Like many of life's great adventures, our trek into Peru's Colca Canyon was born not of careful planning but from a spontaneous impulse.
It was our first day in Cabanaconde, a small town nestled in a chasm deeper than the Grand Canyon in southern Peru's Arequipa region. My boyfriend and I had blocked off several days of our two-month South American backpacking trip to explore the area. We'd just returned from a short day hike and were sipping a cold Arequipena beer at our bed-and-breakfast while admiring the lush expanse of the canyon.
That's when I saw it. Far off in the distance, a small white waterfall stood out against the wall of green. Alex and I looked at each other, both struck by the adventure itch. We weren't leaving until we'd seen that waterfall up close and felt its cool water on our faces.
As it turned out, the white blip that we'd set our sights on was the Huaruro waterfall, a 250-foot behemoth accessible from the small village of Fure on the opposite side of the canyon.
Though Alex and I pride ourselves on being active, outdoorsy people, we're far from expert mountaineers. Our four years of dating and living in Washington had been lacking in the nature department. This was unfamiliar territory, so we hired a local guide named Rosas to lead us on our adventure.
The night before our trek, Rosas, a 5-foot-tall Quechua man, came to our hotel to brief us on our trip. Starting at 7:30 the next morning, he said in Spanish as I translated for Alex, we would hike from Cabanaconde down to the bottom of the canyon, a descent of approximately 3,300 feet. We'd cross the Colca River, have lunch in the town of Llahuar, hike up about 1,800 feet to the town of Llatica and then continue up another 1,600 feet to Fure, where we would sleep that first night.
The next day, we'd set out for the waterfall and then hike back down the canyon to the Sangalle oasis, where we'd spend the night. Then, early in the morning of the third day, we'd leave the oasis to hike up another 3,300 feet back to Cabanaconde and civilization.
It was a route that Rosas didn't do often, but for the three days of guiding, he charged us only about $50 (lodging and food for the three of us averaged an additional $25 per night).
It seemed ambitious. Fortunately, we had no real idea of what we were in for.
The next morning, we awoke at 6 and ate breakfast. Rosas came to our hotel to meet us at around 7:30. We walked through the town of Cabanaconde, passing an empty bullfighting ring and the goal of a now-defunct soccer stadium. From there, we started the descent into the canyon.
Almost immediately, Rosas started pointing out all kinds of indigenous herbs and fruits. A plethora of plants with a variety of uses grow in the canyon: muna for indigestion, cactus fruit for asthma and jatupa for insecticide, for starters. The canyon also hosts an incredible bounty of fruit. Peaches, apples, papaya, several different types of squash, lucuma, corn, mango and figs all flourish there.
With five hours of descent under our belts, we crossed the rushing Colca River and arrived at Llahuar, a small settlement consisting of two guesthouses, where we ate a lunch of trout, soup and rice overlooking the convergence of the Colca and Huaruro rivers.
After lunch, we ascended to the town of Llatica, a sleepy place with a rundown church. At the end of the first uphill leg of our trip, I was inordinately winded. I maintain that this was due to the altitude (about 12,000 feet), not the fact that I was, well, a bit out of shape. Regardless, I was sucking wind. So Rosas took us to Llatica on an alternate path, along a concrete-lined canal on the side of the mountain. At one point, I was so focused on where to step that I walked straight into a rock overhang and banged my forehead. It would have been a long drop down.
Once we reached Llatica, we rested and snacked on pichang, a fruit Rosas had foraged for us. Pichang might just be the strangest fruit I've ever tasted. To eat it, you suck gummy banana-flavored goo from around the seeds and then spit them out.
That's when things started to get interesting. We'd barely started along the path from Llatica to Fure when we ran into an older Peruvian couple bearing bad news. The path to Fure had been blocked by a rockslide. Specifically, the older woman said that I wouldn't be able to cross the affected path, which was now apparently a heaping pile of boulders. Gee, thanks for the vote of confidence! The couple urged us to take a different trail, one that went almost to the top of the mountain and then descended to Fure.
I, of course, was wary of this option, considering the dire state of my lungs. But if we reached the rockslide and couldn't get around it, we'd have to return all the way to Llatica in the dark for the night. It was already around 3:30 in the afternoon, and we'd been hiking for eight hours.
If we'd been smarter, we would have stopped right there and stayed in Llatica. We weren't.
A few paces farther down the trail, Rosas encountered a younger fellow from Fure, who seemed more confident about our chances with the rockslide. The catch, though, was that we'd have to rock-climb up a 20-foot chasm in the mountain. There were no ropes and no harnesses, and there certainly was no emergency room close enough to make any difference.
Alex was excited to use the rock-climbing skills he'd been cultivating over the past year, but I had none to speak of.
Rosas seemed confident that we could make the climb with the help of our new friend, so we set off to try our luck. But by then, my legs were shot. Any ascent, no matter how small, proved increasingly difficult, and Fure was still a substantial distance away. Alex was behind me the whole way, deferring to me if I wanted to turn around or take a break.
With each step up, I thought of the little Peruvian woman who'd been so sure that I wouldn't make it up the rockslide. I'll show her, I thought.
