“Hiking..? That’s just walking, right?”
The year was 2015. I was two years out of university. I knew nothing about fitness, mindfulness or nutrition. I’d spontaneously joined two friends on a month-long backpacking trip through South America. So far I had been chased by stray dogs, nearly drowned while trapped under a raft and swum in a lagoon full of carnivorous animals. In a nutshell, I’d had the time of my life.
Two friends feature in this post; Victoria is a long-term travel buddy, having roomed with me while travelling four Asian countries; Ceri was a new friend and a passionate and competitive runner. Having piggy-backed onto their trip, I intended to go-with-the-flow. So when Victoria and Ceri put forward the Colca Canyon hike…
…I immediately signed up. How hard could a hike be?
The day began at 2am. After sleeping in a noisy hostel dorm, I’d had only two hours sleep. The three of us piled into an ancient minivan for the journey to the canyon. There was no heating. Having packed only beach clothes for my South American adventure, I was soon shivering and feeling miserable. I hugged my tiny rucksack for warmth.
We arrived at a remote ‘cafe’ at 6am for breakfast. We had been informed that all meals were included for the duration of our trip, so I was disappointed when we were served two tiny bread buns with a side of jam. I was devastated when my bun cracked open, revealing a hollow centre, and crumbled onto my plate.
While investigating my crumbling breakfast, the cafe had filled with chattering hikers who were also taking on the canyon. They were wide awake and excited. A particularly animated group beside me exchanged stories and boasted loudly. I nearly dropped my bread roll when someone mentioned Everest…
…Maybe I was in over my head?
It became apparent that I was in far, far above my head when we began our descent into the canyon. The switchbacks were steep and treacherous with three metre drop-offs between each section. Gravel slid beneath my trainers and I slipped forwards with every step; there was nothing to prevent me slipping right off the edge. For three torturous hours I descended, my calves and hamstrings burning with every step.
To add to my humiliation, I was unable to keep pace with my group. They soared down the canyon, leaving me to lumber along in their wake. This had the unfortunate side-effect of shortening my breaks; the moment I caught up to the group, our Peruvian guide would take off again. I barely had time to gulp some water down before repeating the cycle.
Once we crossed the Colca River, the leafy terrain undulated pleasantly. The burning backs of my legs rejoiced. Our guide pointed out a poisonous plant which was thriving in the area, warning us that the sap causes blindness. We were now three hours into the hike; the group had bonded and friends had dispersed, chatting happily with new hiking buddies. I desperately needed to use nature’s bathroom and Victoria and Ceri were involved in seperate conversations, far ahead. I said nothing and lagged behind, looking for a private bush. After locating one, I fell directly onto a poisonous, blinding plant.
By the time I popped, dishevelled, out of the bush there was nobody in sight. I hurried to catch up. Ten minutes passed, yet still I had not rejoined the group. I sped up. The trail became wilder and more tangled, fallen trees barring the path. Small houses now sprung up along the side of the trail; they appeared abandoned and I encountered only squealing pigs and barking dogs. Was this the way? The trail had not diverged, yet there was no sign of the group. I grew nervous, picturing the news story reporting my disappearance.
I turned back.
Fortunately, my group had noticed my absence and launched a search and rescue operation. I found them waiting by my private-yet-poisonous bush. I was relieved that I hadn’t been blinded, poisoned or kidnapped before finding the group again.
My body rose up and down, side-to-side with the motion of my transport. I was catching a ‘mule taxi’ out of the Colca Canyon. My mule ride had been the suggestion of our Peruvian guide. It would be a gruelling three hour ascent out of the canyon for those on foot. I couldn’t blame him, considering my performance the day before; my body had been broken by the seven hour hike through the canyon. We had then spent the night in basic accommodation without electricity or running water. Sleep-deprived and food-deprived, I seized the easy option.
I had my reservations about the mule ride, unwilling to participate in animal cruelty. However, seeing the 150kg bag of carrots on the back of the mule in front of me absolved some of my guilt. Our mule guide, a normal-looking middle-aged man was impressively fit. He led us out of the canyon, keeping pace with the mules, and completed the ascent in a mere forty-five minutes!
I met Victoria and Ceri at the top. Competitive Ceri had smashed the ascent and was among the first to finish. We all laughed when Victoria admitted she’d caught a mule ride half-way up. It wasn’t so funny that she’d suffered an asthma attack; at least she’d made the effort to attempt it!
I couldn’t walk downhill for one whole week after the hike. It felt like my calves and hamstrings, burnt to the bone during the descent, were rebuilt from scratch. This was not convenient for walking around Cusco, a notoriously hilly part of Peru. However, my pride hurt more than my burning legs.
What possessed me to take up hiking as a hobby after this experience?
It would be three years before I’d take on a hike again. The shock and shame of catching a mule taxi catalysed the change needed in my life. Now I understand that the beauty of hiking is that it’s hard; the sense of achievement when pushing your body to its physical and mental limits can only be felt through difficult pursuits. In the words of my favourite podcaster, Brian Keane, building mental toughness and self-discipline is essential for happiness.
Fraser and I now hike and mountaineer around the world. I’m still the girl who struggled through the Colca Canyon, but I strive to better myself with every boot print that I make.
Check out my highlights from New Zealand and the USA!