XXXVI. Canon de Colca – descent to the river
Today I am going down into the Canyon, by foot, and possibly by mule on the climb back up. Ragna is not. She’s also probably not best pleased that I am, because I’m an old guy with a very bad knee. (The knee is why there’ll be a mule for me if I need her.) I start early, to avoid doing too much of the descent or ascent in the heat of the day.
Initially, it is a comedy of errors. With Carlos, I walk down to see the muleteer’s yard. Carlos does not know exactly where it is, and when we get there the muleteer’s name is not the one he had mentioned the night before. The man, Julin, has plenty of mules, but hadn’t been planning on taking someone down into the canyon today. He asks me to come back in a half hour. I wander around town but discover that I haven’t erased the two flash cards I have with me, and start furiously erasing photos one-by-one. Back at Julin’s place, where he still isn’t ready, I continue that process. Eventually he beckons to me, explains that two boys, not he, will escort me down to the canyon.
There is only one mule, saddled. The mule has a line for someone to pull him, but no reins for the rider to use. The concept is a little unsettling. Julin explains that I can walk down, or part way down, and that if I ride part of the way down I should hold the mule with one hand on the front of the saddle and one on the back.
With the boys, I walk away through the fields between Cabanaconde and the canyon. Then the boy in the lead, a “cool” looking kid with an Adidas T-shirt, dark shades, and listening with earphones to music as we walk, stops and points back: the kid walking with the mule, more than 100 meters behind us, has lost the mule. The mule stands about twenty meters from the boy, warily ready to jump away if approached. For awhile the others yell advice, then one goes back to help him. I shoot a picture and notice the camera’s nearly out of battery, probably from erasing so many shots one-by-one.
I’m inclined to cancel the whole thing, because the late start and lost mule have cost us more time and my running back to the hotel will cost us still more, but Shades talks me into continuing. I walk back a ways with the kid holding the mule, then tell him to wait at a particular spot and I’ll be back soon; but when I return, he’s not there, although the mule is. I walk over to Julin’s to tell him I’ll try this some other day, but he says he’s going down the canyon soon, and if I wait twenty more minutes he’ll take me. He says it’ll take about two hours each way, so that I’ll still have two and a half hours at the “Oasis.”
I sit in the mule-yard, writing a little and watching him and his wife load mules with bottled water, a propane cannister, and other items. Eventually we start out, the two of us with three animals, one saddled and two loaded with goods. I figure I’ll walk down and ride back.
As we descend, the path becomes a difficult mix of huge squarish blocks, meant to be steps but sometimes askew or broken, and loose stones and rocks of all sizes. The height of the “steps” is a problem for my bad knee: it doesn’t bend enough for me to step down with the left foot, and stepping down with the right causes extra impact to the bad one. Slippery spots also cause problems, and my knee begins to hurt, eventually so badly that I can barely walk at all, but I struggle on, damned if I’ll ride downhill.
It’s a struggle. I’m determined to grit it out; but I’m sure not the man who raced up and down mountains with a heavy back-pack in Nepal nearly 25 years ago. As the knee begins to hurt so much I can barely put weight on it, I go a little irrational in my determination.
My mother once told me about stopping at an air museum in Kansas or somewhere, probably in the1970’s or early 1980’s, with my father, who had been a much-decorated Marine pilot in World War II. The museum had a plane of the type he’d flown, and she suggested he get up on the wing for a photograph. Recalling his reference to leaping up onto the wing, she watched this much older man barely able to climb onto it.
For every man [for every woman, too – I think of a a party in my parents’ house: finding an old baton of my sister’s reminded everyone that a good friend had been a drum majorette at Indiana, and they all decided to go out in the back field and have a parade, with the friend, Marilyn, leading it and twirling the baton. How must it have looked to her, once the beautiful young majorette performing in front of tens of thousands, to look back and see a wobbly line of middle-aged drunks stumbling along behind her in a pasture?] there are moments that epitomize the stage of life through which s/he’s passing.
Knowing it’s silly some part of my mind seems to imagine the descent is some epic struggle in which, for reasons unspecified, I must prevail. Yeah, it’s the knee, and everything else works fine, but that’s bullshit. It’s something. It might as easily be something else. I was the guy racing up steep paths and sometimes deigning to wait for his friends. No more.
