22nd April 2014
As if the four day Inca Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu hadn’t been enough, as soon as we left Cusco and arrived in beautiful Arequipa, The White City, we booked ourselves another trek, this time to Colca Canyon. We paid a little higher than our usual backpacker budget, to go with what has to be one of the best tour companies in the city, Colca Trek (as they proudly declare, the only company recommended by Lonely Planet).
We set off just after eight, in a minivan with thirteen other people and our lovely guide, Christian, a local who grew up in one of the villages in Colca. After passing through the ugly, ramshackle outskirts of Arequipa – apparently the town has expanded rapidly in the last fifteen years due to huge immigration from the mountain and valley towns in search of better jobs and schools – we found ourselves in a strange, post-apocalyptic landscape of dusty cliffs, red clay, cactus and sparse little grey-green bushes. We wound through arid brown hills and rubble strewn yellow cliffs, then descended into the flat plains of Pampas de Cañihuas national park. Here, we stopped by the side of the road to watch families of vicuñas, from the Andean Camel family and similar to llamas and alpacas, but smaller, daintier and with a uniform orange-brown fur coat with white tummies. Vicuñas, the national animal of Peru, were once near extinction, but are now protected in the park, and it is forbidden to hunt them. The locals still sheer the animals once a year, since the fur is highly prized and worth a lot of money (apparently a vicuña wool jumper will sell for $60,000 in Europe), but the rest of the time the animals are left alone.
After a mini off-road experience, bouncing up and down bumpy dirt tracks, we reached our first stop and stepped out in the middle of the plain, near the mouth of a small canyon, which we walked into after a quick drink of coca tea to help with the altitude. At the start of the canyon is the bizarre Imata Stone Forest, created by weirdly shaped rock formations. Traditionally a sacred place, many local farmers still sacrifice a lama here to Pachamama to request a good year. The rocks, formed by molten lava from the nearby volcanoes, are twisted and warped in strange shapes, sometimes taking on the appearance of animals or faces (as long as a little imagination is used).
As we drove away from the stone forest, we saw a huge tornado in the distance, like a tunnel of dust, which is apparently common in the area. Back on the road, we kept on driving through the huge, empty plain, sparsely covered by small, green clumps of grass and sweeping away on either side, huge and flat and stretching, brown and beige under an enormous, empty sky, overlooked in the distance by the silent forms of white capped mountains and the brooding, grey El Misti Volcano. We stopped a few more times to look at enormous herds of alpacas and llamas, with lots of scampering babies, as the breeding season had just ended, and also at a small series of grassy ponds, where we were able to see a family of Andean geese with their tiny, white babies.
Soon, we were climbing again into rocky mountains, with the sky turning grey and cold as we ascended. We stopped again at the Mirador de Los Andes, a lookout point at 4910m above sea level with a view of the seven surrounding volcanoes, most of which are snow capped and many of which are still active, including Misti Volcano which can sometimes be seen smoking. Outside the van it was freezing cold, a surprising contrast with the hot sunshine we’d been stood in just half an hour before, and I felt sorry for the women selling souvenirs at the side of the road, huddled over in the wind.
Our final stop en route to Colca Valley was to view some samples of the llareta plant, one of the slowest growing species of plant. Like a big green rock made up of tiny, hard leaves, a big clump like the one we saw would have taken thousands of years to grow. It secretes an oily sap which smells like aloe vera, and is one of the strangest plants I’ve ever seen.
We stopped in Colca Valley for a buffet lunch, with lots of tasty alpaca dishes, and then headed on into the valley, where we stopped frequently to take in the incredible views. Colca has 70% of all Peru’s Inca and pre-Inca terraces, and 90% of them were made by the Wari culture, one of the earliest civilisations in Peru, and were used to create micro-climates for cultivation. The result is a valley that looks like a 3D puzzle, laced with ruffles of thin terraces built from uneven stone, like neat steps, with the floor of the valley coated in a patchwork of tiny, hedge-lined fields of different shapes and colours: bright green, dark emerald, yellow, brown, beige.
There were more Inca structures in the cliff alongside the road above the valley. Small holes carved into the yellow cliff-side, these were essentially ‘Inca fridges’ used to preserve food, and are the Colcas for which the area is named. There was also a tomb, the small entrance smeared with red iron oxide which was considered sacred, the blood of Pachamama (mother earth).
We sat on the edge of a lookout point over the valley as the sunset, while Christian talked about the towns and the surrounding area of the valley, especially about the discovery of Juanita, the body of a young girl preserved by the ice found in the glacier of Mount Ampato. There are a few theories surrounding her sacrifice, but the story Christian gave us is that she was raised in a school in Cusco specifically for sacrifice, and was at the age of twelve or so following a volcanic eruption. For two days she would have eaten nothing but coca leaves, and on the third day would have been given chicha (a local drink made from fermented corn), and gotten very drunk. Once she fell asleep, the priests would have placed her body in the foetal position and left her on top of the mountain to freeze to death; the belief was that she needed to be killed by the mountain god rather than the priests, in order to remain pure. As she was found with a hole in her head and a bit of blood on her face, others believe that the priests did kill her with a blow to the head, but this is unlikely considering other similar sacrificed bodies found in mountains in Chile were without harm; the cut and blood could have been made when her body fell down the mountain after the glacier melted and her body began to thaw.
We finished the day at Colca Lodge, the gorgeous accommodation that had sold us the Colca Trek tour above all others. The lodge had a huge, cosy lounge with a big central fireplace, comfy sofas and lots of warm blankets, where we sat and chatted with the rest of our group until dinner. Our rooms had floor to ceiling panoramic windows, overlooking the valley and the white capped mountains beyond, and the décor throughout the lodge was beautiful; way too good for backpackers.
There wasn’t much time for enjoying the luxury, though, as the next day we had a 5:30am start, so we headed pretty quickly after dinner to our enormous, comfy bed to get straight to sleep.