The Colca river valley and cañón

The Colca river valley and cañón

Principle areas of interest:

Trips in this region will almost certainly start from Arequipa, from the Cuzco-Puno region or as an extension to a trip to Cotahuasi. We offer a number of large scale maps of the region, but see here for an annotated Landsat picture. We give a Colca-focused map of the region below.

The Salinas y Aguada Blanca reserve.

The reserve is around 35 km North of Arequipa, lying at between 3,500 and 6,000m. The landscape is dominated by lakes and volcanoes: El Misti (5825m), which dominates the Arequipa landscape, Chachani (6075m.) which, although higher, is less visible from the town itself, and Picchu Picchu (5664 m). These and the lakes are set in 367,000 hectares of protected land. There are around 140 bird species in this area, with particularly spectacular waterfowl, flamingos and raptors such as the condor. The flamingo - (Phoenicopterus chilensis) flamenco andino in Spanish or parihuana in Quechua – makes a fine sight at first light, when its pink feathers echo the equally pink dawn snows of the volcano cones. The rarer James’s flamingo (Phoenicopterus jamesi) is endangered.

Over twenty mammal species have been counted, including the South American cameloids, such as taruca (Hippocamelus antisensis) and the guanaco (Lama guanicoe). Work is in hand to reverse human impact – chiefly erosion caused by over-grazing - and to re-introduce the vicuña (Vicugna vicugna). Other large mammals include the omni-present vizcacha and the mountain fox (Pseudalopex culpaeus).

Alpine woods and meadows cover the land, showing how the Andes must have appeared at a time before humans made their impact. A characteristic shrub is the yareta (Azorella sp.), which claws its way over scree and rocks to form tangled masses much favoured by birds, reptiles and insects. It has been much reduced by past cutting for firewood. Other trees include the queñual (Polylepis sp) and k’capo (Parastrephia lepidophylla).

Access to the park costs a small fee – three soles for a day or ten for three days. You can camp in the park, although facilities are currently negligible. We discuss trekking on El Misti volcano here.

Sumbay is a village that lies 88 km from Arequipa, within the bounds of the park. It has a cave system in which rock art shows around 500 figures which date back at least several thousand years. The culture that made them was certainly pre-agricultural. The drawings are executed chiefly in white, although some are yellow, ochre and red; and they chiefly show people hunting. Their prey include the llama family, cat-like animals and deer.

Cailloma province

Colca is a region that has only recently become practical for tourism, but its fine arid scenery and extraordinary wealth of pre-Incan artifacts and culture make it an important destination. The canon has been cut by the Colca river’s work on the soft volcanic geology of the region, and is arguably the deepest such valley in the world. Road access to the Colca river valley takes around four hours by bus from Arequipa, reaching Chivay, the provincial capital. The alternative destination of Cabanaconde takes around two hours more.

Colca cañón seen from space. North is to the left.

Cyclists are fascinated by this route. The surface is good, but the road rises to 3,600m and zigzags for much of its 150 km of length. Before we get into the details of Colca and Chivay, therefore, let us spend a few paragraphs on this extraordinary environment.

This is an area in which the wildlife of the arid South thrives, and walkers will be unlucky not to see a condor. Patches of irrigated land are separated by vast tracts of extensive grazing, and it is hard not to encounter a flock of alpacas. The villages and golden grazing land are backed by the snow peaks of volcanoes such as Hualca Hualca (6,025 m), Sabancaya (5,976 m) and Ampato (6,288 m) and, beyond this, the spectacular cañón system of Colca itself.

The cultural impact of these huge volcanic cones has been profound. There are many pre-Inca shrines in various states of ruin in the area. Lakes, which often provide fine dawn and dusk reflections of the volcanic peaks, have proved particularly attractive. The volcano Hualca Hualca is said to be the parent of the local people, and of the pre-Incan Cabana people. Another, currently-dominant group, the Collahuas, claim descent from yet another volcano, called Collaguata. These Collahuas were able to establish around 6,000 hectares of irrigated farmland in what is a semi-vertical, arid landscape, supporting a substantial community.

The Incas encountered the local peoples during their brief period of expansion. They were astonished at the level of agricultural technology that they encountered and set to duplicating it across their empire. It seems likely that many of the farming-related innovations which have been attributed to the Incas are in fact the product of the peoples of this region. US archaeologist Johan Reinhard found three frozen pre-Inca mummies on the flank of Ampato, one in a state of near-perfect preservation. This was subsequently baptized, as Juanita de Ampato. Investigations suggest that the three were sacrificed, probably in honour of Capac Cocha, the Inca deity concerned with rain and irrigation. (This figure can be viewed in the Santa Maria University museum in Arequipa.)

