Up and Down Colca Cañon

During much of our driving into Colca Canyon, across a high pass, I thought it was raining out, at least a little bit. Small rivulets of water kept running down the windshield so I figured it was doing something out. Finally, near the peak our windshield became extremely cloudy every time we used the windshield wipers. As I went to clean off the windshield, I realized to my horror that there was no rain, mist, hail, or other precipitation. I touched the windshield and discovered that vegetable oil was leaking out of one of our reserve tanks that we store on the roof of the car and coating the entire front of the windshield.

Veggie oil sunset. Rivulets of oil after our spare tub sprung a leak on our roof

After creeping down the rest of the hill, we arrived, covered in veggie oil, in the town of Chivay before heading to the town of Yanque to stay at the home of Reth, our friend from Arequipa. Both towns have primarily cobblestone streets arrayed around a tree-lined central plaza.

View from la casa de Reth

After what felt like a quick nap, we woke up at 3am to visit a reservoir project by an NGO called DESCO in the highlands above the Colca River canyon. Lack of water supply and sanitation is a serious problem for Peru, which costs the country more than $1 billion annually. It’s a problem environmentalists warn could worsen as climate change melts tropical glacier and shifts rainfall levels across regions. The Peruvian government has promised to heavily invest in reservoirs up and down Peru’s desert coast to mitigate the potential costs of climate change, so we tagged along with DESCO to check out some of their pilot projects. We found their approach to be extremely interesting. Water reservoirs are not enough to stabilize the water supply on their own, they found, because they encourage migration back up to the highlands and overgrazing by alpaca and llama herded in the region. Overgrazing consequently leads to a drop in vegetation and soil quality, which reduces the ecosystems natural ability to retain water. Thus, Desco came up with a two-pronged approach: couple investments in small-scale water reservoirs and canals with capacity training to teach communities how to breed alpaca to produce more and finer wool. The idea is, if each alpaca produces better wool, individual families will need less of them, overgrazing won’t happen and the water supply will be improved. For more info, check out their website at http://www.descosur.org.pe/ (Spanish speakers only).

The women on each side of the valley wear their own distinctive style of hat.

Friday market finest.

On our return we were taken to two remarkable stops. First we stopped in the town of Callalli on what happened to be their market day. People from all over the area had come to town donned in their finest. The women were wearing particularly colorful dresses with intricate patterns in bright hues of green, pink, red, yellow and blue. The defining feature of the women’s outfits were their distinct hats, which fell into two types, a brightly colored fedora or a flat top hat with a large cloth flower on the side. Second, we went past a locally famous spot known as what translates to the Mystical Castle. Out of the top of a hill rose, almost straight up, a rock formation that looked like a set of serpentine walls.

The mystical castle

Flatbed montage from water reservoirs above Colca: Coca chewers & windblown hair

On the following day, joined by Reth, we visited Colca Canyon. The canyon is one of the deepest canyons on the planet.  At 10,725 ft deep, it is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Viewed from the top, the Colca River, which runs along the bottom of the canyon, is little more than a faint line. We spent the morning at Condor Point or Cruz del Condor (a slightly odd translation, we know), one of the deepest parts of the canyon and a great place to spot condors that slowly rise out of the depths. With a wingspan of up to 10.5 ft, these huge birds rarely flap their heavy wings, and instead circle gently looking for hot air currents rising along the walls of the canyon.

Condor Point. Colca is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon

Madrigal and Lari pueblos huddled above pre-Inca terracing, also known as Andenes

The peaks of Ampato and Sabancaya tower over a sunny Colca landscape

Drew pondering the abyss

Cabanaconde: top of the world. Place of legend. From there we began our 1800m decent to the floor of the canyon. It went like this. At the bottom, alongside the river, were several similar lodges. Ours, the Paraiso lodge, was just about right – simple thatch cabins, a communal lounge/dining area, and a crisp, cool pool built with a giant boulder forming one of its walls. A visit to the river revealed relatively calm, slightly brownish water, which was hard to imagine as partially responsible for the massive canyon. As Reth explained to us, upriver a series of locks were built in 1970 to feed the giant reservoir we had seen from Callali and to keep the river’s flow down especially during the rainy season when the river swells massively. We were viewing the river during a calm period. During the rainy season, its rapids are so intense that it remained an unconquered rafting challenge until the 1980s.

The descent: 1800m from Cabanaconde to Paraiso Lodge at the bottom of Colca Canyon

Our return climb, though strenuous, was somehow less body abusing than the descent. Upon reaching the top, we went to the thermal baths at Chivay. Set alongside the river, the baths are in a tile and stone building with one very strange feature: they have separate baths for foreigners and locals. Thus, as our host put it, we ended up ‘bañando en sopa de gringos,’ bathing in gringo soup.

Reth & the crew after the grueling return to Cabanaconde. 2:20 from bottom to top

Mike showing some victory skin, Whalens gently perspiring. Some subtle good touch bad touch with a rock

Rock towers abound at the viewpoint above Chivay. Our instant classic.

Written by Drew Straus

Photos by Elliot Whalen