Let me start by saying we are fine. We debated a lot regarding this post, whether to tell anyone, our parents, share with friends and family, etc. What we finally decided was this is a part of our journey and we want to be open regarding the truthfulness of this site and not get home at Thanksgiving with a secret from week 1 of our trip.
So, I apologize for the length of this story, but here it is...and remember, we are okay.
On February 28 we set out from Arequipa at 3:30 am for the Colca canyon. We decided to hike here because it is one of Peru's natural wonders and is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. There are several options to get to the canyon: hire a private tour company, take the 1am Reyna bus, or the 3:30 am Señor de los Milagros bus to Cabanaconde, the "big" town on the edge of the canyon. We decided to take the 3:30 on the recommendation of Gabe and Simon, who we met in the hostel in Arequipa, and because the timing made sense.
After a very brief sleep, we took a taxi to the Arequipa terminal terrestre bus port. There were probably 100 people waiting for buses around 3:00, which really surprised us. Most were Peruvians trying to get some sleep on the filthy floor of the previously packed station. All the lights were turned on, so if that didn't make sleeping hard enough, two ticket agents were screaming out "Juliaca, Juliaca!" every 10 seconds, which is another destination city. I guessed they were trying to sell a few extra seats on the bus to that city, but it was absolutely obnoxious. In addition to the bus ticket, you had to pay a 1.5 sol terminal fee each to be able to board the bus. (But it got you a free trip to the banos. Bonus?)
The bus trip itself was an interesting experience. After leaving the terminal fairly empty, we made 3 other random stops along the main road out of Arequipa to pick up other passengers in the dead of night. Dozing in and out of sleep in dirty, uncomfortable seats, we cruised up the mountains. We went through a cold, snowing section for around an hour, which worried us about the weather at the canyon. After emerging from the snowy peaks, we found ourselves descending into lush, sweeping mountains and valleys.
We shortly arrived in Chivay, the first town in the valley area. After a 30 minute wait at the bus station for other passengers, we moved on. In each of the subsequent 4 or 5 towns, the bus driver would lay on the horn as we rolled into the pueblo. Folks who needed the bus would be waiting on random street corners or come running around the block trying to catch us. They would hop on, then get off at the next town or two, or anywhere in between. This continued for 2 hours and definitely delayed our arrival, but it was a great study in humanity. All sorts of people got on, from teenage girls, to old working men with shovels, and old ladies traditionally dressed in gold-embroidered skirts and decorated hats.
After finally arriving in Cabanaconde, we ate a quick breakfast at a tiny hostel. The town appeared as if it had seen better days, with dilapidated buildings and dirty streets. As we ate, the mayor gave a weekly address outside town hall over a loudspeaker to a patient, but seemingly disinterested crowd of around 20 men.
We walked up the road out of town and found the trailhead around the back of the abandoned soccer stadium. The hike down took us through many rocky chicanes and past stunning vistas. We stopped to take a lot of beaks for pictures because the beauty is incomparable. We hit the trail at around 11:30 am, and by 3:30 pm, finished the last steep section to descend to the river. There we found 11 year old Benjamin waiting for us. He is the son of Roy and Domitila who own the lodge where we had arranged to stay. Benjamin was cheery as he guided us over the bridge and up to his house.
Benjamin introduced us to his mother, who welcomes us warmly and invited us to sit in the dining room while she prepared a late lunch of quinoa soup for us. No sooner had we removed our backpacks and sat down at the table when an incredibly terrifying force shook the earth. Window panes rattled, loud booms sounded, plaster fell from the walls, and the ground moved under our feet. We immediately grabbed each other and darted outside.
Among the other hikers present at Casa de Roy, the look in everyone's eyes was pure terror as we all realized it was a minor earthquake. We were ushered to the largest piece of open land as we watched rocks, earth and dust crash across the canyon - the exact trail we had been on 30 minutes ago. I immediately told Domitila we had passed two hikers going upward about 1.5 hours before. She got on the phone to the town to send someone to the trail head to watch for them. As soon as Roy arrived he got his binoculars and searched the trail without seeing anyone. Luckily, we heard later that the couple had made it up safely.
While waiting for the dust to settle on the mountain, Domitila brought us soup for lunch, which was delicious and much needed but felt very strange to be eating at such a time. It was amazing how she was more concerned with her guests' wellbeing than the condition of her home and her friends in the valley.
