Colca Canyon Tour

July 31, Tuesday. It is late afternoon and we just returned to Arequipa from a very touristy tour of the Colca Canyon. Monday, not too early, we were picked up at the hotel by a small micro-bus. By the time we finished picking up passengers the bus was full with 23 tourists. We left Arequipa toward Yura on a nice paved highway. The road continued on (and up) and passed thru “Aguada Blanca Nacional Vicuña Reserve”. This is a park (very high, bleak desert) where native vicuñas roam and are protected. The bus stopped and we all got out to see and photograph a couple of herds of vicuña. Past the reserve area the natives had many herds of domesticated alpaca grazing on the sparse grass and we photographed some that were nearer the road as we drove by. As we got farther into the mountains, the road to Cuzco turned off and the road we were on became rougher. The natives have set up tourist areas along the road and we stopped at two of them. The first stop was for a break at a site with a little restaurant where we enjoyed a cup of coca-leaf tea before continuing on; it is supposed to be good to combat altitude sickness. The second stop was “at the top”, the highest point of the road at 16,049 feet above sea level. It is called Mirador de los Andes. From here, there is a good view all around to many Andean peaks.

We continued on to the small town of Chivay at 11,974 feet, that marks the upper end of the Colca Canyon. It had been a small farming town until the travel operators decided to use it as a base to take tourists to the canyon. Many small hotels have sprung up as well as several restaurants. It was very cold and since there is no heat in any of the buildings we dressed in many layers and there were heavy wool blankets on the beds. In the morning there was ice on many of the puddles in the streets. We ate two buffet lunches and a wonderful dinner in the town. The buffets provided a selection of the local cuisine; all was great especially the little vegetable fritters, the seasoned rice and the alpaca stew. Dinner on Monday night was “from the menu” and Bill and I both opted for Alpaca dishes. The meat was served with many locally grown vegetables and included the ever-present french fries. Potatoes were first domesticated in the Andes in the ancient, pre-Inca times – they are still a major food here.

This morning we were up early and off down the canyon to the “Cruz del Condor” where mid-morning the condors take off on their daily hunting expeditions, sometimes all the way to the coast. Along the way we made three stops, two at small indigenous villages and one to see Inca tombs and terraces. The local indigenous farmers have tapped nicely into the tourist trade and at each bus stop they had knitted and woven woolens for sale, mostly from alpaca wool. The first stop, Yanque, the church on the main plaza was still in repair from the latest earthquake damage, but in the plaza young native women danced for the tourists. The second village that we stopped at, Maca, had a very interesting small church off its plaza. The interior has intricately carved altars lining the nave, all gilded in gold. Some of the saints on the altars were represented in native dress. The third stop was to see the tombs. These are just holes dug into the cliff above the road but two of them have red coloring around them, indicating the burial of royalty. Looking down from the road, the walls of the canyon were terraced. The terracing is from the pre-Incan times and about 2/3 of the terraces are still in use today; although being winter and very cold they are fallow. The “Cruz del Condor” was back up at 12,305 feet. It was over the deepest part of the canyon but the canyon is not very wide so the bottom was not easily visible. We had some great views of condors as they traversed back and forth along the cliffs in front of us, gaining altitude.

We returned to Arequipa with a longish stop back in Chivay for a second buffet lunch and a rest in the park, while two of the group’s members were treated at the clinic for serious altitude sickness.