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Adventure and Nature in the Colca Valley

Photo: Mylene D'Auriol.


Photo: Heinz Plenge.


Photo: Renzo Uccelli.


Photo: Walter Wust.


Photo: Mylene D'Auriol.

Photo: Mylene D'Auriol.

By: Mauricio de Romaña  
Since George Johnson and Robert Shippee first explored the area for the American Geographical Society in 1931, the Colca Valley has been known by different names: The Lost Valley of the Incas, The Valley of Wonders, The Valley of Fire and The Territory of the Condor. It has even been called one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

The Colca canyon arose from a fault in the earth's crust eroded for thousands of years by the largest river of the Peruvian coast. The Colca River is more than 200 kilometers long and in places it has cut 3,400 meters into the earth, forming a canyon twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the United States. People have lived here since humans first arrived in the Andes. These early settlers left rock paintings and petroglyphs in caves and shelters - testimonies of their early experience - as well as arrow heads, obsidian scrapers and a host of other utensils.

About 1,400 years ago, the Collaguas, who were Aymaras from Tiahuanaco, and the Cabanas, who were of Quechua origin, both pre-Incan people with an advanced level of agricultural development, carved out 8,000 hectares of terraces on the slopes of the canyon, in order to cultivate and control the irrigation. The terraces are used to this day.

There are 14 towns in the Colca Valley that were minutely planned down to the last detail in Spain and were built during the conquest. But somehow, a curious phenomenon occurred. The Colca region literally disappeared from the map only to be re-discovered in the 1970s.

As if by magic, the area and its natural and cultural wealth were erased for two centuries. Its traditions, technology and crops, which boast an extraordinary genetic variety of potatoes, corn, quinua, maca, oca, and isaño, were left virtually untouched by time. Today, scientific and cultural expression from the 17th century can still be studied and admired in the Colca Valley.

A Tourist Attraction

The Colca was opened to tourism in 1985, when new highways and the infrastructure built for the Majes project made access easier. In the last 17 years, many people have visited the area, including pioneering tourists who spread the word about its history and the magnitude of its landscape.

Whether one visits by car, boat, bicycle or horse, there will always be magnificent opportunities to see elegant vicuñas, majestic condors, timid Andean deer and the pirouettes of Andean hummingbirds along the route. There is also a rich variety of flowers, cactus and trees, all adapted to living at high altitudes. The traveler will not fail to be impressed by the active volcanoes, geysers, thermal baths and the beautiful architecture of the towns, as well as the ingenious designs of the area's bridges and irrigation canals, and the hospitality and sincerity of the local people.

A Memorable Experience

The Colca Valley is approximately 160 kilometers from Arequipa. The main town, Chivay, can be reached in a memorable trip of less than three hours. After spending the night in Chivay, one should descend to the river as early as possible. Passing through the towns of Yanque, Achona, Maca and Pinchollo, one arrives at La Cruz del Cóndor, an observation point offering a spectacular view of the canyon.

Without a doubt, the most interesting towns are Maca, Yanque, Lari and Coporaque. Coporaque contains the oldest church of the 17th century and was once the site of a copper palace built for one of the wives of the Inca Mayta Capac. After the conquest, the metal was used for horseshoes, and then with the arrival of Catholic clergy, it was melted down and recast as a bell. Many of the temples of the area are of remarkable architectural quality. The Church of Yanque, the base for all the Franciscan missionaries of the valley, is one of the most important Mestizo-style monuments.

Insufficient Time

A few days, a week or even a month would not be enough time for travelers to see, learn, and live all of the splendor provided by the Colca Valley. The Valley is a reminder of times past. Visitors will return haunted by a feeling that life has changed and that society has lost two precious qualities: the ability of people to live at peace with nature, and with each other.

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By Mauricio de Romaña
Volume II/Issue 9, Page 08

Edited, Lola Salas

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