April 15, 2012

The Colca Valley

6 hours west of Lake Titicaca is the Colca Valley, a pre-Incan area that is most widely known for its canyon and condors. We spent 5 days exploring the many small towns that dot the valley including Chivay, Coporaque, Yanque and Cabanaconde. 

Each town has the same formula: a main square with a big church and a funky statue, dirt roads and terrible drainage systems. We know this because it rained the entire time we were there.

When we weren’t taking shelter from the rain or huddled around my hairdryer trying to stay warm, we were able to get out in short stints to do some hiking.

Cabanaconde is the entry point for hikes into the Colca Canyon and the drive to get there was amusing. Each time we rolled into a new town along the valley floor, the bus driver would lay on the horn as if we were a train announcing our approach. People would come running for the bus, and this provided for some good people-watching. We noticed that from town to town, the women had a variation on their colorfully embroidered dress…normally their hats were slightly different.

The highlight of our busing around the Colca Valley was when I saw a guy running up to the bus with a sheep in his arms. He had a lengthy conversation with the driver, they agreed on something, and the next thing I know the sheep was stuffed into a feed bag and thrown in the stowage area. The poor little sheep was baahhhhhing the entire way.

We had read that the Colca Canyon was nicknamed “The Grand Canyon of South America”.
I guess technically it is a canyon that is grand that is in South America, but our preconceived notions were dispelled as soon as we arrived.

The canyon did provide for a nice and challenging 5-hour rim-river-rim hike. The hike out was a strenuous 4,000 feet of elevation gain over 3 miles. Our good old friend, RAIN, greeted us for the last 30 minutes when we were most tired and cranky.

On our journey out of the valley, we made one last stop at a place called Cruz del Condor. Here we did something that we promised each other we would never do…bird watching.

Colca Canyon is actually the home of the Andean Condor, and Cruz del Condor is where they like to catch thermals of warm air rising up from the canyon. These condors have the largest wingspan (10 feet) of any land bird, and we spent the morning watching them put on a show. We could spot them from really far away and watched them get closer and closer until they would soar less than 10 feet over our heads. They were beautiful.

Our last stop in this region was to Peru’s second largest city, Arequipa. Arequipa looked like an absolute dump as we were driving through the suburbs into town, but the city center did not disappoint. Many of the buildings are made of a white volcanic rock that is mined from one of the three dormant volcanoes that surround the city.

Arequipa has a beautiful plaza and a fascinatingly colorful convent with 80 individual homes that make up a small city within a city.

The best part of Arequipa were the warm and friendly people that we met. From flash mob practice sessions to serenading musical groups, everyone here seems to be enjoying life to its fullest.

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