Monday, October 28, 2013

Colca Canyon - Peru

After watching the “condor show” we took the road towards Chivay. Our goal is to drive for as far as possible on both sides of the canyon. Although about 75 miles total and it is now around 10am, given the road conditions we doubt if we will make the whole way on the northern side to a small hamlet called Madrigal but we will see as much as possible. Most first-time visitors to Peru make a beeline for the ruins of Machu Picchu, without realizing that they are passing within a short distance of the epic Colca Canyon even though it remains Peru's third most-visited tourist destination with about 150,000 visitors annually. Slicing through the high Andes like a giant fissure for more than 100km, Colca is the world’s second deepest canyon, approximately 13,650 ft (4,160 m) at its deepest point -- a shade shallower than the nearby Cotahuasi Canyon and nearly twice as deep as the USA’s Grand Canyon. More impressive than the statistics are the region’s attractions. In addition to the soaring Andean Condors, there are endless trekking routes and unshakeable Spanish, Inca and Pre-Inca traditions little altered since the conquistadors first arrived in the 1570s. The river and valley were well-known to the Incas and their predecessors, and when the Spaniards arrived they laid out townships along the valley, no doubt planning to use Rio Colca valley as the route to Cuzco and other Andean locations. They built churches along the way but the towns never grew and the route faded leaving the area isolated. It wasn't until the early 1930's that the Colca valley was explored again, this time for the American Geographical Society. The valley is still inhabited by people of the Collagua and the Cabana cultures and these indigenous communities still maintain their ancestral traditions giving us a glimpse of a life that has endured and remained the same for centuries. From the Cruz Del Cóndor cliff top lookout, we drive 35km west to the village of Yanque. Here, every morning in the main square in front of the gorgeous Baroque Inmaculada Concepción church, couples in traditional dress dance the watiti, a love dance of the native Quechua people. Unlike most of the Grand Canyon, many parts of the Colca canyon are habitable with pre-Colombian terraced fields still supporting agriculture. The intensely terraced, cultivated landscape stretches down one side and up the other of the vast canyon for miles. We try to guess what is growing and let me tell you there is a lot (and I mean A LOT) of coca plants. The leaf of the plant has a very distinct, bright green color which looks waxy and glossy. Coca tea (either loose or in teabags) and the leaves are sold throughout Peru in most food stores and is offered in many places as an antidote for altitude sickness. Of course all places advise you that none of these can be exported, even neighboring Chile and Ecuador will confiscate any coca bought into the country. In the US, you could get arrested. But here, well it is a way of life. And yes, both Tom and I have drunk the tea, it does help with altitude sickness and it does not make you any more hyperactive than a cup of espresso. Besides coca plants there is also potatoes, quinoa and other grains growing. The Colca is also well known for crafts: goods knitted from baby alpaca fiber and a unique form of embroidery that adorns skirts (polleras), hats, vests, and other items. It is all very colorful and well made. There is a marker for the footpath to the Infiernillo Geyser on the flanks of the Wallqa Wallqa volcano but since the last big earthquake in 2007, the geysers no longer spew and are now considered dormant. Hot springs, some developed for tourist use like La Calera are dotted throughout the valley and canyon and overhead is a zip-line which stretches for 600m between the canyon walls simulating the flight path of an Andean Condor. Unfortunately this is not the height of the tourist season and no-one is zipping across. We eat lunch in Chivay before setting out on the road on the northern side of the canyon. There are two bridges to cross the canyon which lie side by side. The old Inca bridge which is for people trekking and on horseback and the newer steel bridge, which is still pretty rickety but passable. From here the road deteriorated even further until it was only a rough, single track along the canyon walls. The isolated settlements on the north side of the Colca River are much less developed. Colonized by the Spanish in the 16th Century, the settlements are notable for their ornate churches, soporific main squares and agriculture. We saw men in the fields using yoked bulls to plow the steep terraces. We saw women with the traditional textile shawls strung over their backs to carry their loads. We saw children herding the cattle, sheep, goats, llamas and alpaca. We saw families in donkey driven carts headed home. We saw no evidence of any modern convenience. This is how they have lived for centuries. We were awestruck by the simplicity of it all and at the beautiful scenery that surrounded us. We passed through Lari which is the starting point for the treks which lead to the source of the Amazon River, a spring at 16,800 feet (5,120 m), where snowmelt from the volcano Mismi bursts from a rock face. Although we did not make it to the end-of-the-road settlement of Madrigal we did see the Fortaleza de Chimpa, a reconstructed mountaintop citadel that looks down over the hamlet. Passing pre-Inca ruins throughout the valley, this bucolic setting was ideal for taking in the slow unfettered traditional lifestyle of the people. At about 3:30, we very reluctantly turned the car around so we would be back at the lodge in Cabanconde before dark. Driving back as the sun was setting over the canyon, bathing it in reds and yellows and orange, we were again awestruck by the beauty of this amazing place. No wonder it is the third visited area in Peru but besides the crowd at the condor lookout, we felt isolated from city life. Ah yes, and tomorrow we will visit the condors again before going home – to Arequipa.

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