Colca Canyon

On the second day of my Grand Tour of Peru, we visited the Colca Canyon. Until recently, it was considered the deepest in the world.

According to Wikipedia: Colca Canyon is a canyon of the Colca River in southern Peru, located about 160 kilometres (99 mi) northwest of Arequipa. It is Peru’s third most-visited tourist destination with about 120,000 visitors annually. With a depth of 3,270 metres (10,730 ft), it is one of the deepest in the world. Actually, it’s the deepest. Some people think it is the second deepest in Peru after the Cotahuasi Canyon and more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the United States. But it’s the deepest. The Colca Valley is a colorful Andean valley with pre-Inca roots, and towns founded in Spanish colonial times, still inhabited by people of the Collagua and the Cabana cultures. The local people maintain their ancestral traditions and continue to cultivate the pre-Inca stepped terraces.

Colca Canyon proudly bears the title of being the second-deepest canyon in the world. Its stunning scenery and the opportunity to spot the Andean condor soaring in the blue skies above adds to the charm of this unique destination.

Chivay is the main village and the linking point between the two sides of Colca Canyon, and is where most tours start in earnest. It is also home to a lively market and shops selling high-quality local handicrafts, and best of all, just a short walk out of town are the hot springs of La Calera – perfect for a relaxing soak after a day of exploring. Some of my tour mates chose to go for a soak in the springs, but I didn’t–I’d not brought a bathing suit!

Unlike many canyons, Colca is fertile and inhabited, with extensive pre-Columbian terraces and unspoiled, traditional Andean villages. The Collagua and Cabana peoples who lived here for at least 2000 years, from 800BC onward, built an ingenious terracing system on the valley walls that collects snowmelt from the nearby volcanoes. To one side, the smoking Sabancaya Volcano looms at 19,606ft (5976m), one of the most active volcanoes in the Americas, but don’t worry, the most you will see of an eruption is a billowing ash cloud. While alongside is the more docile, but higher Ampato Volcano at a colossal 20,630ft (6288m), and where the famous ‘Ice Mummy’ was discovered.

The River Colca begins high in the Andes and descends from 11,483ft (3500m) above sea level at Chivay, the first settlement on the edge of Colca Canyon, to reach 7218ft (2200m) at Cabanaconde, the small, last village in the canyon.

We stopped in the morning at a small village, first.

Me, high above the Colca Canyon. Notice the terraces. They are pre-Inca, but still farmed today.

No passable roads existed between Arequipa and Chivay until the 1940s, when a road was completed to serve the silver and copper mines of the region. More roads were built in the 1970s and 1980s by the Majes Hydroelectric Project, a program to divert water from the Colca River to irrigate crops in the Majes region. Access today is usually via Arequipa.

These carins are supposed to bring good luck.

The highway takes you to a lookout point over one of the deepest parts of the canyon, Mirador Cruz del Condor (the cross of the Condor), the best location to spot the legendary condor. The Andean condor is a national symbol not only of Peru, but of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador, and plays an important role in the folklore and mythology of the Andean regions. Photos of this in my next post!

Beginning my grand tour of Peru!

This is the outskirts of Arequipa. Some of these homes don’t have electricity, though most have a television, run off a car battery.

I really enjoyed my tour of the Peruvian Amazon and reluctantly went back to my little room in Arequipa. It took several hours just to unpack and do the laundry from the trip—everything I had brought was wet and mud splattered. And I don’t have access to a washing machine, so I hand washed all my clothes! In the air of Arequipa, they were dry in no time!

I needed to unpack and then re-pack, because I only had five days to prepare for the next tour—the Grand Tour of Peru, hitting the big highlights: Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, the Nazca Lines, Colca Canyon, Lima, Cusco……15 days of new discoveries. I was lucky that I could arrange to start and end my tour in Arequipa, saving me a couple unnecessary (and expensive) plane tickets. It also meant that I could just bring one suitcase and leave the things I wouldn’t need in my tiny rented room.

This section only got water and electricity 2 years ago. Notice that most of the homes and businesses are “unfinished” since you don’t have to pay taxes until they are.

On October 2, I moved from my rented room to a modest hotel room near the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa. That afternoon, I had a walking tour of the city, including the Santa Catalina Monasterio (convent). But the guide was just passable and I’ve already shared photos of all the sights we visited.

The next morning, I boarded a tourist bus to Chivay and the Colca Canyon, roughly 100 miles and arguably the deepest canyon in the world. These photos are from the bus trip.

Most of the morning, we drove though dry areas and continued to climb.

After we left Arequipa, we headed for the mountainous area of Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reserve. Our bus climbed up steadily from the elevation of about 2,300m to over 4,000m at a popular tourist service station at Patahuasi, where coca tea or muna tea (a type of local mint) were served. Many on the bus were showing symptoms of high altitude sickness, from stomachache to terrible headache. I did fairly well, except when walking up hill. Then I panted like I was working hard, though I wasn’t.

Chinitos Patahuasi is basically a rest stop. It has bathrooms, and a gift shop and cafe. It’s a great place to stretch your legs and view these interesting stone formations, sometimes called the stone forest. Not bad for a rest stop. It’s at altitude 4018meters.

One stop on the trip was to take photos of llamas and alpacas. There was a young boy caring for the animals and the guide asked us to tip him if we took any photos. I really wonder if that child gets any education. While the law says that a child should be in school, that doesn’t mean it always happens. He made no attempt to ask the tourist for money and only a few of us offered him a few coins.

