Article and Photos by: Rodney L Dodig
For anyone planning a trip to Peru or already here who loves to see the wonders of nature a trip to the Colca Valley and Canyon in Peru is a must. The variety of scenery and the charm of the local towns and villages located in this area is a photographers dream.
A trip to this area will usually start in Arequipa in southern Peru. The drive to the entrance of the valley and canyon takes about 4 hours over a very high pass of the Andes. For those prone to motion and or altitude sickness drink plenty of fluids, eat lightly and suck on the local coca candy or eat chocolate to help prevent them on the drive over the mountains. There are many stops at places along the way offering photo opportunities. Vicuna in the wild, Alpaca, Llamas and scenes of the majestic mountains that you will be driving through are just a few. The scenery on the way there is both stark and beautiful. It is an arid dry desert land with a majesty of its own. For me, stopping at the “high Pass” was the most interesting. Here travelers as well as locals had built mounds of rocks as tributes or offerings to the Gods of the mountains. This gave the scene an other worldly appearance, a landscape that definitely appeared to be from another planet. I must admit it was hard for me to catch my breath at this altitude with any exertion on my part.
When you arrive at the entrance to the Colca Valley and Canyon the first town you will see is Chivay. Spending a day and night here is well worth the time. Besides some great restaurants (peñas) with live music and dancers performing Peruvian Folk dances in colorful native dress, there is a Hot Spring Spa (La Calera) located just outside of town. Here you can soak in the hot mineral waters and relax from the drive over the mountains. If soaking in a hot mineral pool is not your cup of tea, the Colca River runs next to this Spa and if you cross a small suspension bridge over the river there is an area with some minor Incan ruins where local herders tend their sheep. It is quite picturesque here.
You can get to the rim of the Canyon from Chivay by hiking, biking or driving. The road up the canyon to the rim is narrow, winding and is not paved. We passed through a couple of tunnels that they had dug through the mountain with no apparent supporting structure. Driving up you will pass locals herding their cows and goats on the road as well as bike enthusiasts and hikers taking the hard way up. The views from the road are awe-inspiring. The Inca had terraced the mountainsides and locals still farmed them to this day.
A mist usually hangs over the valley in the early morning waiting for the sun to rise over the mountain peaks and burn it off. When the Sun finally peaks above the mountaintops, it shines golden on the quilted fields of various crops. The river tumbles mightily through the gorges, only to flow gently through the valley on reaching the bottom. High on the sides of the cliffs you will see ancient burial sites for the Cabana, testament to the ingenuity of an ancient people. We stopped multiple times to take opportunities for photos and just admire these truly spectacular panoramas. It is reportedly the deepest canyon in the world. For reference, the Grand Canyon is the third deepest. At times, you are actually above the cloud layer here which gives you a sense of how deep the canyon really is. There is the majesty to man made things like the Incan ruins, the archaeological sites in Egypt, Rome and others, but nature has a way of out doing all those things. From the terraced land of the Inca to the beauty of the rock cut deep by the power of the Colca River, you will find it hard to pick a specific scene to point the camera.
There are also small villages on the road to the rim of the canyon; Yanque and Maca is a couple worth noting. They both have nice Plazas and historical churches that are worth the stop. Each has a market area surrounding the Central Plaza with plenty of shopping opportunities with locals in native dress selling handmade crafts. You can even have a photo taken of you with an eagle on your head as my friend Steve and his brother did. The churches are very old, from colonial times and with the snow-capped Andes in the background the settings are wonderfully picturesque.
Arriving at the rim you are immediately struck by the over powering natural beauty of this place. In every direction, there are vistas out of a National Geographic special. There are large viewing areas built to accommodate the visitor and designed to help get the most for your viewing pleasure and photo opportunities. The main reason for the stop at the rim is to view the magnificent Peruvian Condor in flight. They are large birds with a wingspan of up to three meters, a sight to behold. Of course getting photos of them is the challenge as they soar high above and below on the updrafts from the canyon below.
If you choose to take this adventure, there are many tours available in Arequipa. From personal experience, I also know that they will bargain with you on the price. The point of my article is not to recommend one company or method over another but that you should take the time to visit this amazing natural wonder if you are in Peru. Happy travels everyone.