Dec 7, 2016

Rio Colca: Lunar Canyon

Plaza San Francisco - Cusco, Peru day one

Peru is an amazing country. I have only seen a tiny bit of what she has to offer and I want to stay here for the next ten years! There is so much here to experience and I feel so grateful to have made the journey, and believe me, you have to want to be here and experience these places. There are few 'day trips'. Peru is for the true explorer even if you have the cash to fork out, but paying the money isn't really where it's at anyway, especially if you're a healthy young lad or lass. Take the night buses, eat the good street food and make those Soles last! It will only enrich the time you spend here and in the end, it is the time that will be well spent, no? 

On this trip I was fortunate enough to link up with Mira Kodada and Pavlina Zasterova from Czech. Mira was kicked out of the boy scouts at a young age for being too badass and putting too much heart into his knots. Pavlina has been a slalom champ since she was 5. I knew this trip was going to be solid!!! 

In grand explorer fashion, we caught a night bus from Arequipa to the town of Ayo. At times during the night I would wake up as we rolled through endless switchbacks through the Andean high passes, look out my window and see sheer rock walls no more than a foot away from my window (of course I had a window seat). I could feel the driver knew just where the bus needed to be on the winding one lane dirt road, with constant speed and precise turning. He even had to make a few two and three point turns because in places the switchbacks were too tight for our big bus. He knew just what to do and I'm sure had driven this stretch many times, unlike a bus I was on in Ecuador many years ago. On that bus we all feared the tires would pop and the mother sitting behind me was crying and praying. With thousand foot drop offs and cliff walls on both sides there really was no room to race up and down those mountains. 

the tiny mountain town of Ayo

Arriving in the tiny mountain town of Ayo early in the morning, we still had some figuring to do. The bus driver had gone home to bed and the few people left in town found us curious. we must have been too interesting to pass up because a man asked us if there was something we needed and or course we replied, a river down to the river! Turned out there were three vehicles in town, total, and the old man with the van took at least an hour to make it over to our kayaks... two blocks from his house. We drove about 5kms to find a curious gate across the road. The old man had lived in the area his whole life and didn't know what the gate was about. We walked past only to discover there was a new dam going in right where we were trying to launch! After some discussion with the main office there, Mira and the old man learned there was no way they were letting us drive or walk down that road.

the river is down... there
After asking the liason multiple times how he felt about earning his paycheck by destroying the planet and preventing others from enjoying nature (obviously Ayo was never going to be more than a 2 horse town), his apathetic response sent us back to the van for our kayaks.

Mira... not stoked on the dam or the looming walk
With a quick scout it was painfully clear we had two options: shoulder our fully loaded boats down that damn cliff, or leave. We paid the old man, thanked him and were on our way. Luckily we found a horse trail down and even though it was pretty windy and a little sketchy we made it to river level in 3-4 hours. 

  *note: using the town of Huambo may be a better put in, but its upstream of Ayo
     and I read reports of rocks falling in the river due to the dam guys building the road.
     The hike down wasn't terrible, but it is a workout with lots of scree and wind. Start early.

Mira in full beast mode, most of the way down
After thanking Apu that we had made it safe and sound to the river we rested just long enough for the mosquitos to have a little lunch, repacked our kits and put on. The canyon was already stunning and if it weren't for the 100+ pound packs I would've thoroughly enjoyed the jaunt. And make no mistake, Rio Colca is a river in a deep massive Adean Canyon. That means once you put on you are going downstream to get to the next road, bridge, people, telephone, food and shelter. The river was low as it hadn't rained in quite a while, Peru was coming out of its dry season and the Colca is in a high desert. We had an estimated 1500-2000cfs at our put in. 

The Colca begins with class easy II-III whitewater in a stunning canyon. As the kilometers pass the canyon begins to tighten and get more verticle. The walls and rock formations will keep smiles on your face through much of the flats. You'll paddle a few km's and then the III-IV rapids start before the Rio Jasmin enters river left. They are mostly read and run, but watch out for a BIG sloping hole somewhere in there. The right half is backed up and if you don't make it through you'll probably swim out, lucky I was in a big loaded boat!! Left is a straight forward line. Scouting blind can getcha!

Another 4km of class IV past the Rio Jasmin confluence. In this section is a rapid called Canoandes, named after the Polish first descent team's namesake back in 1979. The reports we had were that this rapid was IV+ and I was on a roll boat scouting my way down. I almost dropped in. At our low flow this drop a solid V if not V+ with a huge boulder syphon at the bottom much of the water slams into. At its entrance the river tightens up to maybe three meters wide, banks hard left and immediately slams into a house rock creating a two meter tall pillow. From that pillow the completely aerated water fires back right and in maybe 4 meters slams into and under a big boulder on the right. If you manage to stay left of that boulder there is a two meter pourover into a stomping hole to finish into a pool. We all walked it.

scouting Canoandes

bottom of Canandes, note the boulder syphon river left much of the water goes in there

After Canoandes we started paying a little closer attention to what we dropped into. At the end of this class IV section is a waterfall several hundred meters up on river left, becoming mist before it lands in the bottom of the canyon. This is Ducha del Condor and in the late afternoon the nest of condors living up there like to fly through the mist over and over. From here it is another 6km of fun class IV to a confluence with Quebrada Gloriahuasi on river right. Two km's below this confluence is the beginning of Chocolate Canyon.

