Last year I had the opportunity to trek Colca Canyon, located a few hours from Arequipa, Peru. The canyon plunges over 13,000 feet from peak to valley, making it twice as deep as the Grand Canyon.
Colca is widely advertised as the world’s deepest canyon, though that title is contested between Colca and its sister canyon, Cotahausi.
The trek from top to bottom and back up again with my fellow companions took one night, two days, and copious amounts of water and trail mix.
Here are the 7 life lessons I learned along the way:
1) We overestimate our needs
I thought I had packed lightly for my trek: water, snacks, flashlight, sunscreen, sunhat, hiking gear and an extra sweater for the chilly Andean nighttime air. But by the midway point of the first day, I could feel my shoulders aching under the weight of the straps.
At times, my balance was thrown off-kilter on downhill stretches and uphill climbs. I realized my hiking gear and travel accessories—the excess junk I thought I needed—was more a hindrance than a help.
Local woman carrying a large load of handcrafts for sale into town. Photo by Eoin McNamee.
2) A slower pace can help focus the mind
My mind gets easily distracted. I make mental lists of errands I need to run in the midst of a conversation or think about what to prepare for lunch when I should be focusing on work.
If I’m not multitasking, I feel like I’m not making progress, but during the trek, I found the path ahead demanded my full attention.
My thoughts slowed down to match my footsteps, and for the first time in a long time, I focused only on what was directly before me.
Focus on one step (or goal) at a time. Photo by sharon_k.
3) Setting small goals will help me reach bigger ones
Our guide, Carlitos, set a number of small trekking goals for our group to motivate us along the way: the first landmark was the bridge, then the guest house in San Juan de Chuccho where we ate lunch, then the small village of Cosñirhua, where we passed a small church and playing field before heading on to our night-time lodging.
Breaking up the trip this way made completing each leg feel like a small victory, even if the destinations were only an hour apart. Not a bad strategy to keep in mind for everyday life.
Set small goals and celebrate them. Crossing one of the bridges inside Colca Canyon. Photo by lululemon athletica.
4) It’s tempting to stay in the oasis
We spent the night at the aptly named Oasis de Sengalle. There, we ate a hefty home-cooked meal, swam in the pool, shared conversation and stargazed from our swinging hammocks.
The break was so welcomed after several hours of walking that it was hard to remember we were only halfway through the trek.
Sure enough, my alarm sounded at 4:30 the following morning, and it took several moments to convince myself that I should actually wake up. Even when I finally emerged yawning, flashlight in hand, I was very reluctant to leave the oasis for the hard climb ahead.
After hours of trekking, it was hard to leave this oasis at the bottom of the canyon. Photo by Koala:Bear.
5) The climb back up demands more strength than the descent
We walked for six hours the first day and only three the second, but the second day was much more challenging because it was completely uphill.
Looking up from the canyon’s base, I noticed a small tree and mentally set it as my halfway mark. But when we reached the tree after only an hour of climbing, I knew we still had a long way to go.
The mountain air became thinner as we reached closer to the summit of 10,000 feet, causing our group to stop every 10 minutes or so to gulp down water and catch our breath.
From each stopover, the path looked even steeper up ahead. We grew increasingly discouraged but trekked on.
Our guide Carlitos motivating us for the climb. Photo by yakalita.
6) Having a community is better than doing it alone
Each of my six companions and I took turns lagging behind or facing different obstacles throughout the trek. One girl struggled with her asthma during the uphill legs, another’s backpack dug into her spine with each step, and I couldn’t seem to eat enough bananas or trail mix to keep my energy up and my stomach from growling.
However, in each case, we were always willing to be patient and help each other out to reach the top together. Nobody surged ahead in the interest of speed or recognition.
Why does this team spirit so often seem to disappear in our daily work and personal lives? The journey is more powerful when we share—and work toward—a common goal.
Community helps to keep spirits up. Photo by Benjamin Dumas.
7) Reaching a goal is an opportunity to reflect and change perspective
One of the sacred animals of Andean mythology is the condor, the only animal believed to have access to the hanan pachu or “upper world” and to deliver messages directly to the gods.
The huge birds can be seen swooping in and out of the steep ridges of Colca Valley at a point called Cruz del Condor, just a few minutes away from the canyon itself.
When I took my final steps to the summit, I finally had the prized panoramic view of the condor, but I realized the scenery was much more powerful having seen the path up-close. Maybe that’s the real lesson the condor teaches us: sometimes we need to fly in close before we can gain perspective on the bigger picture.
Cruz del Condor, Colca Canyon. The condor symbolizes the hanan pachu or “upper world” in Andean mythologies. Photo by PearlyV.
Have you been to Colca Canyon or had another enlightening trekking experience? Let me know in the comments below.
If you liked this you might also like: 6 Things I Learned about Myself through 100 Hours of Meditation.
Main photo by Ivan Mlinaric.