View of Colca Canyon from the rim
Colca Canyon is a canyon of the Colca River in southern Peru. It is located about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Arequipa and is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the United States. However, the canyon’s walls are not as vertical as those of the Grand Canyon. The Cotahuasi Canyon to the northwest (also in Peru) is a deeper canyon at 11,488 ft (3,501 m). Since they are such major features of the landscape, the Colca and Cotahuasi canyons are both easily recognizable in even low-resolution satellite photos of the region. The Colca Valley is a colorful Andean valley with towns founded in Spanish Colonial times and formerly inhabited by the Collaguas and the Cabanas. The local people still maintain ancestral traditions and continue to cultivate the pre-Inca stepped terraces.
The oasis at the bottom of the canyon
One of the major attractions in and around Arequipa, the Colca Canyon is must-see for anyone in the area. There are lots of different tours available including standard bus-in/bus-out and various lengths of trekking tours. Fortunately for me, the group that I’ve been volunteering with is partially run by a local tour guide who is well-known in the canyon and who runs very interesting trekking/cultural tours to the villages in Colca. Jonathan, one of the other volunteers was planning to do a four day trek with his father and Luis into Colca and fortunately they let me tag along.
As we just learned above, Colca is the second deepest canyon in the world…though I suspect not quite so awe-inspiring as the Grand Canyon as the walls of the canyon are not so vertical (not sure on this as I’ve not yet been to the Grand Canyon). The GC is about a mile at its deepest point while Colca is 3000 meters (9,842 feet). Another interesting phenomenon of Colca Canyon in the prolific number of Andean condors cruising around. Unfortunately we were not visiting during the best season for viewing condors but we did see a few in flight.
So back to the trip…on Day 1 we took a 5 hour bus ride into the valley of the Canyon and commenced with walking down to the floor of the canyon from the rim which took about 3 hours. The walk was not strenuous though I was having flashbacks to all of those stairs on the last day of the Inka Trail. At the very bottom of the canyon some rather enterprising Peruvians have developed an oasis complete with natural swimming pools and bungalows for sleeping. We rested up for a bit at the oasis then prepared for another hour and a half hike up to the village where we’d be spending the next two nights…the village of Malata.
As I mentioned, Luis is well-known among the Canyon crowd as he is working to develop more eco-friendly and culture-friendly tours that allow the local villagers to earn money from tourism without being exploited…hopefully allowing them to keep their traditional agrarian ways. One family in the village of Malata has developed a very basic-style hostal where part of the experience is learning about the traditional ways of the villagers…like gathering bugs to make dye for wool and working in the fields using the ancient tools of the Incas. It was in this family…Doris and Modesto…that we got to experience life as Incan villagers.
On Day 2 we were up early in the morning headed for the cactus fields where we were to collect the cochineal insects which are dried out, ground into a powder and added to crushed geranium leaves to make a bright red dye for woolen goods made by the village ladies. We weren’t able to collect a huge amount as the recent rains had washed away many of the bugs, but I’ve included several pictures here of the process…from the cactus, to the scrapings, to the final powder product.
Spoon and pan used for harvesting cochineal
In the afternoon of Day 2, we returned to the house to help Doris make the dye (shown here below)…of course the dye process is women’s work so that’s what I did. Jonathan, Luis and Jonathan’s dad were busy scraping the wool from the hide so that I could spin it into yarn. Well, that was the theory at least. My yarn-spinnning did not go so well…it’s a bit harder than you think and my yarn looked more like rope with tufts of fur sticking out of it. It seems I’m not cut out for a career in textiles.
On Day 3 we got up early and prepared to head out to the fields with Modesto. The preparations were extensive as it is customary before tilling and planting a field to make an offering (or payment as they call it) to the gods. Here is Modesto putting together the offering which includes seeds of various grains, tiny slivers of gold and silver foil, alcohol of some variety and a few other items that are escaping me at the moment:
After doing the ritual blessing at the house, we carry the tools:
to the field and set the bundle with the offering on fire in the corner of the field. We also passed around an animal horn full of a local spirit before commencing with our field work. First off…clearing the field of weeds by hand. As a woman, I was not obliged to work on this task but I pitched in anyway. After the weeds were pulled, it was time to plant the wheat (which is apparently a woman’s task) and I set about tossing the grain over the field. After I completed this task, the men were obliged to use their ancient tools to turn the dirt over onto the newly sown seeds. I followed along after them with my spade breaking up the clumps and flattening out the soil. Some pictures of this process are below.
We spent our last night in a hostal in Cabanaconde where I had my first hot shower in about 3 weeks followed by several glasses of wine. Heaven, in my world. Early the next morning we were off to the Cruz del Condor in hopes of spotting more of the famed birds…alas, we had no luck so opted for a post-lunch dip in the hot springs at Chivay (highly recommended) before our return to Arequipa. All-in-all a good trip…and a great alternative to the standard trips to Colca Canyon.
Original Inca terraces in Colca Valley