Julin, walking with the mules, stops periodically to rest or talk with a friend passing us on the way up, then eventually catches up with me. The third time he does this he’s riding the saddled mule. He asks if I’m sure I don’t want to ride awhile. I’m still disinclined, but I’m making absurdly slow progress, and ask him how long it’ll take at this rate. When he replies that it’ll take another hour and a half, I agree to ride. Julin walks ahead of me with a rope, to pull the mule when she stops.
Immediately the descent is more comfortable physically, but just as unsettling as I thought it might be. The difficult terrain means the mule, with four legs, is putting two of them down on spots she can’t see. It seems only too likely that a hoof, smaller than a foot, might get caught in some little hole between the rocks. Sometimes the steep descent makes the mule suddenly lurch forward. The mule also seems to like walking unnecessarily close to the side of the thin path that drops off hundreds of meters. Sometimes another mule stumbles a little. Once Julin, holding the rope, nearly falls on his ass. Often the mule pauses before a deep step downward, as if reluctant or considering just where to place her front hoofs, and when Julin pulls her forward before she’s ready, I’m silently on her side, wishing he’d let her take her time.
My brain knows it’s safe. My brain knows that these mules have been up and down these mountains many times, and that mishaps are probably more rare than car accidents. My brain knows that the mule is sure-footed, and concerned for her own safety, and that Julin rides them himself, as do other visitors every day.
But my heart or my stomach, or wherever feelings reside, knows it is bouncing down a steep and difficult path with no control whatsoever over anything, and that it is not usually swinginging out over the edge of a cliff on the back of a witless animal with its hooves three or four inches from the edge, with life depending on that difference, the solidity of the ground near the edge, and the absence of some sudden impediment that could cause the animal to stumble at the wrong moment.
Even my brain concedes that there are a lot of unknowns: what if the mule has as troublesome a knee as I do, but hasn’t been able to communicate that to Julin?
I’m not really worried; but I do recall representing a family in California against a riding stable near Tahoe at which the wife-and-mother of the family had died instantly when her horse — because of negligent conduct by the stable, the evidence clearly showed — bolted back toward the stable so wildly that she was hardly able to stay on, and hit her head on a huge tree that ought not to have been in the middle of a horse-trail approaching the stable. Carlessness happens. Still, I’m not worried — except suddenly when the mule lurches in some unexpected way or seems to stumble a bit.
As we approach the “Oasis” I’m figuring that Ragna, who opted for a quiet day around town, writing and talking to people and maybe painting or drawing a little, made the better choice. I’m physically in pain; and the destination looks disappointing, at least for me: there are inviting pools to swim in, and green lawn, but no extensive or interesting area to explore or photograph – nor do I much feel like unnecessary walking. I’m not even sure I’ll be able to walk.
In fact, I have to walk the last few hundred meters anyway. Although the path is better than it was for walking, perhaps it’s slippery for mules. Julin asks me to dismount. I can walk, although not without a little pain. We finish the descent, then walk less than a hundred meters through a small forest, and arrive at a place with drinks and a pool. A bunch of younger folks are cavorting around and enjoying the place, but there’s no bathing suit to lend or rent me, so I take a Sprite and sit at a table writing and relaxing. I’m dry and hot and tired, and full of dust, and cold water would help my knee, so I’m going to swim, even if I have to do so in my underwear. I’m reluctant – a sixtyish man in his brief underwear is probably not an inviting sight to anyone – and contemplate what Ragna would say, but I’m damned well going to get in the water. Fortunately Julin comes by, asks how I’m doing, and when I tell him there’s no bathing suit to be borrowed, he reminds me there’s a second establishment just below us, and we go down there.
Soon I’m changing into a bathing suit, which fits perfectly, then luxuriating in a pool of cold water which I have all to myself. (The upper pool is apparently meant to be warm, and the others prefer it there.)
It is very comfortable after the difficult descent. I drink a couple of bottles of water and eat a surprisingly tasty cream-of-asparagus soup, sit at the table, take a nap on the grass, take another swim. And another nap. (The red flower greets me when I awaken.)
Climbing back up, we start on foot. I feel good. The rest has done my knee good. I walk briskly, to put off riding, even though I’ll like riding upward more than riding down. I enjoy the vigorous climb until Julin and the mules catch up with me.
The ride up is more relaxing than the ride down. At times I’m just enjoying the ride, thinking of nothing. I’d like to shoot pictures as we climb, but I’m just enjoying the ride.The mule knows what she’s doing. Sometimes she turns facing the sheer drop for a moment before turning inward again to follow the path. The view is startling, but I just smile.