Click here to see a series of images Colonial Spanish rulers followed a policy of concentrating the indigenous population into fixed locations, often with scant regard for the lay of the land or local tradition. These points are, however, now the fourteen villages of the Colca valley, each of which was constructed on a fresh site to a Spanish model. The churches, in particular, reflect a single architectural epoch. The building program was started in 1570, and in many cases completed quickly, encapsulating the styles of the period. Chivay, Cabanaconde and Lari do, however, show native elements introduced perhaps by stealth into the architecture. Others, built in the period between 1640 and 1700, are much influenced by the baroque style. After the decline of the colony of Peru in the Eighteenth century, these and the villages were, in effect, forgotten by the outside world.

Explorers in the twentieth century called Colca the "lost valley of the Incas". In fact, of course, the Inca influence here was as brief as it was anywhere in Peru, and what you see is the product of millennia of pre-Inca life and of the Spanish conquest. An access road was built in 1975, as a part of an irrigation project lower down the valley. This in turn led to a gradual realization of the historical and ethnological importance of the region.

This said, the village communities still adhere to their historical patterns of life and belief, little impacted by tourism or the outside world. The local women wear long clothing intricately embroidered with animals and flowers. These dresses are said to be the most complex of all the ethnic clothing in all Perú. Each village has its own motifs, hat styles and trimmings. The villages maintain pre-Incan traditions, such as the wayllacha dance, which may well have given rise to the nation-wide huayno incaico, much as irrigation technology was appropriated by the Inca. An even more ancient dance is the wititi which plays out the courtship of a highborn young girl by a man who must disguise himself as a woman in order to be close to her, and the eventual elopement of the couple.

Land tenure is one striking indication as to how little the outside world has affected these communities. Villages such as Cabanaconde (see below) continue to hold all land in a communal form, and village collectives parcels out land to families to grow their crops. This was the universal pattern of land management prior to the arrival of the Spanish. [More here.] It is now extremely uncommon in Perú. (The idealist reader should ask themselves what actually goes to make up a "collective": who has a voice, and who does not and so gets the worst land. )

The Colca valley

The cañón of Colca is around 3,400m deep, comparable to that of Cotohuasi, a few hundred kilometres to the North. Some say that this makes one or the other of these two the deepest in the world. These things are always controversial as it depends from where you begin to measure. The tip of Annapurna to the bottom of the Kali Gandaki in Nepal measures around 5000m, but nobody would call that single point a valley, in any meaningful sense of the word. The Grand Canyon in Colorado is, however, unarguably half as deep as Colca. The two valley systems of Colca and Cotahuasi are, plainly unique on the planet. Colca is shaped by the the drainage system of the many huge volcanoes, all merging to create the Colca river. The light volcanic soil of the region has been cut deeply by this river, to create the cañón, such that the river itself is only a few hundred metres above sea level while the towns and fields perch thousands of metres higher.

Travel agencies in Arequipa offer kayaking, hang-gliding and parasailing, pony trekking and mountain biking in addition to walking. All of these must, however, be arranged off-site. There are no organised local facilities, and trips are equipped from Arequipa. Most such tours operate in rather circumscribed areas, due to the extremely rugged nature of the landscape. To get further, you need to go on foot, but as the villages are connected by a network of rocky paths this is an ideal location for trekking. Walkers can see pre-Andean systems of irrigation and housing, usually still in good condition and frequently in active use.

Click here to see a series of images Chivay is both the capital of the province and the largest of the fourteen villages of the Colca river valley. Many of the buses from Arequipa terminate here, and it is the point to which most travellers direct their initial efforts. It offers comfortable but basic accommodation and restaurants. There are good views across to the snow peaks, and many visitors go no further. It has a small pre-Incan archaeological site with an amphitheater, known locally as Sacsayhuaman. The church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción de Chivay is worth a visit, as is the farmers’ market. There are thermal baths, stalls selling craft work (artesania) and the daily life of a small country town to absorb.

Accommodation elsewhere is basic. Cabanaconde and Yanque also offer basic hotels, and the rest can offer physical shelter for the night, but not much else. Food is not easily bought away from the road-head at Chivay, and there are no travel agencies in the valley. Organised tours operate out of Arequipa and these bring in bring in their own supplies. If you want to act independently, and make your own arrangements locally, then there are guides to be found in Cabanaconde, and to a lesser extent in Chivay. You will, however, need to bring in all equipment and essentially all your food, including that of the guide.

