Many people in Peru will tell you with absolute assurance that the Canon de Colca is the deepest canyon in the world. Others will tell you with equal confidence that the nearby Canon del Cotahuasi is actually the deepest. Others still will inform you that the world’s deepest canyon is not in Peru at all but is in China/The United States/Russia/Luxembourg/Wales/Atlantis.
Whatever the truth, it is a subject which sparks healthy debate in Arequipa.
Personally I couldn’t care less whether the Canon de Colca is the deepest, highest, narrowest, shallowest, widest, oldest, newest, longest, shortest canyon in the world. It is absolutely spectacular.
I wasn’t going to let a pesky cold get in the way of trekking through one of the world’s great geological wonders, so at 3am on Saturday my alarm sounded and up I got, snivelling and sneezing, to catch the bus to Chivay, which sits at one end of the Colca valley.
It was an inauspicious start as we drove into driving rain then as we got higher, I’m talking Mont Blanc high – 4800m or so – through thick grey cloud.
We were fed a rudimentary breakfast in Chivay before continuing the journey to a famous viewpoint, the Cruz del Condor which looks down over the canyon. But since we could only see about ten yards through the wet haze it was a less than inspiring stop off.
The bus trundled on for another 25 minutes or so to where we would start the circular trek down into the canyon and back up the other side before a steep descent to the oasis, Sangalle, at its base.
So into the fog we marched, unable to see anything anything beyond the ragged path which zigzagged down the near vertical canyon wall.
After nearly an hour of determined cheeriness our collective prayers were answered. The cloud began to lift and clear allowing us at last to gasp in admiration at the incredible gorge falling thousands of feet to the small river below.
Then a mighty condor glided past, proudly exhibiting his 13ft wingspan, a sign our fortunes were changing.
The rainy season here is supposed to be confined to December, January and February but this year it has decided to greedily annex March as well.
This did however mean that the canyon, usually brown and arid, was bursting with green vegetation adding to its already magnificent vistas.
We walked for six hours that day, into its heart, to rest among its ancient rocks. Looking back at the terrain we had traversed it seemed impossible that anyone could have walked there. We were all asleep by 8.30pm.
As an aside, it turns out that walking up and down mountains at high altitude cures a cold better than any hot toddy or day nurse.
By the end of the first day my headache had nearly disappeared, I could breathe again, and only had to blow my nose every couple of hours.
The next morning was brutal. Up at 4.45am and walking by 5am with a relentless three hour climb ahead of us before breakfast. But as dawn crept over the distant icy peaks, it was a perfect clear blue sky which greeted us.
And my body appeared to have finally come to terms with the altitude – or maybe it was the promise of scrambled eggs at the top – because I whizzed up that mountain.
I won’t pretend I found it easy, it was exhausting but I was sitting relaxing in the early morning sunshine by the time the rest of the group arrived. Such smugness is very unseemly I know, but I feel it is allowed here because my fellow trekkers were all at least five years younger than me. Mwah ha!
From the top we all had the satisfaction of looking at the 1000m drop to the river which we had just ascended. Beyond the gorge the mountains rose, snow peaked and glistening. And scrambled eggs had never tasted so good.
We drove back to Arequipa via a number of amazing ‘viewpoints’ from which we could admire miles of Inca and pre-Inc terracing along the valley but predictably as we neared the city the angry clouds closed in around us once again and that familiar clatter of rain started to attack the bus.
After racing through a downpour to my hostel, wet and cold once more, I decided I would no longer be a hostage to the weather. I boarded a bus to Cuzco the next day.