The road from Arequipa to Colca Canyon trundles slowly out of the city centre, skirting the dusty, lean-to “suburbs” and winding around cliff-sides in a slow ascent before finally bursting out onto the highland plains, where ghostly mountains stand sentry in the distance. We are making this journey in order to reach the next highest point in our trip, part of our plan to gradually acclimatise ourselves in preparation for the hike to Machu Picchu in a couple of weeks. Arequipa stands at 2335m above sea level, our next destination at 3417m. It’s a big jump but nothing that our bodies shouldn’t be able to handle.

What we haven’t accounted for is the fact that we need to get ourselves over a 4910m pass in order to actually get to Colca Canyon in the first place. Luckily our guide has, and we make a stop barely minutes into our journey to buy coca leaves, the crackly, bitter antidote to altitude sickness that we have so far only enjoyed as a herbal brew but now press between our teeth, trying to extract all of the medicinal goodness. (We’re not sure what effect it has on the altitude sickness but it does promptly succeed in making our tongues go numb.)

We’ve found ourselves on a tour bus because it turns out that it’s remarkably difficult to find a simple passenger bus along this route (either that or all the people in the travel agencies were just having us on and trying to get us to pay for a premium service – actually, on reflection, that’s probably exactly what it is). Up until this point, we’ve been reluctant to embark on any guided tours, having firmly decided that we want to “explore Peru for ourselves”, although given our early experiences in Lima, it’s a wonder that we haven’t abandoned this approach by now. Nevertheless, we have to concede that the mini-tour version is worth it; we hear the tale of the tiny little town that was once a booming railway stop-off, are told about the vicunas that roam these plains freely with their luxury, high-fashion pelts, and get the chance to try some muna tea for the first time which instantly becomes a firm favourite. Best of all, we stop in the evolving landscape to take some pictures with llamas, whom we are told are well used to selfies. It’s impossible to resist.

As we climb higher, the strange, raw sensation in my head becomes harder to ignore and I begin to chew the coca leaves with increasing fervour. Eventually we reach the highest point, where we climb out to take some windswept photos amongst the snowbanks and the stones, the volcanoes looming moodily in the distance. On our descent, we pass back through all of the different landscapes we saw on the way up; the harsh rocks slowly become fringed with green and after a little time spent travelling across the deceptively flat mountain tops, we round a corner and Colca Canyon suddenly slides into view in an ombre of colours, the higher mountain grasses gradually giving way back down to the dry dust of the canyon.

Once we have wound our way down the road that coasts one side of this impressive vista and queued for entry into the canyon, we have lunch with the rest of our tour group at a small buffet restaurant. I’m slightly suspicious of the sight of all that food that’s been sitting there for goodness knows how long, but for once there are vegetarian options so I’m quickly piling my plate high.

“This is it.” I tell Michele between mouthfuls. “If we get food poisoning on this trip, it’s going to be here.”

That prophecy wasn’t quite true - it turns out the food poisoning was reserved for the following night but let’s leave that to one side for, urm, ever. After bidding goodbye to the rest of the group, we take a taxi ride along the precarious dirt tracks that lead down to our home for the next three nights, Colca Lodge, whilst the curious landscape of the canyon unfolds through alternating sunlight and shadows around us. We pass through barely-constructed towns, down narrow cobbled streets, and along roads that are virtually just ledges hewn into the side of the cliff. Eventually, our driver makes a hairpin turn and begins to descend down a final stony path, at the bottom of which is heaven for a few days.

Colca Lodge is the kind of place that ordinary people like me just don’t go to on a typical holiday. It is the kind of place where staff meet you at the entrance to take your bags down the steep steps to the cottages (which is a miracle given what the altitude does to your leg muscles). It is the kind of place where you are invited to complete your check-in in the lounge with a cup of coca tea and a view that is so spectacular, it would seem that the hotel was built in order to accommodate it from every window. It is the kind of place where the staff leave flowers on your bedspread, the same flowers that you can watch hummingbirds feeding from through your bedroom window the next honey-coloured morning. It is the kind of place that has its own natural hot spring pools overlooking the Rio Colca as it makes its way lazily past. It is the kind of place where you can relax in said pools and order an unlimited supply of Pisco sours to while the evening away.

You get the picture.

Our first night is spectacular. We make friends with another honeymooning couple from Italy and 
watch the stars bloom in the inky sky from the luxury of the hot springs. Then we take a late dinner in the restaurant, booking a table in the smaller room which we have to ourselves for the majority of the evening, a faint view of the canyon disappearing into the night through the full-length windows behind us. Again, the vegetarian options are plentiful and I delight in a warming Andean cheese stew served with rice accompanied by a hearty glass of red (it is Winter in Peru after all). Michele tries the trout ceviche which is also exquisitely fresh and tasty, accompanied by soft hunks of sweet potato, crunchy giant corn and piquant slithers of chilli. At the end of it all, we tumble into the largest bed we have ever seen in our lives and sleep the deep sleep of people who have been staying in not-quite-soundproofed lodgings in city centres for the past week.