Click here to see a series of images Two roads set out from Chivay, dropping into the valley and following the river. The road which follows the right bank leads to Coporaque, Ichupampa, Lari and Madrigal. Coporaque which has one of the oldest churches in the country. It is now a national monument. The villages of Ichupampa and Lari also have exceptional churches - better, some say, than anything in Arequipa. The Lari church is painted a stark white, which contrasts strongly with the arid landscape around it. Madrigal offers fine views of the cañón.

A demanding branch of the road leads, eventually, to Cuzco, doing so by way of Tuti, Sibayo and Callalli. Sibayo still has traditional houses with thatched roofs and dry-stone walls. It has a fine church, however, reflecting priorities in the region. Callalli offers some weird rock formations, called “the castles”. Those equipped with a 4x4 might well consider this route when making plans, but whilst also keeping an eye on the dry and wet seasons.

Click here to see a series of images The other road, which takes the left bank, goes to Yanque, Achoma and Maca. Yanque (3,628 m) can be reached from Chivay on foot, a walk of some hours which takes you past settlements that are full of characteristic Andean ways of life, agriculture and livestock. The village has a fine church dating to 1560, with a facade carved with motifs of a running river, flowers, fruit and cherubs. The bishop-architect of the building Antonio de Léon is represented as an equestrian figure, capturing his endless circuits on mule-back between his churches. Colonial architecture is particularly well-preserved in its near-original setting.

Maca also has a striking church, laden with statuary. These villages are all custodians of ancient local traditions – in cooking, in bullfighting, in religion - and all of this is at its peak during the rains in February, when the fields are green and the bare rock spotted with plant life. The road continues to Pinchollo and Cabanaconde, which is by far the most important of these villages to the average visitor. There are two main reasons for this. First, Cabanaconde is close to the Cruz del Condor, which we will describe in a moment. Second, it is the jumping off point for many shorter and longer treks.

Cabanaconde is around 70 km East of Chivay and can be reached from it by bus in around two hours. It is necessary to rise early in order to catch the incoming bus from Arequipa. This makes a drop at Cruz del Condor before stopping at Cabanaconde, and pauses for a subsequent pickup on its return. travellers are required to keep alert as missing the return bus could make for a cold, dry night.

Click here to see a series of images Cruz del Cóndor (3600 m) is a natural look-out that offers views up and down the cañón. The viewing point gets its name from the large number of raptors – and in particular, condors – which wheel about in the vast cañón, nest in its walls or pass down to the Pacific. They go down the ocean in the morning in order to seek carrion, and commute back in the evening. The river is, at this point, only 200m above sea level, so the drop is sheer and deep. The view along the valley shows the little villages scattered along the cañón.

Cabanaconde is usually regarded as a the point from which serious trekking can begin, and the village has a number of people who will serve as guides. The shorter walks are of two or three days and paths are well marked, although much longer treks are possible for the experienced and well-equipped. This is not, however, and area suited to single-person trekking over long distances as water is found infrequently once on gets away from the main valley, and the jumbled volcanic terrain is both confusing and hostile. It is essential to travel with an experienced guide if one intends to leave the Colca valley itself. Cabanaconde is the start of a much tough trek that heads out through wild country to the strange "valley of the volcanoes". This route takes around six days (five nights in the field) and is described in detail here. Most will want to hire mules, as this is hard going and porters are sparingly available. The trail goes to 5200m in very wild country.

Click here to see a series of images A more gentle two day walk from Cabanaconde drops down into the valley, passing the hamlets of San Juan de Chukchu, Coshñirhua, Malata. A variety of trails lead down to the river, cross it at a suspension bridge and then climb to San Juan de Chukchu, a usual overnight stop. A longer haul takes one to Tapay, higher and tucked under the cliff. The return route visits near-deserted villages called Coshñirhua and Malata before descending to “the Oasis”, a mini-resort with its own swimming pool. One can stay there overnight, making a three day trip of this walk. The climb back up to Cabanaconde takes around 3-4 hours.

