Arequipa to Colca: over the top and on edge

imageIn the predawn dark I laid out a Happy Birthday sign for Ben, then set about re-packing for our Colca Canyon trip. We wolfed down breakfast before two big, comfortable vans pulled up… with a few more stops we had our full crew of twelve: two drivers both named Jesus (a good omen for our cliff drives), our guide David, Thomas’s family from Paris, Ana and her mother from Munich, and Oliver from Brugge… it’s Spring Break in Europe.

imageIf the arid Arequipa’s dry valley recalls Reno, then these sage-strewn slopes recall the
Eastern Sierra foothills. Gaining elevation between burning Chachani and Misti mountains, the clouds drop moisture on the absorptive volcanic soils, which gift growth to grasses, wildflowers, sages and succulents. At 13,000’ we stop to photo the fragile vicuña for a moment, then some alpaca; later we break for a coca tea + sorochi pill elevation elixir: after our Cotopaxi headaches we are taking precautions to avoid altitude sickness. Soon we pull off the pavement and bounce along rough roads to the canyon wall above Rio Chile – far upstream from yesterday’s raft run. More coca tea, then we hiked for an hour among the wind-washed escarpments and fairy chimneys reminiscent of Cappadocian hoodoos.

Our drives takes us to a 15,930’ pass and I hike up a bit to lay my second claim to 16,000’ imagebefore we descend the sunnier north slopes of Chachani and Misti through the altiplano towards Chivay at the top of the Colca Valley. The Valley is rocky and lush with lupine, daisy and other flora; we see eagles above but no condors yet.

imageIn quiet Chivay we stop for a big buffet lunch before continuing along the valley’s southern terraces; as the Colca imageValley drains inevitably towards its namesake canyon the slopes steepen and the terraces give way to steeper andinas – very narrow/steep terraces. The andinas’ rock walls absorb solar radiation in the day and release the heat at night, warming the soil, deterring frost and improving crop yields.The towns here are silent – earthquakes devastated many; ambitious youth have left these farms for the urban lures of Arequipa and Lima, and the remaining families are in the field. It feels like a twilight zone set: we are the last humans.

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Episode 1?

imageFinally we reach our lodge, and it’s a delightful surprise. Spectacularly seated atop the Colca Canyon’s north rim, our very comfortable adjoining 2nd floor rooms have panoramic windows overlooking a small meadow before The Canyon. In the lodge a grand rustic common area wraps around a four-sided fireplace before facing the canyon: we could be in Santa Fe.

imageBut lodge lounging will have to wait – we need to make good use of our remaining sunlight, so we drop our bags and set out through the empty village for the canyon’s rim. The trail is clover-coated and bounded by stacked rock walls wrapped in wildflower and cacti. Seussical blue agave plants erupt from the soils now and again. Finally we reach the canyon’s rim, and it is awesome at dusk – enjoy the pix.

Slowly retracing our steps up to the lodge we now have time to relax fireside and share Ben’s Birthday presents – the llama keychain, white chocolate and Inka Kola shirt were hits. A shower and pisco sour later we’re sharing a hearty dinner of trucha (trout) and Peruvian potatoes. After dinner and in anticipation of tomorrow’s highlight we have a brief condor lecture, then we return for some surprise Ben Birthday cake – chocolate decadence. The staff also surprised Ben by decorating his room with balloons… I think Ben will remember his 13th birthday.

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