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The Colca Valley: “A Mistery at the Edge of the Sky”

Valle del Colca: "Un Misterio a la Orilla del Cielo"

In this corner unsuspected of southern Peru, nature erupted a day to give snowy mountains, farming terraces and huddled villages and the volcanic fury opened a scar in the landscape, which today is one of the world´s deepest canyons.

You have to suffer the rigors of heights to reach this scene sandwiched between the snowy peaks of the Andes and you will feel the intoxicating effect of its vastness, the magic of solitude and silence, and the call from the lost land that invites you through the tunnels of time until you find the past trapped within its stones.

Because in the Colca Valley, everything remains unchanged. Neither slow amassing of the centeries nor the strength of the striking wind, that in so doing leaves its echo hung on the steep slopes, has managed to erase the traces of the oldest civilizations, from far beyond where memory reaches, when the world was painted with a different stroke and nature imposed its own designs.

Even today, this valley born of a cataclysm, with its fanciful display of terrain and its legacy of rites and beliefs, is still a realm of mystery. And it is that altitude sickness, persistent and insistent, is the price to pay for getting close to the vicinity of the sky.

The route leads us almost three hours from 'White City' of Arequipa, the urban jewel of southern Peru, to the vicinity of the Colca, where the natural spectacle breaks into what Mario Vargas Llosa himself, a native of this region marked by volcanic anger, gave the 'Carrollian' nickname of 'the Valley of Wonders'.

Clinging to the slopes of the mountains, the narrow, winding road rises and rises relentlessly, as if in an endless spiral, until reaching the highest point at 4,800 meters above sea level. Only then will the circulation become slow and sluggish, as if the vehicle itself also suffered from the lack of oxygen, the effects of the high latitudes are a slight dizziness, extreme fatigue, and some pressure in the head, but, no worries, it has a simple and fast remedy in coca tea, the ancient tonic.

… the magic of solitude and silence, and the call from the lost land that invites you through the tunnels of time until you find the past trapped within its stones.

Because in the Colca Valley, everything remains unchanged. Neither slow amassing of the centeries nor the strength of the striking wind, that in so doing leaves its echo hung on the steep slopes, has managed to erase the traces of the oldest civilizations, from far beyond where memory reaches, when the world was painted with a different stroke and nature imposed its own designs.

The Colca Valley is named after a word of Quechua origin meaning 'barn', which was, in ancient, forgotten times, designated as the warehouse where corn surplus was stored for the unforeseeable droughts. Thus it is that its floors, lavish and fertile, and have been and still are an extensive agricultural domain with one of the most formidable terracing systems in the world.

Within this territory there are ten thousand terraces, some of which are from the year 500 BC, which is before, long before, the arrival of the Incas to these unknown places where they themselves would eventually increase and improve the canal systems. An agricultural engineering system that was not only the perfect infrastructure to distribute the currents of irrigation on the steep slopes, but also gave the valley its most characteristic image, that of unreal steps carved into the ground with their different shades of green.

If there is something that really distinguishes the Colca, beyond its volcanic chain and the deep scar of it canyon, it is these terraces, which from a truly mesmerizing geometry. A geometry that accompanies the swaying course of the river, and thus creates a dizzied landscape. Even today, thousands of years later, the terraces are still used for growing potatoes, beans, quinoa, or corn: the principle agricultural products of the Andes.
 

WORSHIPING THE APUS (Mountain Gods)

The road goes on up into the clouds where the land becomes more arid only making way for the vegetation that is adapted to the winds of the cold. It is here that the landscape takes on an almost uniform tone of amber foam. We are in the inhospitable “Puna”, abrupt and deserted, so like the moonscape. This is the environment composes the National Reserve “Aguada Blanca and Salinas”, a place of myth and legend.

In this park, of over 350,000 hectares, we find all the magic of the 'apus', mountains that the ancient Inca civilization considered powerful deities.

