Condors, mules and sore muscles in the Colca Canyon

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South America » Peru » Arequipa » Colca Canyon
May 23rd 2011
Published: June 17th 2011
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Our guide picked us up for our trip to the Colca Canyon - it was a stunning drive. We passed through the outskirts of Arequipa which wasn’t at all attractive - literally hundreds of shacks, many without running water or electricity. Carlos (our guide) told us that people come in from the countryside, settle into these tiny brick or tin houses, set up communities and eventually the government builds schools and puts in power and water. They can wait for years for it though! From there we passed through desolate, though very beautiful, high country. Bare brown land, snow capped mountains in the distance, lots of herds of llama and tiny wind blown mud brick villages. We were above the tree line so there were no trees, just low scrubby vegetation. It would be a very hard life if you lived in the villages. We passed children alone along the road, some on pushbikes - no idea where they were going to or coming from!
We stopped at the highest point - 4900 meters, very cold - but with stunning views of the mountains. El Misti was behind us and Mt Ampato (6800 meters) where they found the Ice Princess in front of us. There were piles of prayer stones everywhere - the locals pray to the sun and moon there and leave small rocks balanced in heaps as offerings. We saw something similar in the Himalayan region. Whilst we were there a group of women were in a circle chanting together amongst the rocks. We passed large herds of alpaca and llama and were even lucky enough to see more vicuna. We saw vicuna very close to the road on our return trip the next day.
We stopped for a short while in the provincial capital of Chivay - a very small dusty town! The region is very traditional and all the women still wear costume. They were very distinctive - the Collagua women wear ankle length skirts (sometimes the front edge is attached to their waistband so you can see their petticoats) heavily embroidered at the hem. They wear embroidered waist length fitted jackets and white cowboy style hats with very decorative hat bands. The trimming on the skirt is a combination of a heavy embroidery and braid. The other group who live in the area are called Cabanas - their style of dress is similar but all the embroidery is very detailed and down by machine. It is so thick that the skirts can nearly stand up by themselves! They wear a heavy felt hat which is also heavily machine embroidered. Both were very beautiful but they weren’t happy about photos being taken so I have no close up ones. However they were some of the prettiest traditional dress I’ve seen. One young lady let me look very closely at her outfit but would only let me photograph a close up of the embroidery on her jacket. She was stunning!
We drove along the valley to the tiny village of Cabanaconde where we had lunch. It looked an interesting place and I was a little regretful hat we weren’t staying the night there. The drive was very dusty - fine white chalk like dust. At one stage we drove through a tunnel which was a bit scary - simply cut through the chalk cliffs and without any vision as you were driving through because of so much white dust in the air. We passed magnificent pre Columbian terraces which ran along the river bank for kilometres leading up to the canyon. They were the best terracing I’ve ever seen - still used today and were a patchwork of colours. Framing practices using the terraces fascinate me - they are so resourceful - crops needing less water are grown at the top and the ones which require the most water are at the bottom.
After lunch we started our walk into the Colca Canyon. It is the deepest canyon in the world - more then twice the depth of the Grand Canyon - though the walls are not as vertical as the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon is in a ‘U’ shape and the Colca Canyon is a deep ‘V’. It was an 8.5 kilometre walk to the bottom where we were to spend the night. The track down was steep, in quite poor condition, very rocks and slippery. We could see the river as a narrow ribbon far below. I loved the walk, despite slipping a few more times then I wished. Jerry however struggled the whole way with ‘jelly legs’ and vertigo problems. He found it very difficult but Carlos was very supportive and they reached the bottom about an hour after I did. The colours of the canyon were brilliant reds, purples and yellows which changed as the sun set. We slept in grass huts in an area known as ‘The Oasis’. It was very green and comprises quite a few sleeping areas, each with their own swimming pool! They are all owned and managed by members of the same family. We were very tired when we went to bed that evening - dusty because there were only cold water showers (or the swimming pools) and it was far too cold for us to consider bathing in icy water. Our guide cooked us dinner which we ate by candlelight. I woke early next morning to hear the sound of what I though was rain. Not happy as we hadn’t bought our wet weather gear! However it was the daily emptying of the swimming pools - they literally pull the plug on them - water flows out one end and fresh spring water from a waterfall on the gorge walls fills them up from the other side. Very enterprising!
I was quite looking forward to going up to the top of the canyon because before I had come down I had decided that the only way up for me was going to be by mule! Everybody else left before five in the pitch dark cold to scramble up the side but we got up at 6.30 and with a surprising amount of other people (10 and all much younger than us) we were thrown (literally) on to the back of the mules which were given on smack on the rear end to start them off. And then they didn’t stop for the next hour and half! We both thoroughly enjoyed it - great views and total admiration for the mules. The mule owners held onto their radios (everybody who lived in the region had a Panasonic transistor slung across their bodies - music whilst they worked) and the mules tails - which helped pull them up the slope. Everybody else on mules had walked down the opposite side of the canyon and all we could here were comments about how much steeper this side was as they rode up. We obviously chose the wrong side to hike down!
Arrived at the top for breakfast - after guiltily passing many puffing hikers walking up - before we left to go to see the Andean condors. Besides the trekking the condors are the main reason tourists go to visit the canyon. These massive birds (12kg in weight) - the world’s largest flying birds - live in crevices in the canyon walls and as the sun warms up each day they ascend in the warn thermals. Jerry and I aren’t really lucky when it comes to seeing wildlife and we only saw three condors that day - someday up to fifteen will fly past - but they were impressive! We had however seen another three the day before as we drove into the valley. There were hundreds of people watching from the viewpoint - mostly day trippers from Arequipa - which slightly spoiled the atmosphere. We then drove to the tiny village of Yanque - very much a tourist mecca - to see the pretty Franciscan church there. The region has had regular earthquakes and the church is famous because it has never suffered any major damage in any of the many the region has had over the last 400 years since the church was built. The church was lined with glowing gold covered recesses and a very large golden altar. The main street was crowded with stalls and tourists. Jerry made friends with an Andean eagle whilst we drank Pisco Sours (cocktail made from Pisco -grape based liquor - lemons or limes and egg white) made by an enterprising local man who was doing a roaring trade at 10am in the morning!
Our next stop was to admire the terraces - they really were impressive - plus some ancient graves set high up in the cliffs above the road. An hour or so wandering the markets in Chivay followed - very enjoyable. I loved getting an up close look of the womens’ clothes, From there we headed to some hot springs nearby. It was great to wash off the dust, warm up the sore muscles and put on some clean clothes before we had a great buffet lunch accompanied by some traditional music. Then the long drive back over the Altiplano to Arequipa. Lots more vicuna on the way home. An enjoyable couple of days. Carlos dropped us back at our guesthouse in Arequipa where we had a meal before heading the bus terminal for an overnight bus to Cusco. I love those overnight bus trips…….

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