We chose a camp somewhere in here and had it on good authority there was wood everywhere and lots of places to camp. The place we camped was the only place I saw with any wood or even live trees until much much farther down the run. We were trying to blast through this section and were not moving slow. Glad we chose to camp where we did. It took us 1 1/2 days on the water to complete the run.

camp one

the waning light from camp one

the rock formations were incredible

morning two

a tighter rapid in the Colca

one of the "portages"

Pavlina takes in the beauty of Colca's numerous grand cathedrals and hallways

creative decision making was required  through some of the drops

many tight drops in Chocolate Canyon
Chocolate Canyon is an 8k stretch of class IV-V culminating at Reparaz. This stretch has so many amazing rock formations it just is one of the coolest stretches around. There are many tight and constricted drops through here requiring much scouting, or strong experienced crew can make their way through without getting out too much. There will be plenty of scouting either way and hopefully the water is low enough you are able to portage Reparaz along the river left gravel bar. Apparently there was a big rock fall in 2005 making this a portage. I don't know that it would be possible to portage with med-high water, making it a death trap. We had a low level and portaged without problems. There are many rock syphons throughout the drops in this canyon, so please proceed with caution. You are not walking out of here. That said, the moves are not overly challenging, but are must make so stay on your toes and paddle well. The coolness of the canyon will make going slow very worth it.

From Reparaz to Green's Canyon is 4k of relatively easy whitewater. Then the description I had going in reads like this: "Immediately after Green’s Canyon is Pole’s Canyon where the rock turns from green to black." It was difficult to be clear about which canyon we were in exactly, but subtle differences in rock formations and coloring allowed us to sort of guess our way down. It wasn't the most pushy or challenging whitewater at low flows, so the stress meter wasn't pinging, but what was a little concerning was how many days we'd be in here. We wanted to get 'er done in two days and weren't really wasting any time with scouts or portages. We knew of another experienced group taking a raft through. Turned out it was a 15 foot gear boat, rigged as an overnight paddle raft. I don't know how the downriver part of their trip went, but I'm sure they had some creative portages... and there were only two of them. Those guys were motivated though! It took them 4 days.

Once your out of Pole's Canyon the power of the river eases back and you are in a more open canyon. On the way, the canyon will open and tighten many times making you wonder, am I going into another canyon?! In this section you will likely find some river otters, we had 3 sightings! So fun! It will open for good just above the confluence with Rio Andamayo. From this confluence it is about 5k of easy whitewater to a big concrete flume structure on river right. There is also a road on river right where combi's run on a fairly regular basis that will take you to the town of Aplao where you'll be able to catch a bus back to Arequipa. It's about 25km's to Aplao from here. If you're trying to catch a combi, make sure you're at one of the designated stops or they'll just pass you!

We wound up taking out a ways below the concrete flume and found a fun little family to chat with and have a few beers while we waited for our ride. Turned out our ride was with the guy we were talking with. Mira hopped on the back of his motorcycle and rode into town to flag a taxi. It cost us a few Soles to get back to Aplao and wouldn't you know it, by the time we got back (around 4pm) most of the hostels were full! There was a big festival in town!!! I won't tell you how much fun we had, but I ate the very best camar├Ánes chupe I've ever had at a place called Rambo's. It cost $35 Soles and was worth every penny!! 

once you see these trees lining the banks, the gorges are over

night buses definitely add to the hustle and adventurous feel that is Peru

Aplao is a great little town that really wants you to stay. Mainly because it's tough to find a bus back to Arequipa. We went in to ticket offices, restaraunts, and a few other places where they supposedly sold tickets, but failure after failure, we were left to think we would never make it out of town! Eventually, after much sleuthing, we found our spot outside a little store front with a speed bump in front, down from the police station. You would never even think it was a bus stop... but it was. We weren't able to buy tickets, only wait for the bus to come through and hope there was room for us and our boats (and a seat). The bus was late, which is somewhat normal, especially if you aren't getting on at stop one (and sometimes even if you are!), but we made it on, the kayaks barely fit and once again... night bus to.. Cotahuasi? Alca? I can't remember. But we're on the move to our next river which is Rio Cotahuasi. Let the adventure continue... Vaminos!!

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