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Peru: The Majes River, Arequipa, and Colca Canyon

December 9, 2009

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Colca Canyon, once considered the deepest gorge in the world, has lost that distinction to its nearby neighbor Cotahuasi, but that small fact should not prevent a visitor from venturing to this unique geological feature, one that is resplendent with both wildlife and cultural history.

The best way to travel to the canyon involves following the road from the coast to Arequipa, and from there to Colca Valley.  Long known as the “White City,” named after the volcanic silar stone from which it was originally built,  Arequipa has lost much of its charm in recent years due to its explosive growth but the city is still worth a visit.  The road from the coast passes through the magnificent lower valley of the Majes River, the same stream called the Colca further upriver.

1) The Majes Valley

Kayakers and other sports-minded individuals have a fine time here during the wet season between November and April, when the water rises high enough for exciting river trips.

2) Bridge crossing the Majes River

3) The Majes valley from above

One of the most exciting archeological sites is Toro Muerto, a spiritual place where the various cultures of ancient Peru came to carve their peculiar petroglyphs on the volcanic stones that had been hurled there by ancient eruptions. Represented are the Chavin, the Huari, and of course the Incas.  An interesting thing happened to us when we visited.  We parked our rented car about half a mile downhill from the site, and we all noticed a gap in time as we ascended.  What must have been an hour’s walk seemed to only take a very few minutes.  Some kind of time warp that the old cultures recognized and honored.  I used to have a photo of a glyph that seemed to represent a bus mounted on a crane, complete with passenger windows and modern contrivances; I wish I knew where it was.

4,5) Figures carved in the silar, Toro Muerto; the anaconda in the 2nd photo shows contact with jungle areas, the letter “E” shows graffiti by modern visitors

Arequipa is now Peru’s second largest city and there is not much left of the old quarter.  What does remain is the Santa Catalina Convent, once home to hundreds of nuns but with a current population of fewer than a dozen.  The convent is open to the pubic in return for a small donation, and the art and architecture are truly unsurpassed.

6) Inside the convent

7) Chapel altar

The convent was constructed in the 17th century and has a strong Masonic influence, which gives it a kind of creepy fascination.

8) Cloisters

The Plaza de Armas in Arequipa is worth spending time in, if only to feed the pigeons.  An earthquake in the 1960s largely destroyed the cathedral, but the structure has been nicely rebuilt.

9) The Plaza de Armas with high-end hotel in background

10) The Cathedral

Possibly the biggest volcanic eruption ever to occur during human history happened approximately 50000 years ago at Picchu Picchu, south of present-day Arequipa. The explosive force would have made Krakatoa seem like a child’s firecracker in comparison.  The caldera is still visible today from the city’s rooftops.

11) Picchu Picchu caldera (visible in background haze)

12) In the 17th century, the Spanish employed Native stone workers to produce some of the finest baroque religious art produced anywhere. The Indians cleverly employed their own motifs and symbolism on the church facades, right under the noses of the Catholic priests

13) Misti Volcano rising over Arequipa

14) Pre-Hispanic terraces still used for crop production on the edge of the city

As you continue further from Arequipa, the road passes in back of the Misti and Chachani volcanoes, then deteriorates quickly into a dirt track (or least it did in the 1990s).  Soon you arrive on the altiplano.

15) Wild vicuñas.   Few remain, and now the Peruvian corporation Grupo Inca is has introduced a project  to shear the animals rather than to kill them for their extremely valuable fur.  The company has a factory near Arequipa where the finest scarfs and other products are woven for export, giving hope for a new and sustainable job creation.

As the road progresses further towards Colca Valley, the landscape becomes almost moon-like in its ethereal quality.

16) Pyramid-shaped rocks in the high desert

17) The top of the road: 15000 ft.  Hard to breathe for long, much less handle the cold

Soon thereafter the road descends into Colca Valley.  Once home to the Collagua people, scientists estimate from the extensive ruined terracing that the region supported a population of over 100,00o.  Like most of the rest of Native Americans in the New World, they have vanished into history, leaving only scant traces of their existence.

18) Land still worked in the upper Colca Valley – new structures are part of a hotel

19) Road in the upper canyon

But soon the visitor reaches some of the highlights of the long journey.  Especially interesting are the twin volcanoes, both of which are active.  Hualca Hualca is perhaps the most significant, as young women were sacrificed at its summit during the days of the Inca Empire.  People alive today remember seeing the mummified remains of the victims, which have now been covered by glacial movement.  According to local lore, young girls were chosen at birth for the honor, given every privilege until they reached puberty, then led to the mountain peak in a great procession where they were given coca leaves and chicha to dull the pain of cold and hunger, and left to die in order to appease the mountain gods.  To this day villagers offer sacrifices into the geysers that dot the area, in hopes of preventing larger eruptions.

20) Hualca Hualca is on the right.  To the left another volcano is undergoing a small eruption.

Condor-viewing is one of greatest attractions of Colca Valley.  At one particular spot, halfway between Chivay and Cabanaconde, is a vantage point where the great birds lift themselves daily on the thermals that arise from the canyon.   A great many tourists congregate there, some making the journey as a day trip from Arequipa – a grueling there-and-back drive by all accounts, but visitors are normally assured of seeing the great birds.

21) The view from Cabanaconde

22) The condor viewing spot, some 6000 ft. above the canyon floor

23) Patience is usually rewarded, as long as one doesn’t mind the intense vertigo. Trip over your shoelaces and it’s a long way to the bottom

24, 25) Condor in flight / Dangling over the void

26) Looking back: the Majes valley with Hualca Hualca barely visible in the distance

27) Parting shot: Ride My Llama, Upper Colca

4 Comments leave one →
  1. John Ryan Recabar permalink
    December 10, 2009 5:22 am


    The pictures you have taken of your trip in South America remind me of my own adventure when I turned twenty years old three years ago. I hope I could look back to the pictures I’ve taken someday and proudly post the ‘extant’ of my youthful adventure.

    Thank you for visiting my blog. I hope I could read some of your works. They might not have reached the Philippines, but I will try to look for them.


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