Trekking the Colca Canyon: I don’t need no mule!

I’m bloody minded. If someone tells me I can’t do something I try my best to prove them wrong. This character trait of mine forms the basis of this blog post. 

We’ve arrived in Arequipa and booked ourselves onto a two-day one-night trek and tour of the Colca Canyon. The trekking difficulty is described as easy, as you can see in the pre-tour information below, which is good because we only finished the Inca Trail three days ago and we’re not up for anything strenuous. We’re thinking it’s going to be a comfortable, slow walk down. Maybe we will do some gentle zig-zags and end up in the canyon ready for a beer and a good night’s sleep.

We are picked up from our hostel at 3am, grab breakfast in Chivay three hours later and arrive at the condor viewpoint just in time to see the last flights of the huge birds before they retire for the morning. All in all a good start.

We arrive at the trek starting point at 10:30am, about an hour behind schedule because of some roadworks, and put our sun cream on. We’ve been told that it could reach 35 degrees at midday.

The trek starts off gently. We can see the paths down into the canyon and we can even make out the oasis that we will be staying in that evening. It looks great. We start walking and after about half an hour we turn a corner that makes me slightly more doubtful about the ‘easy’ rating of this trek.

It’s at that point we begin our 1200-metre decent of the canyon, from about 3300 metres altitude. We’ve got two hours to complete this before lunch. This means a whole lot of steps down on a slippery, gravelly terrain in midday sunshine.

It’s so tiring and not what I had expected at all. I start to doubt my ability to keep up with the group but I remain positive because I completed the Inca Trail last week so surely I can do this ‘easy’ trek.

The tour guide keeps pushing us to go slightly faster because we started the trek late, even though we’ve actually been allocated four hours for this part. Half way down he suggests that I might want to take a mule in the afternoon.

One of the things about the Colca Canyon trek is that if you struggle and don’t think you’re going to be able to complete it in the time allocated, they can call you a mule for you to ride on to your destination. At an extra cost, of course.

I say no to the mule, press on and we make it to the lunch point, on time, where I think the worst is behind me.

After lunch we trek for another three hours (we were allocated four to five in the itinerary), going up and down the canyon to cross rivers, and finally arrive at where we are staying just before dark. We’re now at an altitude of 1900 metres in a village called Sangalle.

There were points during the afternoon where I struggled on the steep steps and the guide again suggests that I should take a mule in the morning to avoid being slow. He says that the two-day, one-night trek is more for “active bodied people” and suggests that I should have done a slower, three-day tour. I’m starting to get angry because this trek was sold to me as ‘easy’. I know I’m not as fast as everyone else but I’m not holding anything up, I just want to go at my own pace and enjoy it. If I start to mess the itinerary up then I will start thinking about other options.

I arrive at the lodge with Alex about 5 minutes after everyone else, and we have three hours until dinner so it doesn’t seem that we needed to rush. I don’t think that’s a bad effort. We’ve trekked 15km on rocky terrain and descended about 1400m in just five hours – that’s faster than anything I did on the Inca Trail. However, I’m sitting in my lodge feeling like utter shit because the guide has led me to believe that I was going too slow, holding people up and that I wouldn’t be able to handle the next day.

I sit down after a shower and share a beer with Alex. I’m starting to feel better but I’m still struggling with whether or not I should take a mule the next day. Alex is trying his best to convince me that I can walk it.

Our guide comes over just before dinner is served and he says to the whole group that tomorrow we will start at 4.30am and it is a steep climb straight out of the canyon to reach the top. He lists the morning itinerary as follows:

4.30am Start trekking

7.30am Reach the top of the canyon and have ten minutes to take pictures

7.40am Walk to the breakfast place

8am Have breakfast

9am Get collected by the coach and drive to the hot springs and viewpoints

He tells us that he can complete the ascent in just one and a half hours, and that he has allowed three hours for the group. Of course he can do it faster. It’s his fucking job and he lives at high altitude.

He says that we won’t have time to wait for slow people in the morning, “like we did today”, that we absolutely cannot take longer than three hours, so if anyone knows they will struggle they should ask for a mule. Anyway, I’m starting to get really angry because he is directing this at me, and I know I can do it. I’m an Inca Warrior!

I take myself to bed feeling really glum and leave Alex to finish his dinner.

Unbeknown to me, the guide went over to the group again and asked Alex in front of everyone if I was OK. Alex said yes, and that we weren’t expecting the trek to be so tough. The guide asks if I’m going to take a mule and Alex says no, he knows that I can do it. The guide pushes and tells Alex that from what he had seen today I wouldn’t make it up the canyon on time, and that he wants me to take a mule. Alex says no and gets angry about it, leaving it at that. (I find this out near the top the next day. Alex has saved it as extra motivation).

I wake up at 4am. I’m really pissed off that the guide has made me feel so rubbish about myself. I know it’s tough and I know I’m not as fast as the others, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t do it. I’ve decided to prove him wrong.

We have to climb over 1400m in three hours, with no breakfast.

I’m ready to go at 4.18am and Alex suggests to the guide that we set off a bit early to get a head start. He says no. This is how the rest of the morning unfolds:

4.38am We start trekking as a group (remember, we’ve been allocated three hours to get to the top). We’re going slow enough and we have a short break.

5.10am I stop to get some water so the guide stops the whole group and asks in front of everyone if I’m OK. I say yes and tell him to carry on. He doesn’t, so I wait until the back of the group so I can stop for water without him embarrassing me.

5.20am I start to drop off because he is going too quickly for me up the steep steps. It doesn’t feel like it’s ok for us to go at our own pace and take frequent stops for water – all we’ve been told is that we can’t go slow.

5.50am I’ve given up trying to please the guide and just decide to stop when I want to, to grab drinks and snacks, Alex with me all the way.

6.10am The sun is starting to come up and it looks like we’ve covered a lot of ground. The top is in sight and I start believing that I might even do it a little faster. At this point the guide has given up waiting. He sometimes stops to look disapprovingly down at me and Alex. I’m almost certain that he thinks we aren’t going to make it on time.

6.30am The sun is creeping up and as we get higher, we realise there is an extra part to climb that we couldn’t see before. Maybe the guide was right.

7.08am We’re near the top but I’m really starting to doubt if I can do it. Alex is cheering me on and I’m going a bit slower because my legs have no energy left. He also tells me the story of the guide insisting that I wouldn’t be able to do it. I’m chanting ‘prove him fucking wrong’ to myself with every step.

7.17am Really near the top but I’m annoyed because it’s unlikely that I’ll reach it by 7.30am. I tell myself that he will just have to wait and I don’t care if the guide is annoyed with me. There’s nothing I can do right now. A few people on mules come past us; I think about how terrifying it would have been to take that option.

7.32am I throw my sticks down on the ground and shout ‘fuck you, I did it in three hours’, to smiles from the group. I’ve made it to the top. We have a coffee and carry on with the itinerary as planned.

Top of the Colca Canyon

Smiling faces when we reached the top of Colca Canyon

I did it. I climbed 1400m, almost directly up and out of the canyon, with no breakfast and no encouragement or belief from my guide, in the three hours he had allocated (our preliminary itinerary had told us we would have four hours). A week earlier I had climbed a similar height (albeit at a harder altitude) in around five hours.

We had paid to go on a two-day tour of the canyon. To see the views and enjoy an ‘easy’ trek. We didn’t expect what we got, which probably made it feel worse. But it just showed me how important a good guide is. And it proved to me that my mind really is stronger than my matter. Believe you can do it and you will achieve anything. It also feels goods to prove doubters wrong in the process.

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