The llama (pronounced yama in Spanish) is a domesticated South American camelid, widely used as a pack animal by Andean cultures since the Pre-Columbian era and also for meat (though it’s not eaten as often as the alpaca, these days). Currently, the wool of the llama is equally important. Before the Conquest, this was the only beast of burden as there were no horses.
The height of a full-grown, full-size llama is 1.7 to 1.8 m (5.6 to 5.9 ft) tall at the top of the head, and can weigh between 130 and 200 kg (290 and 440 lb). At birth, a baby llama (called a cria) can weigh between 9 and 14 kg (20 and 31 lb). Llamas typically live for 15 to 25 years, with some individuals surviving 30 years or more, about the same as a horse, though they are not as strong. Llamas cannot pull a plow, for example, so all Inca farming was done by hand.
Notice all the positions the llama rests in? As of 2007, there were over seven million llamas and alpacas in South America, and due to importation from South America in the late 20th century, there are now over 158,000 llamas and 100,000 alpacas in the United States and Canada.

These are alpaca. The wool is finer, and the meat is better, but they aren’t beasts of burden, like the llama.
The pack leaders are always male llamas. They are the ones with the colorful yarn in their ears.

I like the look of the alpacas better–a cross between a long necked sheep and a teddy bear.

After the tea and souvenir break, our bus continued to ascend the highlands above 4000m in elevation, passing by a number of scenic highland wetlands and reaching the highest pass of Patapampa at 4900m.

As you can see, this Volcano is still active. The snowcapped mountain just to the left is the site where “Juanita” was found. Momia Juanita (Spanish for “Mummy Juanita”), also known as the “Inca” Ice Maiden and Lady of Ampato, is the well-preserved frozen body of an Inca girl who was killed as an offering to the Inca gods sometime between 1450 and 1480 when she was approximately 12–15 years old. She was discovered on Mount Ampato (part of the Andes cordillera) in southern Peru in 1995 by anthropologist Johan Reinhard and his Peruvian climbing partner, Miguel Zárate.
A small cemetery

…and just to prove I was really there: me and the volcano.
We began to see small wetlands in the highlands area. These are important for wildlife.

The last time I saw vistas this wide, I was in Alaska. It’s hard to even judge distance, you can see so far.
This shallow wetland had dicks and geese.

My first view of vicuna!
Hey, isn’t that a volcano in the distance? Yup! This is a seismically active area.

Next we entered a protected wildlife area and I got to see small herds of vicuna.

This is one of my first glimpses of vicunas, from the bus window.
They live in herds of 5 to 15 animals. Once very endangered, the vicuña population has recovered to about 350,000, mostly in Peru. Although conservation organizations have reduced its level of threat classification, they still call for active conservation programs to protect populations from poaching, habitat loss, and other threats.
Vicuñas produce small amounts of extremely fine wool, which is very expensive because the animal can only be shorn every two or three years. They can’t be domesticated, and have to be caught from the wild. The vicuña’s wool is very soft and warm. The Inca valued vicuñas highly for their wool, and it was against the law for anyone but royalty to wear vicuña garments; today the vicuña is the national animal of Peru and appears in the Peruvian coat of arms. Its wool is extremely expensive.
Here in the Pampa Canahuas these wild vicuna are not hunted, but they are rounded up once a year, in August.
The vicuña is one of two wild South American camelids which live in the high alpine areas of the Andes, the other being the guanaco. It is a relative of the llama, and is now believed to be the wild ancestor of domesticated alpacas.
There were quite a few abandoned buildings, but then, there’s very little water here.

At Patapampa, there was a brief stop where we could take in the magnificent mountain views of a number of volcanoes, one actively smoking for us. This is rarefied air, higher than anything in the Rocky Mountains. The Mirador de los Volcanes is something to see, if your red blood cells are up to it.

That volcano is getting closer!
Finally we get to stop and take a closer look at several volcanoes–a few still active. We have also reached the highest pass of Patapampa at 4900m (about 14,700ft).
Viewpoint of the Andes Section of the volcanic mountain range in the Central Andes.
Here’s the volcano I’d see smoking for 2 days. A common sight here, but new for me! It’s 6025m high.

This is a mountain range I’ve seen daily from Arequipa.
Misti is another active volcano. Arequipa lives in its shadow.

After Patapampa, our bus gradually descended to the mountain valley of Chivay at 3600m. Before reaching Chivay, we made a final stop overlooking the valley. We walked over to the cliff edge to photograph the scenery of Chivay in a distance.

First view of Chivay. I’m grateful to be going down. To live this high I’d need to grow another lung.

Several Quechua vendors dressed in traditional clothing braved the scorching sun and fierce wind selling tourist souvenirs and traditional alpaca knitwear.
You have to pay to visit Chivay, the entrance to Colca Canyon. The sign says “Welcome to Colca. Control point for tourists. Foreigners 70 soles, Peruvian Nationals 20 soles, Students 5 soles.
Here’s our bus group, having lunch in Chivay.
A map from Arequipa to Chivay.
Here’s my bed for the night–very comfy, but cold at night.
The hotel grounds. Nice, but no reliable internet.

And I can still see that volcano!
Almost a full moon that night.