No, it’s not the famous Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA, nor the Copper Canyon of northern Mexico. Come to southern Peru where high in the Andes exists the lesser known Colca Canyon, which for 100 kms averages 3400 meters deep (ca 2 miles).
Or so they say! I think the depth really depends on where you measure to the top. The Colca Canyon is certainly awe-inspiring and definately on the “must see” list of places to visit in South America.
How to get there?
First head for Arequipa, the second largest and most beautiful city in Peru, which is tucked away on the altiplano at an altitude of 2325 metres. You can fly in from Lima or Cuzco, or take it more leisurely, as I did, by bussing the 1000 kms south from Lima along the Pan American Highway and Pacific Coast, stopping off at Pisco, Ica and Nazca on the way.
Arequipa was founded by the Spaniards in 1540. It really has style, together with a magnificent backdrop of snowy volcanoes, the cone of El Misti and the Nevada Chachani, both being about 6000 metres altitude. The superb Plaza de Armas with its imposing palm trees is surrounded on three sides by double storied arched colonial buildings and on the north side is the huge cathedral, its twin towers now enshrouded in scaffolding due to their collapse in the 2001 earthquake.
What a great place to rest up awhile! You need four days at least, preferably a week, because your trip to see the Colca Canyon will take two days or even more, while shopping and sight-seeing in the city will leave you exhausted.
|Indians selling handicrafts, Chivay Valley|
Along the main tourist shopping streets extending north from the Plaza, namely Santa Catalina and San Francisco, are many economical hostels and hotels. Budget travellers head for Hostel Santa Catalina or hospedaje El Caminante which provide central accommodation for US$5 per person.
To get a feel of the history, stroll along Calle Santa Catalina. For a whole block a metres thick, stone wall hides the secluded Convent of Santa Catalina, once home to 400 nuns. Now only 20 are in residence, but for 400 years they led a cloistered life cut off from the ravages of the outside world. Tourists can get a guided tour, or you can wander around by yourself, delving into the rustic beauty of a convent founded in 1580 and which has survived many earthquakes since then.
Next block towards the Plaza is the astounding Museo Santuarios Andinos where you will see the famous “Juanita, La Niña de los Hielos”, the 550 year old Inca girl sacrifice found in 1995 by mountaineers in the ice on the summit of nearby Volcan Ampato at 6318 metres altitude. An adjacent volcano had erupted and blown ash to melt the summit snow to reveal this sacrificial site. There she is, kept in a glass case at low temperature, in all her Inca finery, and the museum displays the historical and scientific data associated with the discovery.
Immediately you set foot into the Plaza you are besieged by friendly entrepreneurs enticing you to snack and drink at their balcony restaurants. A pleasant spot it is to watch the comings and goings of Arequipa. Down below is an Internet Cafe, forever memorable for me, as this is where one morning I watched on computer the awful unfolding of the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Along Calle Santa Catalina craft shops and tour agencies abound. I bought some alpaca winter woollies. Regular sweaters cost about US$10 and the finest baby alpaca ones nearer $50, with hand-knits dearer still. Main problem is to find large men sizes for Europeans with long arms.
|Plaza de Armas, Arequipa|
Wasi Tours, at Santa Catalina 207 seemed on the ball and well recommended. I booked a Colca Canyon Tour by minibus, taking two days with an overnight stay at the village of Chivay, located in the Colca Valley at 3633 metres altitude. A good test for my new woollies, I thought!
We headed north past El Misti volcano climbing all the time to get on top of the mountains, reaching the highest point at 4800 metres. We stopped to admire the distant volcanoes amidst an area strewn with little stone cairns built by the Indians. The road zigzags down to the village of Chivay, the biggest of about 14 villages in the Colca Valley established by the Viceroy Toledo in the 16th century, who insisted that the rural converted Indians live close together.
Each town has a beautiful stone church and central plaza with a rectangular street plan of adobe houses sited on a natural river terrace. These major terraces have been further terraced for agriculture, producing maize and potatoes dating back to pre-Inca times. In fact the area has been inhabited by man for over 7000 years.
Llamas, alpacas and sheep are everywhere, happily grazing on flat and often boggy terrain of the altiplano and always watched over by shepherds, who also watch out for tour buses. These Indians, usually women with children, are dressed in fancy traditional costumes and readily pose for photographs, thus deriving a useful cash income.
I learnt that llamas are the larger white or brown woolly animals, having a longish nose and without wool on the face or lower legs, whilst the alpaca is smaller and has wool on the face and legs. The vicuÃ±a is a wild and protected species similar to the alpaca but with a distinctive white hairy main in front. The brown or white sheep were almost as big as the alpacas, but being from Australia I was not confused! They are very tame. At one lunch stop a llama tried to board our bus to continue eating a sandwich shared with a girl!
|Llamas, alpacas and sheep on the altiplano|
The principle viewpoint or mirador for the canyon is the spot “Cruz del Condor”, located about 60 kms down the Colca Valley from Chivay. About a dozen buses can park adjacent to Indian market stalls that sell handicrafts. Here you can peer over the edge and see the river over a kilometre below, while cliffs tower above to merge into snowy peaks. Half a dozen condors obligingly cruise past just waiting for an audience it seems.
The Andean condor at close quarters is an ugly bird but in flight so graceful. It is a huge vulture with a wing span over 3 metres, colored a sinister black, some white under the wings with a white collar like a clergyman. By living on carrion it does a useful job cleaning up the environment. It inhabits the Andean mountain chain from Venezuela to Tierra del Fuego. They say the quickest way to see a condor is to lie down on the ground and pretend you are dead, they will find you!
At last a condor perched itself on a jutting rock only 20 metres away. Maybe a 100 camera-toting tourists clicked away with telephoto lenses. Eventually the poor bird threw itself off the rock into the abyss below to get airborne and found a thermal to rise again. Our driver explained that the condor can not take off from ground level and so lives in the cliffs of the canyon.
Not quite correct! The condor can readily take off from flat ground near sea level as you may have observed in Patagonia at Paine National Park. However at high altitudes of over 3000 metres where the air is thinner its cliff habitat makes for an easier life!
The condor knows that the top of the Andes is a pretty special place. The scenery is out of this world, it resembles the moon and Mars. The snowy peaks and volcanoes border the high plains, or altiplano, which stretch for hundreds of kilometres, treeless and barren, or grassy and boggy, or sandy desert with salt pans. The Indians call it home and few of them have ever seen the sea or could imagine surf breaking on a beach! How fortunate we are to visit their unique world!