A distinct route can either set out from Cabanaconde to go to Patapampa, a village on the road leading into Chivay from Arequipa. The trail rises away from the cañón towards the vast cone of Ampato. Walkers reach the isolated lake of Mucurca. One can see Coropuna through a gap in the rock face from the lake. The route then passes over the snow-fields on the flank of Hualca-Hualca, before dropping down to Huambo. The trail heads West to the Hacienda Sallalli, which is near to where the mummified figure referred to above as Juanita was discovered. Good views of the massive cone of Ampato confirm why the early people of the region held it to be sacred. This is a demanding route for which you will need high altitude gear, full provisions and above all, a guide who knows the route. To overshoot is to wander into desolation.

The cordillera de chila

The Cordillera de Chila is a little-trekked region of relatively high peaks (Mismi climbs to to 5600m) with lakes and wildfowl. The river Ucayali rises here, and one can make a 4-5 day trek to see the headwaters. This is a fine walk for those interested in the waterfowl of the high Andes, but the weather restricts it to April to November. The path is flat, but high, and both a good guide and mules are recommended. Seek out Tuti village as the road-head, but do not expect to find anything there to buy. The route passes the trekkable peaks of Mismi and Quehuisha, which are also the source of several distinct rivers. It affords views of the Colca cañón and of the distant major volcanoes, before exiting at Lari, close to the Colca valley.

Valley of the volcanoes

One striking and adjacent area is the valley of the volcanoes, designated El Parque Nacional de los Volcanes. The tranquil town of Andagua lies at 3590m, and it is the primary access to the valley of the volcanoes. This whole region was shaped by volcanic activity over the past 200 million years, and the valley shows modern lava flows and cinder cones into which the cactus flora is barely beginning to make headway. There are 86 cinder cones, symmetrical piles of lava ejected by gas, each looking as though giant ants had made it. The result is a cruel, alien landscape. The cinder cones exist in the shadow of the immensely much bigger cones that rise behind: close by Ampato, and further away the snow peak of Coropuna. Two identical little craters called the twins, Los Gemelos, can be seen from anywhere in the town.

The trek which we describe elsewhere leads to the Andagua valley and can, therefore, be made a part of a very unusual circuit. The Andahua valley is strange and attractive in equal measure. The entire landscape is made up of relatively fresh lava flows, cinder cones and breccia. Specialised vegetation struggles to make a living in the arid, rocky environment. All of this is surrounded by harsh basalt walls of near vertical black rock. Villages such as Andahuas, Chachas and Ayo dot this lunar landscape, picking a living from livestock farming.

Access to Andagua from or to Arequipa involved a lengthy bus or car journey along sinuous, unsurfaced roads that bob up and down in high altitude scenery. We have described the trip as far as Aplao elsewhere. The full drive to Arequipa takes ten hours, and you may well wish to break this at least once. The views of the major volcanic peaks that you pass are well worth seeing at dawn and dusk. You can also connect with the Cotahuasi circuit.

Click here to see a series of images

The town sprawls across cinders and lava, but supports three hotels (one an ancient hacienda) five restaurants and a modest range of shops. The streets are unpaved and wandered by livestock. Many houses appear ready to fall down. The people of Andagua have yet to acclimatize themselves to foreigners and they may appear cold and shy. They are, however, a sensible group who can be very helpful when barriers are gently breached. The municipality maintains an information service, and can help you find guides and porterage. You will, however, need to bring all equipment that you need with you. You will also need to be able to get what you want across in Spanish.

There are two short treks that can be done around the town. (We have discussed a strenuous, long trek here.) One of these takes 5-6 hours on foot, 2-3 when mounted on a mule and – obviously – less by vehicle. This visits the ruins at Antaymarca. The other is 6-7 hours on foot, or 3-4 by mule, with no vehicle option. This goes to the Shanquilay waterfall.

Strangely, given the hostility of the landscape, the site is an ancient one and there are many ancient ruins in the valley. The Antaymarca ruins are extensive pre-Inca habitations and tombs. The route takes you past a natural look-out point which gives fine view of the entire valley. Bring a telephoto lens if you are set up for this. To the South, one can see volcán Hechapita, and the greater and lesser Chilcayoc cones. To the North, the Gemelos, Mellizos, Pucamauras and Ticsho. To the East, Kanalla Mauras – where they have built a bull ring – and Ninamama. Further down the trail one finds the Soporo view-point, a tower built by the Inca to oversee the area. One then retraces one’s footsteps.

The other trek follows an irrigation canal between the Gemelos. It comes to an ancient stone bridge, and passes other pre-Incan ruins at Pumajallo. Other ruins at San Isidro de Tauca offer two story tombs and more look-out towers, or chullpas. The return route goes by the Shanquillay waterfall. This has eroded itself a secondary and even tertiary exit lower down the rock.