The 'apus' (in Quechua, 'spirit protectors') irrigate the fields during the dry season with water from their peaks, and this miracle of nature is deserving of all worship. They say that, among the many rituals, the 'Capac Cocha' or human sacrifice was a common practice, which provides irrefutable evidence of the “Apu´s” importance to the ancient civilizations. Among such human scarifies we find the “Juanita mummy” who was discovered seventeen years ago at the top of the volcano Ampato. She was an Incan girl sacrificed centuries ago in honor of this  'apu', and whose embalmed body is on display in a museum in Arequipa.

Ampato (6,380 meters) is joined by others 'apus'  that fill the horizon, like Misti (5825), whose name means 'Sir' in Aymara, the Chachani (6075), which means 'dressed woman' in Quechua, or Pichu -Pichu (5664), which means 'peak to peak' in'' any of the indigenous languages. Three volcanoes for which you can still see the traces of the ancient processions that begged the end to their anger.

In this incomprehensible landscape, that comes before arriving in Chivay (the main town of the Colca valley), the route makes its way through herds of vicuña grazing on the amber colored brush. The Vicuña is coveted for its thin fibered hair, one kilogram of which can cost 400 euros. Fluffy, plump and adorned with colored bands the llama and alpaca are less sophisticated domesticated sisters of the vicuña. All of them, along with the guanaco, form the quartet of camelids that populate the Colca Valley. The latter, the guanaco, is like the vicuña but with a black face and is referred to as the terrorist of the Andes.

Chivay, with its pre-Incan bridge design, its church from the eighteenth century, and its nearby hot springs, “La Calera” (which the Incas recognized for its magical healing properties), is the first sign of civilization in the Colca Valley. It will not, however, be the last.

Traversed by a series of dirt roads on both banks of the river Colca, the Colca Valley is home to 70,000 people. The population spread over fourteen towns and villages that, only recently, have access to electricity and water and whose inhabitants´ living mainly comes from farm work. The residents of the Colca maintain their customs to this day. These are the same customs that were practiced before the Spanish conquest. Just take a stroll through the small villages of Yanque, Maca or Coporaque and you will visit a simple life where people still worship the 'apus' with “apachetas”, where small mounds of stone from the place of alpaca sacrifice, and where the population attends mass on Sundays their ornate, yet juxtaposed, colonial churches.

The records tell that the Colca Valley´s population are descendants of two very different ethnic groups that inhabited these territories from the earliest times: the Collahuas, who spoke Aymara and were said to have come from the bowels of the volcano Collaguata (narrow and elongated) and the Cabanas, Quechua speakers, who were the children of Mount Hualca Hualca (flat, flat). Both these different groups were noted for the fact that they, as a form of worship, deformed their skulls into different shapes (the Collahuas oval, the Cabanas flattened).

Fortunately, in 1540, Pizarro changed the custom of cranial deformation as a form of ethnic differentiation to something less extreme: the groups began to differentiate themselves by wearing  different styled hats (white background, prints and curved for Collahuas, black and flattened for Cabanas).
 

THE FLIGHT OF THE CONDOR.

Considered messenger of the gods and emissary between the living and the dead, the world's heaviest bird is another essential claim to the Colca´s fame. Found throughout the Colca but especially in the Cruz del Condor, a viewpoint where this majestic animal, whose deployment of wings can exceed three meters, offers a unique spectacle. The condor´s flight seem to be that of a game with the onlookers as it dips and dives just meters from their unsuspecting heads.

It is at this point where the valley narrows significantly to give way to the famous Colca Canyon. Here begins the more than 100 kilometers this “gap” whose depths reach 3400 meters. Dropping down the seemingly endless cliffs of the canyon one finds the rapids of the mighty Colca River. It is a canyon that is unjustly considered the deepest in the world (the deepest is actually its brother canyon “Cotahuasi”, also a native of southern Peru), and that, unlike the Grand Canyon born from the erosion of a river, it is a geological fault that was formed by an earthquake.

It is that in the vicinity of this pit, and using the pull of tourism, that local women sell their artisan goods of many different colors. But they do so shy and quiet and away from any commercial stridency, so as not to disturb the peace of this valley that is painted of mystery.