobody had anything good to say about it. While it looks pretty from above, with lush green palm trees and blue swimming pools, the lodging is apparently beyond basic.

With Lindsay’s beard and my trepidation, we set off. We trekked downhill for about four hours and we made it to San Juan by following boot prints and checking with locals and the occasional hiker along the way.

We stopped for lunch: barley soup and lomo saltado – beef strips fried with onions, tomatoes and coriander, served with rice and chips. For S10 ($4), it was very delicious given we were in the middle of nowhere. We also saw plenty of cheap and nice looking hospedajes (basic lodging) so we were confident that we would find something similar in Malata.

Wrong! After lunch, we powered uphill for another 90 minutes, arriving in Malata. We were told that we could stay in Malata. Lies! Malata is a ghost town with a population of no one. We saw signs for accommodation but there was no actual accommodation. Disheartened, we hiked back to Cosñihua where we had seen a sign for board. We found two options. The first one said to come back in two hours (!). The second showed us four walls built on top of dirt with a bed. The bathroom was outside, just next to the cage of multiple fat guinea pigs, waiting to be slaughtered and fried.

An aqueduct  en route to Malata
An aqueduct en route to Malata

It was only 3pm. We weren’t desperate enough. Reviewing our dingy map, we weren’t sure how far Paclla was and whether there would be any board. We did know that the Sangalle was a 90-minute downhill trek.

The rooms may be basic but poolside was better than doomed micro pigs so we marched on. By the time we made it to the Sangalle, we had hiked for 16km. At the entry of the Sangalle, the owner of one of the lodges sold us a swimming pool, hot showers, a double room for S30 ($12) and a two-course dinner for S10 ($4) – potato soup and spaghetti with chopped up tomato.

I guess the pool was ok.

Too exhausted to haggle or look for other options, we accepted. I can now verify that the Oasis is indeed a shithole. Our room was a mud brick hut with a bamboo roof. The shared bathrooms were tolerable and our sheets were stained.

After a quick sob and a tanty, Lindsay dragged my sorry arse to the swimming pool. At least the water was clean.

We chatted to fellow hikers and somehow the night passed. We rose early the next day so we could hike out of this hellhole. The steep uphill climb was a set of never ending switchbacks and the sun was relentless even at 8am. It was made all the harder when we ran out of water about half way up. It took us an excruciatingly painful four hours to hike up. Some bloggers have reported doing it in two.

On arrival to Cabanaconde, we gulped down a litre of water each and I vowed to never hike again.

Our room at the Oasis: better than staying with guinea pigs
The zig zag path to the top.
The zig zag path to the top. Bruuuutal!