Often the mule walks extremely near the edge, as if she knows from prior experience that doing so drives her human cargo crazy. Probably it’s just that the footing is often a little better on that side – and I feel suddenly stronger sympathy for Ragna, who often complains when we’re on a dirt road, above similar drops. I try to choose the portion of the road which will be easiest on the car, and sometimes that means driving close to the right side, at the edge of a cliff. I know it’s safe, even if Ragna’s uncertain, just as the mule knows she’s perfectly safe walking as she’s walking.
I do not feel embarrassed to be taking the viejo’s way upward. I’m just glad to be riding and not climbing, more because it will expedite the climb than anything else. I’m ready for a shower and more than one Pisco sour.
Meanwhile I do shoot a few pictures. It’s an awkward thing to try — removing and later replacing the lens cap, zooming in or out to frame the picture, and shooting, while bouncing a bit on the back of a mule — and I’m pretty sure that the lens cap will be a thousand meters beneath me in a few moments, but I’m thinking about describing the ride, and wondering how the surface that looks so difficult from mule-back will look in photographs.
Then suddenly we are at the top, riding a more level course along a series of small gullies, with grazing sheep looking down at us and the afternoon sun bringing everything to life, even my shadow.
On balance, as travel advice, I’d say this: the “Oasis” is not so beautiful or fascinating as to be worth the difficult descent and ascent; but for young folks who relish the difficulty, it’s a delightful place to relax between the descent and the ascent; and it would be, I think, a very quiet and delightful place to spend a night or two, although accommodations are simple, too simple for some. I would come back – preferably toward the tail end of a walk or a journey on mules down the other side of the river, through some of those towns that aren’t on the way to anywhere and aren’t reached at all by cars, trucks, and buses. If I get my knee operated on, I’d come back down here from Cabanaconde, but only if I were staying a night or two and had arranged for a mule to carry me back up. But I’m a lot more interested in passing through small villages and farms and chatting with and/or photographing the local people, or in climbing to places with fine views, than I am in sitting by a pool. Obviously I’d also advise anyone considering the mule-journey to be aware of the bad terrain, and that while the journey is safe, it wouldn’t be advisable for someone who’s afraid of heights or lacks balance. The walk upward appeared fine for young trekkers, although in some cases, contemplating their pale skin, I wondered whether or not the strong sun and high altitude would leave them with a miserable case of sunburn by nightfall; but I also saw some people who looked pretty miserable, including one woman of indeterminate age who was resting by the side of the path, still with most of the climb ahead of her, holding two ski-poles and wearing a bunch of extra clothing, including a hat with full side flaps to protect face and neck from the sun, but which must also have exacerbated the heat from making such a climb in the afternoon heat.
I pay the muleteer, who now says that the amount he’d stated was for a descent or an ascent, and that since we did both I owe him twice what I’d expected to pay. I don’t care. I’m not in a mood to argue. Besides, the original amount seemed a touch low, anyway — and I’ve forgotten all the extra time I had to wait during the morning.
And at evening in the Kuntur Wasi — after a long and particularly satisfying shower — I do drink a couple of extra Pisco sours.
The soup I ate down in the Oasis tasted quite good, somewhat to my surprise.
So did supper in the Kuntur Wasi.
If you’re up for it, a trek along the valley to the Oasis and Cabanaconde would probably be extremely interesting. The countryside’s stunning, the people live as they lived many years ago, and some of the communities on the other side of the river, perched precariously on hillsides, safely above any possible flood-line, are not served by roads. You can arrange such a trek in Arequipa and probably in the canyon itself, and could likely arrange to be accompanied by mules or burros at a reasonable rate; but if their purpose is not merely to carry stuff but for you to ride up from the Oasis to Cabanaconde, they had better be mules.
As to one-day descent and ascent I actually made? If you go to the “Oasis”, go for the physical challenge of the journey, because the destination isn’t exceptionally beautiful or fascinating. It’s a cool break beforyou climb back up. On the other hand, as the tail end of a trek or mule ride from Yanque or somewhere, it could be a delightful place to spend a night or two, although accommodations are simple.
And while the mule ride up from “the Oasis” is safe, it wouldn’t be fun for someone who’s afraid of heights or lacks balance. The walk down and up shouldn’t be a major problem for older folks in good shape [I’d have had no problem without a bad knee], but it’s an arduous day and the destination is mediocre. If Canon de Colca were part of a two-week visit to Peru rather than my longer visit, I’d probably value this day more highly.