Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Colca Canyon

Home to the condors, deeper than the Grand Canyon, I had a whirlwind 2 day adventure trekking the Colca.

colca canyon header

After leaving the Peruvian Amazon I flew back to Lima and hopped on a flight straight to Arequipa. As soon I stepped off the plane I felt an instant change in the atmosphere. Peru has vastly different regions, from the cosmopolitan coastal dwellers to the rural Amazonian communities and then the mountain inhabitants of the Andes. Each region varies greatly in lifestyle and culture, which is expressed through their food, clothing and customs. My experience in Arequipa and the Colca Canyon was totally different to the lifestyle I had just experienced in the Amazon.


HOW TO GET INTO THE COLCA CANYON


When we arrived in Arequipa, we went to a few random tourist agencies in the main square to find out about fully inclusive tours to the Colca Canyon. Since it is a few hours drive from Arequipa we decided the best option was the 1 night 2 day package. We didn't ask about the price until the end so we were ecstatic to find out it was only $25USD per person! Yes that included transport, accomodation and some meals.

native woman with hawk colca canyon


HOW TO PREPARE


With Arequipa sitting at 2335m above sea level and heading into the Colca you will be reaching heights 5000m above sea level, you need to spend some time acclimatizing to the atmosphere. We spent one night in Arequipa before embarking on our journey. Even then, I felt light headed occasionally as we ascended higher. A few people in the tour group were unlucky enough to develop worse symptoms of altitude sickness like headache, nausea and vomiting. A natural way the inhabitants of the mountain regions combat altitude sickness is with coca tea and coca candy. We were offered coca tea in almost every restaurant during our tour, but if you want to be extra cautious I recommend buying some coca candy too. Be careful though - coca leaves are the base ingredient of cocaine, so don't take them out of the country!

coca tea for altitude sickness


THE JOURNEY BEGINS


We were picked up at 7.30am sharp from our hotel in a coach bus already packed with 20 people. Since we each had one big suitcase, we were lucky that the hotel we were staying at let us leave our bags there for one night and we took only our backpacks. As we drove further from the city and closer to the rural areas we felt the terrain changing. The mountains were getting taller and the air was getting thinner.

scenery towards colca canyon


VICUÑA VS. ALPACA : WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?


As we approached the countryside we saw wild herds of Vicuñas and Alpacas. They are both native to Peru and used for their wool... so what is the difference between them? Our tour guide explained to us that vicuñas (top) are the wild ancestral version of alpacas, that should never be approached and will always run away from humans. Alpacas (bottom) on the other hand are more friendly and have been specifically bred for their wool.

vicuñas around lake
cute alpaca eating


VOLCANO MISMI : THE HIGHEST POINT IN OUR JOURNEY


Finally, we made it to the highest point in our journey. We reached an altitude of 5672m above sea level on the Volcano Mismi. As we got higher in the mountains, the air became thinner and many people on our bus got altitude sickness (no vomiting though THANKFULLY). Even though I was lightheaded I still made it out of the bus to explore. There were many mountain inhabitants selling their crafts and the panorama was gorgeous from up there.
Something pretty cool we were told - the Amazon River begins from a glacial source at Volcano Mismi - pretty impressive considering how far we were from the rainforest.

volcano mismi market


CHIVAY


After a 3 hour journey we reached Chivay, the town we would stay for the night. Chivay is a gorgeous quaint rural town with a friendly atmosphere. The residents of Chivay are proud of their customs - all over the town you can see statues dressed in traditional Andean clothing. Apart from the local markets and a few cafes scattered around the main square, Chivay is famous for its hot springs and Zip-lining. We weren't in the mood to get wet so I decided to do the Colca Zipline - scary as hell but you only live once right?!

chivay statues with costume


A NIGHT OF CULTURE


After sundown we made our way back to our hotel and met our guide for dinner. We were bussed to a local eatery and enjoyed a night of traditional dance and traditional food. Even though we were offered a cup of coca tea I think most of us were used to the altitude by now.

restaurant with dance in chivay


RURAL CHURCHES


The next morning we boarded the bus before sunrise and headed deeper into the Canyon. Our next stop was the tiny village Maca which seemed to consist of only an old colonial church and a tiny town square with the rugged Sabancaya volcano as the backdrop. There is a market in front of the church and for a small donation you can get a photo with an eagle and llama (could not go past this one!!).

maca church me with alpaca and hawk


ANCIENT TERRACES


We reached the Colca Valley not long after around Madrigal. If you look closely you can see "steps" in the valley, which we were told are pre-Inca and were created for agricultural purposes. These steps are still in use for farming today. It's amazing that people still live here today and continue with the livelihoods of their ancestors of many hundred years past.

colca valley terraces
colca valley terraces close up


THE COLCA CANYON


FINALLY we reached the Canyon. The Canyon was amazing, way deeper than I had anticipated - twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. If you look closely in the first picture you can see a lookout with people on it, just to get an idea how enourmous the chasm is.

at the colca canyon
at the colca canyon


CONDOR SPOTTING


Coming to the Colca Canyon is the prime place for Condor spotting. Condor's are pretty unique creatures, not only are they the biggest bird in the world they are completely monogamous. They come to the canyon to feast on the meat of snakes and rabbits. The Canyon is home to about 100 Condors at any one time. We waited and waited and finally after an hour we were rewarded. It appeared and everyone got their cameras and binoculars out and snapped away. It circled for 10 minutes and disappeared into the abyss.

condor at the colca canyon


ANCIENT VOLCANOES


After basking in the gorgeous canyon scenery for 2 hours it was time to leave. On our way back to Arequipa we were pointed to the apex of this inactive volcano. It is now filled with water and used as a drinking hole by wild animals - if you look closely you can see them. Pretty cool yeah?

volcano at the colca canyon

For me, this was an unforgettable experience. The scenery was incredible and like nothing I had ever seen before. If you make it to Arequipa this is a MUST SEE. While we did one of the shorter tours you can organise any number of days to suit your needs, from one night to six nights. And its pretty damn cheap as well (our tour was $25USD per head).

Image attribution:
"Colca, Peru" by Pedro Szekely // CC BY-SA 2.0 *
* changes were made to the original materials

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