Exploring the Colca Canyon

As Cusco equals Machu Picchu, Arequipa is practically synonymous with the Colca Canyon, and many travellers treat it as a jumping off point for treks in to the second deepest canyon in the world. Although we thought we might do a longer hike, and I know that it would have been great to do so, we were pretty exhausted from our time in the jungle, so we decided to make things a little easier on ourselves by opting for a single day excursion.

While the one day trip was less physically taxing, setting our alarm for 2:45 am (does that even count as the morning?) still made for a pretty fatiguing day. There’s a good reason for the early start, though. One of the canyon’s biggest draws is the chance to spot condors soaring on the thermals above the deep chasm, and they’re generally only flying in the early morning. As we left Arequipa at three in the morning on a Sunday there were significantly more revellers stumbling back from the bar than those who were starting their day, but there were condors to be seen, so off we drove in to the night. Luckily we were able to get a bit more sleep on the bus so that we were a bit more ready to face the day.

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The birds don’t show themselves to the hordes of hopeful tourists every day, so we were lucky to see one soaring above us just after we got to the viewpoint. Though it never came too close, we could see it well enough to tell that the claims of it’s gigantic size weren’t exaggerated. With a wingspan of up to three and a half metres, I don’t know that I’d want to meet a condor in a dark alley. Although we might be able to see their Californian cousins closer to home, they’re nowhere near as big, so it was neat to have the opportunity to see one of these enormous birds from relatively close up.

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In reality the canyon is only a very small part of the trip. We spent the remainder of the day driving back through the Colca Valley, learning about the natives’ way of life and taking in the beautiful views. There were two groups of natives that lived, and still live in the area, and while their dress is pretty much the same, you can tell them apart by looking at the shape of their hats. Way back in the days before the Spanish showed up, both groups would use wood to form their babies’ heads in to a shape that more closely resembled the mountain that they considered to be their god. One group flattened the heads, while the other made them taller, and the hats have kept a similar shape as a homage to the past. We also saw the terraced agricultural system that those who live in the area still use as it helps with irrigation in the relatively dry valley. The trade off is that they have to do all of their farming by hand, as the terraces are generally too small to accommodate big equipment. Despite this, the area is known as a place where a lot of Peru’s agricultural exports originate.

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We stopped in one of the small villages along the road to check out a local market and go in to one of the beautiful churches in the area. What we hadn’t bargained for was a meeting with a pretty fabulous alpaca. We’d seen alpacas and their owners ready for photo ops in quite a few places, and we finally decided to fork out the (very minimal) cash to have our picture with one of them. The alpaca’s owner informed us that the animal’s name was Monica, and she implored Monica to look at the camera and pose nicely for the pictures. I’m not sure whether Monica was a great listener, but I guess you have to do whatever it takes to maximize your tips! Monica made for some pretty hilarious photos, so much so that Zevi decided to go back and get his picture with her after I had. It was definitely an “only in South America” moment.

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Most people in our group didn’t bite when our guide offered us the chance to take a dip in some natural hot springs, but water and I are pretty much best friends so I wasn’t going to pass that up. I’m glad I didn’t as it was probably my favourite part of the day! There were a couple of hot pools and then a cooler pool of river water mixed in to the springs, which was especially good for me and my weak heat tolerance. Staying in a hot tub for more than ten minutes or so is a struggle for me, so going back and forth between the hot and cold pools was pretty much perfect. The setting couldn’t be beat either as we were in the middle of a beautiful river valley with rushing water and steep red cliffs surrounding us. We were almost so mesmerized by the springs that we lost track of time, but luckily we made it back to our waiting group just in the nick of time.

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After a buffet lunch of a huge variety of the area’s delecacies, we made our way back to the summit of the pass. At 4910 metres, this far surpassed the dizzying heights of Cusco, but we weren’t really there long enough to feel the effects. I was surprised to see thousands of inukshuks surrounding the viewpoint, but soon learned that they were known in the area as apachetas and were traditionally left there as offerings since the locals considered the lookout to be the place closest to the mountains, their gods. I guess stone towers aren’t just a Canadian thing after all!

Though the one day trip didn’t give us a chance to get down in to the canyon, I really enjoyed getting out of the city and learning about some of the history and culture of the area. The great views and beautiful hot springs didn’t hurt either. And really, how often do you get to meet an alpaca named Monica?

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