Within the span of fifteen minutes, there were a few additional aftershocks bringing down more rocks. We all sat on the patch of grass holding our breath for whatever was to come, wondering if what we felt was the biggest or just a precursor to something worse.
When the aftershocks settled down, we warily made ourselves little more comfortable. Dinner was at 7, and because there was no electricity, we ate chicken and rice by candlelight.
Roy and the hiking guide for the larger group, Ismael, told us that we could not go back up the way we came. It was no longer safe due to the loose rocks, and that we would be going with the group the next morning. They refused to let us try, and we easily gave into their experienced advice. Their concern for the safety of their visitors was incredible.
We knew it was the best thing and we were so thankful they took us in.
We realized that we wouldn't have enough money to get us another two days in the canyon and the touristica bus ride back with the group. After overhearing this, a lovely Dutch woman named Edith offered to help us when we ran out and said we could pay her back in Arequipa. We were so thankful.
We made quick friends with the other hikers. Stressful conditions have a way of bringing people together quickly. Among our new group was a Swiss couple, a French couple, four French doctoral residents, an Aussie, a German, and Dutch Edith.
Most people turned in for a restless sleep by 8:30 due to a light rain that brought thunder, making it feel like another tremor. Every boom that rattled the windows was so disconcerting, and sleep was evasive. Before we went to bed, we practiced our earthquake drill. We slept fully clothed with our shoes next to the bed and our bags packed. Lindsay woke up many times clutching Brian to be reassured it was only thunder.
Lindsay woke up around 4 am to a beautiful starlit sky due to the sound and eery flashes of light from rocks falling into the river. We're still not sure what that phenomenon was, but it was truly strange.
Our alarm was set for 7:00, but at 6:50 we were shaken out of bed by another serious tremor. There is little else more terrifying than being awakened by the earth moving below you. We jumped into our shoes and ran outside to the safety of open grass.
We found out in the morning there were two more tremors during the night (which we mistook for thunder) and Roy was on the phone with the governor of the province to make sure no one started the path into the canyon.
The decision was made to continue to the town in the direction of the safest path out and wait to see the progression of the situation, while Roy would keep Ismael updated on any information from the park rangers.
We left around 8:45 after a breakfast of pancakes. The fact that Domitila could continue to cook such great meals and worry about her guests' comfort under these circumstances is a testament to Peruvian hospitality.
This hike was tough. We were headed to the Sangalle Oasis hostel for the night and the path was mostly downhill. Lindsay was miserable and started to cry out of frustration and shouted "I hate this!" A moment of physical and emotional weakness due to all the stresses.
We made it to Oasis and finally got a chance to relax. We played cards with our new group of friends and had a dinner of spaghetti.
We were briefed on the plan for the next morning and were told we needed to be on the trail by 5:20.
A good nights sleep didn't come. Unfortunately we were woken up (the second morning in a row) at 5:00 by another tremor and loose rocks falling nearby.
We packed up quickly and met the guides to prepare for the hike. Tremor or not, we had to get out of the canyon that day. Ismael had all of us stuff our hats with extra shirts or wrap our heads to provide some cushion for any potential falling rocks and then told us we would be hiking quickly through the most dangerous parts two-by-two.
We set off just as the sun began to rise and we were moving quickly, stopping only every 30 minutes for a break.
As we got to the most dangerous part, we broke in to two groups and one of the guides ran ahead to check the path. Once it was okayed we went two-by-two over freshly fallen rocks from the last few days. We all recognized how dangerous it really was, which motivated us to combat the altitude challenges most of us were dealing with, as well.
Many times I just repeated over and over in my head: breathe deep, take a step.
I am not exaggerating when I say this was the most physically, mentally and emotionally challenging experience I've ever had.
One of the most interesting things about this entire hike was that we had two stray dog friends with us the entire time. They would run ahead and then come back to meet us. If we were spread out too far, they would wait until the last person got to the stopping point. There is significant evidence that animals are able to detect storms, danger, and other phenomenon well before humans, and it was reassuring to have them alongside. Their care over our group was truly incredible. Brian nicknamed them Angela and Santo, like the angels guarding us.
After 3.5 hours of a brutal uphill climb, we finally made it to the top where I cried from relief and thankfulness to God for a safe trip out.
We cheered as each person made it to the edge of the cliff.
This adventure has been the craziest experience we've ever gone through, but through it all, Brian and I were both certain of God's majesty. We have never seen anything quite as beautiful and powerful as this canyon and this earthquake.