We left Arequipa, Peru early in the morning for the 150 km trip up a bone jarring dirt road to the headwaters of the Colca River. As a UN World Heritage Site and Peru’s “Second City” this town is full of tour agencies, and locals recommended one offering a tour of the canyon. They gave us the nice bus, a modern 16 seat Mercedes-Benz diesel. Quechua folk tunes spun on the tape player as we climbed thru the suburbs and into the Andes Cordillera. These volcanic mountains are the physical expression of the Pacific Ring of Fire, resulting from the collision of two enormous plates of the earth’s crust. Cañon del Colca is a giant gorge carved by the river into these mountains. It’s quickly become a tourist destination similar to the Grand Canyon but without the crowds and amenities. After three long hours on this dusty dirt road we finally reached the village of Vizchachani for a break.
Life is quite difficult here on the altiplano. At nearly 4,000 meters, the environment is severe: cold, windy, and very dry. But, the scenery is breathtaking, literally! We’re feeling some oxygen deprivation and our bus is feeling the altitude too. The cure is rest. Our cure is the traditional Andean altitude remedy, Mate de Coca, or coca leaf tea. Coca was revered as the “Divine Plant” by the Inca and has been used for this purpose for thousands of years. This remedy is not to be confused with cocaine, which is distilled from just one of the eighteen identified alkaloids contained in the leaves. The seventeen additional ingredients are purported to give it properties that encourage healing as well. In potency, the leaves are like Miller Lite compared to Barcardi 180, and any “altered state” sensation is negligible to non-existent (think strong espresso). As an altitude remedy it works very well.
Soon we arrive at the Spanish colonial town of Chivay. It’s the provincial capital and a tourist gateway to the canyon. Established by the Spanish Conquistadors, to them its value lay with the canyon’s rich silver mines and the slaves that worked them. Along with these conquerors came the Catholic Church and their brand of spiritual enlightenment. Because of this, several villages in the canyon have impressive baroque cathedrals dwarfing the nearby adobe huts. We checked into a room at the Rumi Llaqta (link below) and quickly left for our final destination, Mirador Cruz del Condor (Cross of the Condor Lookout).
The road into the canyon, little more than a path in places, hugs the slopes giving glimpses of the Colca River far below. Some of the best examples of pre-Incan agricultural terracing in Peru are found here. Terraces appear throughout the Andes, but here they are still in use while elsewhere they have fallen into disrepair. Mirador Cruz del Condor makes use of one of these to provide a pullout for parking. Our bus stops and we walk a short distance to the rim and get impressive views of the canyon and river, wheeling condors circling on the thermal currents, and huge volcanoes looming in the background. Part of our group elects to hike along the canyon rim but we remain behind to talk and enjoy the view.
Pablo, our driver, is a college educated young man who grew up in Arequipa. His English was pretty good, and together with our so-so Spanglish, communication was not a problem. His first question, since we were Americans (and Arequipa gets few American tourists, relative to those from other countries), was how do Americans interpret the media coverage of Peru. His main source of international news came from the South American edition of CNN (he pronounced it “SAY-AN-AN”), which he did not like. He felt they paint a negative picture of Peru to the world. In his opinion, this was one reason there were so few American tourists. The other was the needlessly over-hyped threat of terrorists and narco-violence. When Fujimori became president over a decade ago, the Sendero Luminoso and MRTA terrorists declined in numbers and power, incomes and the standard of living had risen, and democracy was returning. However, the American media was communicating none of this. We ended up talking politics so long that we had to rush to meet the hikers.
That evening our return drive took us thru the village of Yanque and an unexpected highlight of this trip. As with most early agricultural societies, ritual defines life. Pre-Incan cultures had multiple layers of spiritual belief, one of them involving sky worship. The Pleiades were tightly bound into these beliefs, and each year in mid-August a traditional agricultural festival celebrates the reappearance of this star cluster above the horizon. This marks the beginning of a new agricultural cycle and was originally venerated as the return of the seed scatterer. However, when the Church arrived this was co-opted as part of the domination of the Inca and given the name “Feast of The Return of the Pleiades.” No matter if it was purely pagan, it served to control and placate the people.
As we drove into the village, night was falling and the sky was dark with pinpoints of light. Long processions of men carrying torches could be seen marching down from the surrounding hillside terraces, pitchforks and farm implements in hand, away from the days work and into the central plaza. The women and children had spent the entire day preparing tonight’s feast, brewing the ceremonial chicha (like a corn beer, some are non-alcoholic), and decorating the plaza. Life is communal and everyone pitches in; this is just one in a series of festivities that marks the repair of the village irrigation ditches. Their procession circles the plaza and ends at the spot where the church dominates one side. Here it breaks apart and food, drink, and general merriment take over. Today’s hard work leads to tonight’s hard play. We park and merge into the crowd of locals to share in their accomplishment, and even though we are outsiders, they welcome us warmly. Everyone in the village dons the traditional bright colors while Quechua folk music wafts through the thin air, live and untainted by any of the studio flourishes we heard earlier on tape. Food is given communally and we all drink from the large pot of chicha. We are honored and privileged to be invited into this ritual, one that’s been practiced for thousands of years and exists today little touched by the outside world.
Postscript: Although we all thought we had the good bus, on the road back Pablo would stop every half hour or so to inspect something. He told us this was to ensure our brakes didn’t overheat, which seemed reasonable on these mountainous roads. Only on our return to the valley did we (the passengers) find out the right rear tire was seriously bald. Suffice it to say, there’s no link to recommend this outfit.
Written by Steve Smith and photography by Christine Johnson, Steve Smith and Anglo-Australian Observatory (by permission)
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