By the time we got to the slide, I was running on fumes. The path ended and in its place stood a substantial rock face, which there was now no choice but to climb. On either side of the rockslide, the mountain shot straight up and dropped straight down, so there would be no walking around the boulders, which were so large and so steadfast that I would have guessed they'd been that way for years. Fortunately, a crack about five inches wide had opened up between them, hinting at a route up the face.
Our new friend took my backpack up with him, and Rosas followed behind. Both he and Alex coached me on where to place my hands and feet. I made a couple of moves, but about two-thirds of the way up, I got stuck. For nearly a minute, I balanced on one toe on the crack in the rock, using three fingers to grip the rock above my head. I held myself there, paralyzed, unsure whether my next move would hoist me up or land me with a broken leg. I was mentally kicking myself for not having gone to a rock-climbing gym with Alex before we left Washington.
Honestly, though, the climb was almost a relief, because I was able to make use of my arms in addition to my legs. With one big heave that involved placing my other foot on the rock above my hip and hoisting myself up, I cleared the worst of the climb. From there, just two more moves took me to the top. Rosas helped me up at the end, and Alex scrambled up quickly behind me. Triumph was ours, and our endorphins pumped pure elation.
We picked up the trail again on the other side of the rockslide, and from there, we crossed a rickety bridge to Fure, where we were shown to our room for the night: a mud hut with four walls, a dirt floor and a mattress propped up on bamboo and logs.
After a wash in the town's natural spring and a dinner of soup, squash puree and white rice, we went to bed and slept not as soundly as we would have liked until 6 a.m., when we set out for our ultimate destination, the Huaruro waterfall.
After a relatively mild hour-and-a-half hike that included fording two rivers Oregon Trail-style, we approached the waterfall. At first, all we could see was a watery mist drifting up into a vivid green pasture. Then we turned a corner, and suddenly we were at the foot of a mass of water plunging to the ground. The vegetation was dripping wet from the mist, and the noise from the water's 250-foot drop silenced our conversation.
Though impressive, Huaruro wasn't the largest or tallest waterfall I'd ever seen. But that didn't matter. With this secluded fall that we'd glimpsed from our hotel in Cabanaconde now towering above us, it felt as if we'd just discovered our own secret wilderness, a sense that I hadn't experienced in longer than I could remember.
We took pictures and spent time just gazing at the waterfall and reveling in the mist. Then we hiked back to Fure for some mediocre pancakes before beginning the day's trek down to the Sangalle oasis, where freshwater pools and a tropical climate awaited us. The hike was mostly downhill and luckily drama-free. By around 3 p.m., we arrived at the oasis.
Our hostel owner showed us to a half-stone, half-bamboo hut, sans lighting (our room in Fure had had a light bulb, electricity being a recent development there). This hostel was teeming with freakishly large wood bees and other unsavory insects, and our room was full of holes for them to fly or crawl into. I'm the first to admit that I can be quite squeamish when it comes to most bugs, though of course they love me. So I was particularly uncomfortable with our setup. The oasis has four hotels, and I'm fairly certain that ours was the most "rustic."
Rosas cooked us dinner, a basic but hearty soup and spaghetti that Alex gobbled up. I, on the other hand, lost my appetite after having to pick mosquitoes and gnats out of my food before each bite. We ate outdoors at a wooden picnic table, by the light of a makeshift lantern, a candle stuck in the bottom half of a plastic soda bottle. The light was essential so that we could see our food, but it only attracted more insects to the table.
After making plans to get up early the next morning for the final 3,300-foot ascent to Cabanaconde, we retired to our hut to pack and sleep. Alex started rifling through some of our clothes on the bed, and there, crawling on my sweater, was a small but ferocious-looking scorpion, taking refuge in the folds of my fleece.
Alex took the closest thing to hand, one of my sandals, and squished it, but the episode didn't leave us excited about sleeping that night. We bundled up from head to toe so as to prevent creepy-crawlies from getting in where they didn't belong, and Alex took his flashlight to bed. We huddled together as far from the wall as possible, and woke up periodically to make sure that we were still scorpion-free. Maybe we were overreacting, but 4:45 a.m. couldn't come soon enough.
At the sound of my iPhone alarm, we bolted out of bed, checked our boots for bugs (all clear) and dressed feverishly in the dark. Armed with headlamps and flashlights and determined to leave behind what should have been a tropical paradise but more closely resembled a bad dream, we powered up the side of the canyon. We hiked along rocky switchbacks, taking it slow until, three hours and 15 minutes later, we arrived at the top to sweeping views of everywhere we'd just been. We'd made it to the other side of the canyon and back again.
After three days of hiking, we'd worked up quite an appetite, so we brought Rosas to our hotel and treated him and another hiker whom we'd befriended along the way to breakfast. The boys all drank beers at 10 a.m. and toasted our successful journey. (I toasted with much-needed coffee.)
As we ate, we gazed out at the Huaruro waterfall, once again just a tiny white speck in the green canyon. We were a little buzzed, totally exhausted and in desperate need of a hot shower. But we'd accomplished our goal of meeting the waterfall face to face — and even managed to surprise ourselves along the way.
Righthand, a former Washington Post staffer, is a freelance writer currently based in Wyoming.