Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Canyons, camelids, and condors

Herd of camelids on the road outside of Colca Canyon

Leaving Arequipa we headed for one of the deepest canyons in the world, Colca Canyon. We first ascended through broad plains home to herds of wild vicuñas. I had been hoping to see vicuñas ever since our visit to the Alpaca 111 factory outlet in Arequipa where I fell in love with their cousin, the alpaca. These graceful animals look somewhat like a cross between a llama and a deer, and they skittishly watched us as we stopped to take their picture. Further along the dusty potholed highway, we climbed to 4,900 meters and the highest pass of our trip. While we were slightly plagued by headaches, we stopped to admire the strange yareta plants growing along the road. Resembling fluorescent green boulders, this odd plant thrives in desolate environments over 4,200 meters. Because of the harsh environment, it grows about 1 millimeter a year and many of the plants are thousands of years old. We then descended below yareta territory and into Colca Canyon. Plunging 3191 meters from its highest point to the rushing river valley, it is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Colca Canyon is home to the Collagua and Cabana people who tamed the wild hills of the canyon 1500 years ago by constructing endless terraces to make agriculture possible. After living in the canyon for at least 2,000 years they were conquered by the Incas in the 1400s, with the Spanish hot on the Inca's heels less than 100 years later. Each of the small towns that is spread throughout the canyon is now home to 300-400 year old picturesque churches. After the Spanish conquest, the canyon was largely cut off from the rest of Peru until roads were built in the 1970s. Because of this isolation, the people of Colca Canyon have retained many of their traditions, still farming the ancient terraces for potatoes and corn, decorating their llamas and alpaca with colorful yarn, and wearing intricately embroidered dresses and hats.

Llamas on the road from Cabanaconde to Chivay

We spent a quiet day in the small town of Cabanaconde near the end of the road that winds through Colca Canyon. In the morning we watched condors soar over the canyon. Considered a sacred animal by the Andean people, these amazing birds have a 9-10 foot wingspan and can soar for hours without flapping their wings. Sensitive feathers extend from the tips of their wings and are used by the birds to monitor the thermals and winds they ride. In the afternoon we took a short hike over to canyon's mouth. Drunken switchback trails cut across the canyon's steep walls to small villages accessible only by foot, and ancient terraces were etched into the hills all the way down the river.

Condor soaring over Colca Canyon

The next day a bumpy ride along a rocky dirt road took us across the canyon and through several small towns. Cobblestone roads led into simple squares graced with elegant old churches. Outside of the towns adults and children in colorful clothing herded burros, alpacas, llamas and sheep. After a quiet night in the chilly town of Chivay which was ringed by jagged snow-capped peaks, we continued to Puno and Lake Titicaca. On the way we took an interesting detour through the ghost-town of Sumbay to visit ancient cave paintings. A crooked sign directed us 10 km through the windswept landscape to an unmanned gate. A rusty metal arrow pointed us further along the road, where we met the caretaker along the trail to the 8,000 year old cave paintings. After showing us the ghostly paintings of pumas, people, and deer, we gave him a ride back to 'town.' Now home to only six lonely inhabitants, remains of many buildings and a church are slowly being reclaimed by the high plains. Closer to Puno we had to wait alongside the road for two hours as protesters had erected a roadblock. Miraculously the broken glass and rocks were quickly cleared off the road, and we entered Puno after nightfall.

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