The next day is for acclimatising and so we haul ourselves out of that pillowy heaven and lace up our walking boots. We return to the place where the taxi dropped us off the day before and begin to pull ourselves up the gravelly track leading to the "main road". Looking around us, it's hard to believe that we're so high up above sea level and there's a strange discord between the landscape we can see and the burning in our legs and lungs. Luckily the road, once we find it, is flat as it weaves around the edge of the hillside, giving us a new vista with every turn. It is surprisingly quiet and remote; we come across some local men working on the road and climb up into the grassy bank to step around them and continue on our way. A small stone hut sits beside the road, possibly somebody's house, with dusty, crumpled plastic bottles in front of it. The only person we see for a long while is a woman in traditional dress coming towards us - I stop to take a photo of Michele walking down the road with the mountains in the distance, her presence in the backdrop being a bonus that gives my photo a nice touch. She thinks otherwise and asks me for money which I guiltily do not have any of. She's clearly displeased with me after our long discussion in which all I can say is "lo siento, no tengo denaro" and I begin to wonder whether or not it's responsible to come as a tourist into these people's home towns where their customs and traditions are either ogled at by Western travellers or deliberately commodified to earn some extra money. It's the last time I take a photo of a Peruvian unless they have explicitly asked me to.

Shortly afterwards, we follow another steep path down the bank of the canyon with an aim to finding the bridge that will take us back up to Yanque. We've completely forgotten that the road is closed though and it turns out that the "resurfacing" works on the road to Yanque are a little more dramatic than the information on the hotel website made out - the entire bridge has been torn down and is in the process of being rebuilt. We come to the end of the road and stare at the gulf of space between us and the path on the other side. A couple of men in high-vis jackets are working nearby and they point us to a dusty scramble up the bank which brings us to another path and leads to another bridge. This route essentially takes us through a building site where tractors and diggers are carting earth from one point to another but nobody takes any notice of us walking through.

Afterwards, there's a small ascent to Yanque which our poor oxygen-starved legs can barely stand. We stop every now and then to look back down at the cool river rushing below, the tourists flocking to the public hot springs down near the bottom, the occasional reveller hurtling across the canyon on a zip-line. Once we make it into the centre, we find that it is practically a ghost town. Barely constructed buildings line barely constructed roads and there's not a soul in sight. Stray dogs disappear and reappear between gaps in concrete walls, watching us intently as we make our way through town. We sit in the central plaza in front of the church; still, the only sign of life is the volcano that happens to be spewing ashy clouds from its summit further along the skyline. Inside the church two women are leaning on brooms and chatting in low voices; we spend a few moments in silent company, admiring the ornate altars to various saints that combine Andean art with the Catholic tradition.

At one of the plaza's corners, we find a small shop where a woman sits carefully imbuing a blanket with her ornate embroidery. She has tables and tables full of items decorated in a similar style; bags, hats, purses, belts. We try to buy one of the blankets she has just finished but they're not for sale - they're for the Virgin Mary during the town's celebrations the following day. Instead I leave with a tiny cream satchel embellished in three different shades of blue thread.

Lunch is served in a small, local eatery close to the central square and consists of a large jug of fresh lemonade, quinoa soup and a pan-fried trout fillet with a side salad of avocado and tomato. It is easily the best meal we've had since arriving in Peru and I really wish I could share the exact place we visited - but this is the same day that I become really, really sick so it's probably best if I don't. Even though we both try each other's food and Michele is absolutely fine meaning it may well not have been that restaurant, just to be on the safe side, I won't pass the recommendation on.

After we've eaten, we begin to head back out of Yanque, looking for the path that leads down to the bridge that takes us straight back into Colca Lodge. Not long after we set off, a wiry little pup that bears an uncanny resemblance to Tramp from the Disney classic streaks past us and promptly bars the road we had planned on taking by growling and barking until we turn around. This change of course takes us to a well-worn track that leads out past the final cluster of buildings, out along the canyon edge and then steeply down the cliff to the river below. We can't see the bridge ahead of us but we're sure that we'll come across it sooner or later. We pass through landscapes that are truly redolent of the archetypical Wild West whilst our legs burn and scream. At the bottom, we climb over smooth alabaster stones, making our way closer and closer to the river - at which point we realise that there's a sheer cliff face between this little beach and the bridge we need to take us home. Cue an infinitely painful return trek back up the cliff and through into Yanque.

I won't give you a detailed description of the next 12 hours because they are quite honestly some of the worst of my life and I thought I was going to die. But skip forward to our last morning (after an entire day's resting in bed and eating nothing but bread, rice and chicken noodle soup - yes, I drank chicken broth as a "vegetarian", such was the extent of my illness) and we're paying these beautiful hotel grounds a final visit before we catch the bus to Puno. We cross that elusive bridge, which leads us to a sleepy llama and alpaca farm within the hotel grounds. We lounge beneath the parasols just outside of our room, where tiny birds shimmer through the air and fuss about in the branches behind our heads. We eat one last meal with that view of the canyon gently unfolding before us. And then we wait back upstairs in the lodge's reception, in the same place we started in, ready for the next leg of our adventure.