Colca Canyon


A Butterfly Across Peru: Colca Canyon
Vanessa Malandrin

What is it like to travel alone down the world’s deepest canyon? Let this Italian adventure seeker tell you.

Adding to an already long bus trip from Arequipa to the Colca valley, we had to stop halfway because the radiator broke down. It was really cold and women were dressed with elaborated traditional clothes. In the distance I could see alpacas grazing in an astonishing open landscape, with impressive rocks and no trees at all. After a short walk I found myself breathless.

I soon discovered that we were at a height of 4,000 meters (more than 13,000 feet) and that’s why I was beginning to feel symptoms of altitude sickness, referred to here as soroche. Among the primary symptoms are a persistent headache, gastrointestinal and nervous system disorder, and more. The locals suggested I rest and drink a hot tea made with coca leaves. I was looked forward to a refreshing sleep that night in Chivay, however at 5:30 in the morning I was awakened by what sounded like a mass, spread all over the town with speakers. Quite unusual, I would say!

I planned to walk along the canyon from Chivay to Coporaque. The receptionist at the hotel gave me her phone number in case I needed help — even though the area poses no serious dangers. I was (and am) grateful to her for being sincerely concerned about my safety. Traveling alone I’ve learned the importance of making friends with the most reliable people. In the Colca I had a couple of bad experiences with men who were not completely disinterested in offering their help, so I would advise you to completely avoid those situations that may be even vaguely ambiguous.

My trip took place at the end of April, when the valley is a gorgeous, full-blown patchwork of colors due to all the different crops. Quinoa, corn, potatoes and other tubers, wheat, barley and alfalfa are grown all over the place. Almost every family owns some land to produce their staple food, otherwise it would be too expensive to buy it. Whoever doesn’t own any land or animal is likely to live in really poor conditions.

Peruvians are hard workers: from 4:30 a.m. you can see people going towards the fields walking with their tools and a donkey (if they’re lucky enough to own one).

Life is hard at this altitude. Far from the tourist routes, in the Colca valley there are also people living at a height of 5,000 meters (16,400 feet). Children must walk a couple of hours if they want to go to school, and often there is snow. Keeping crops is almost impossible and people rely mostly on rearing alpacas, an animal that provides valuable wool, meat and manure, which is dried in the sun and used instead of firewood in the winter (as there are no trees).

To get a taste of this lifestyle, I would suggest you visit the least known part of the canyon. You can spend some time in Sibayo or Callalli (3,800 meters, or 12,400 feet high), where many families adhere to the Community Rural Tourism project (Turismo Vivencial), active in several parts of Peru.

A few kilometers after Callalli are the Mollepunco caves, visited by very few people. You can easily find somebody reliable that can drive you there, simply by asking in the Plaza de Armas or in a shop when you arrive in Callalli, as I did. The caves host nothing less than paintings and petroglyphs that are presumed to date back to 6000-3000 BC. A first group of pictures painted in red shows hunting scenes, while the second group of figures carved in bas-relief represents men developing the capture of wild animals and taming techniques. A great opportunity to fantasize about the life that people were leading in these places in prehistoric times.

All around, the landscape is impressive and walking back to Callalli you’ll see on the left side of the road the Enchanted Castles, a formation of volcanic rocks shaped by wind and rain.

Talking about the lower part of the Colca Canyon, I would recommend you stop in Madrigal and ask for a guide to go to the Chimpa Fortress (about 2 hours), from where you will have a breathtaking view.

If you go early in the morning, you may be also able to spot the Andean condors, impressive birds with a maximum wingspan of 3.3 meters (11 feet)!

I felt very safe traveling alone in the Colca; people are respectful and they were always caring for me very much, even when busy partying as they were during the Celebration of the Cross (Fiesta de la Cruz) on May 3. If you are a woman traveling alone, it’s best to avoid excessive drinking unless you’re in the company of trusted friends.


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