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Eleven of us went to see Colca Canyon in the province of Arequipa: me, Rosa, Jessica, Anthony, Beto, Karen, Emilio, Patricia, Giancarlo, Cesar, and Rocio. Ironically, I was the only one who knew everybody in the group. We all got wasted until 4am Saturday night so the early Sunday morning departure was hell.
The altitude in Colca is ridiculous, higher than any of these other ridiculously high altitudes in Peru. Colca Canyon is technically deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona, but the walls aren’t as clearly defined or vertical so it’s less recognized and the pictures are less canyon-esque. The bus made five or six stops on the way, making a three-hour drive into a six-hour drive. On one stop near a flock of llamas, I asked the tour guide if there was enough time to have sex with one. Nobody laughed. Nobody. Blank stares. Oh well, you can’t be funny all the time.
We pulled into the small pueblo of Chivay around 2 pm. The poverty struck me immediately. Having four months in South America now, I’d seen poverty unlike anything in the States, but this was a new low. I’d only been to larger cities in Latin America: Recife, Rio de Janeiro, Arequipa, Cusco, Bogotá. This was my first dusty, dirt-poor little pueblo.
The only goal of anybody born in this town should be to GET OUT – somehow. The entire economy revolves around tourism to Colca and agrarian labor. What’s more dismal is this will never change. It will never be anything besides tourism and agriculture. We had to navigate some serious Andes Mountains to get to there. The terrain is too extreme to ever build durable, high-speed freeways for large trucks or railroads in order to bring in heavy raw materials or large loads of anything. They will be isolated forever, tending to llamas and alpacas, harvesting wheat and other crops, and selling overpriced trinkets to tourists.
After lunch, we had an hour or so to settle into our hostel before the bus would take us to La Calera Hot Springs. The Colca region is littered with hot water springs and some were turned into swimming resorts. About half of our group didn’t want to go. When we arrived, our tour guide misinformed us that the pools were full and, if we still wanted to swim, we would have to wait thirty minutes or so to get in. Half of the remaining group decided to go back to the hostel. There was no way in hell I wasn’t swimming. Like a faithful lap dog Rosa stayed with me. Karen also wanted to swim, making us a party of three.
We paid the entrance fee and headed for Pool #5. We immediately got a locker and got in the hot pool. It was the size of an average public swimming pool with the temperature of an average hot tub. This was zen. The night was cold but the water was hot. It was dusk and we enjoyed a scenery of giant mountains all around us. I enjoyed scenery of French, German, and non-Peruvian female tourists wearing skimpy bikinis.
There was a bar selling fresh juices, beer, and of course Pisco. There were servers so we didn’t even have to get out of the hot water. Latin American cultures typically have less rules and laws, and less enforcement of those rules that do exist. Karen and I agreed that most pools in gringo society prohibit things like alcohol and glass. Here we set our glasses of fresh papaya juice on the edge of the pool just like the Germans did with their beer bottles and the French did with their Pisco sours. In the hot water, Rosa rubbed my shoulders for about ten minutes while I thought about skipping the canyon in favor of hanging out here all day. I’m glad I went, but if there is a next time in Colca, I’ll be spending most of my time at La Calera.
I’d been hung over, sleep deprived, and feeling terrible all day. After swimming, I felt great. We all went for dinner at an Irish pub in Chivay. I gorged myself with chicken and pineapple pizza, an alpaca steak platter, and a chicken sandwich. Rosa and I went to bed early.
The morning was freezing. On our way to the canyon, our bus stopped at smaller, even poorer pueblos. Most memorable was Yanque because they had a Peruvian Independence Day festival in the city plaza. When I say festival, I mean there were 8 – 10 cholos in traditional get-up dancing around the fountain. Four or five more posed with owls and llamas and four or five others sold the handmade crafts you find everywhere in Peru. Three or four busloads of tourists watched.
That was the extent of the festival, and maybe the highlight to these people’s year. The folk-dance featured female dancers and male dancers dressed in women’s clothes. The tradition goes that, a long time ago, men dressed as women to fool the girls’ fathers so they could dance and pursue them afterwards.
These smaller pueblos further highlighted the difference between the modern world and this world. Houses are homemade. House walls and fences were built with large rocks, using mud for mortar. After the walls were built, pieces of sheet metal are placed on top of the walls to make a roof. After the sheet metal is in place, a few large rocks are strategically placed to ensure the roof doesn’t move or slide off. I didn’t go inside any of these huts, but I assume they don’t have electricity or plumbing.
After the pueblos, we headed for Cruz del Condor (Condor Crossing) in hopes of catching a glimpse of the condors in their morning flight. The Andean Condor is a symbol of pride for many South American countries including Peru. The largest flying bird in the Western Hemisphere, the Andean Condor can weigh up to 35 pounds with an average wingspan of ten feet!
We were lucky to see nine or ten of these giant birds. We took several pictures but they all suck. The delay of the digital camera’s image-capture makes it difficult to take pictures of birds in flight. And if you catch one, there’s no point of reference to illustrate size (a bird in a backdrop of blue sky).
Colca Canyon scenery was breathtaking and unrivaled by any mountainous views I’ve seen. Colca is impossible to take a picture of. The grandiosity takes up all of your vision. You have to turn your head left to right, up and down to see it all.
After the Condors, we stopped at a few miradores to overlook Colca Valley. I noticed the terraces. The Incas had this habit of digging steps into the sides of mountains – steps four or five feet high, so I don’t know if this made climbing the mountain any easier. For whatever reason, they dug these steps into every mountainside they could, creating green terraces all the way up the mountains. It looked cool and I can’t imagine how many Incas must have labored, and for how many years, to complete all that work.
This second day Rosa and I sat in the front of the bus with the best view. This was cool for viewing, but not for the rest of the time as I had nothing else to look at but how close the bus drove to the edge of any given cliff. The roads aren’t paved and the driver seemed to keep his tires in specific grooves in the dirt / gravel roads. These grooves are usualy located on the edge of the cliff (note: no guardrails).
The bus hauled ass along these gravel / dirt roads along the edges of cliffs hundreds or thousands of feet high. It reminded me of a time in my teens tripping acid in the country with some friends from the ghetto. On the way back at 7 am or so, Dave took to the left lane of the rural highway at a high speed. As he sped around corners and over hillcrests on the left side of the double yellow line, we could’ve had a head-on collision with another car.
Dave noted aloud that we could die at any moment, to which another passenger agreed. Nobody in the car seemed to mind. I was the only one from the suburbs, so I sure as hell wasn’t going to be the bitch to complain. That was the first time I learned to let go. Sometimes, you just have to let go.
For easier viewing see the Colca Canyon in Arequipa, Peru album on the Expat Chronicles FB page.
I haven’t even finished reading this post, but had to make sure you knew I thought the llama joke was friggin hilarious. Kudos!