Chivay and Colca Canyon–amazing destinations in the Highlands region of Peru

Before leaving Arequipa, Peru, we stop at a roadside store to buy coca leaves and a bag of hard candies to give to children along the way. We head to higher altitudes, and coca tea is an antidote for low blood oxygen.  The candy serves two purposes: Children in remote regions rarely have this treat so it’s good for them because there’s less sugar in the blood at high elevations, and, candy provides sugar.

The road to Chivay winds across desert regions in the Andes Mountains

The Trans Oceanic Road that we drive on part of the day was built 20 years ago and runs across the continent from the Pacific to Atlantic Oceans. Mostly we travel through desert with only a few patches of green where onions and garlic are growing. Mountains in the background are composed of dirt and white volcanic ash that  hangs in in the air like a hazy veil. Eventually we see more cacti and variety of yellow grass that’s used for roofs, sandals, rope, bridges by indigenous people.

As we approach higher elevations (now 12,300 feet) Beatrice, our guide, tells us how to roll up coca leaves and place them between the teeth and cheek—where it stays for the next couple of hours. Sipping water turns this into a simple coca tea, intended to counter effects of the high elevation (not a cure, by any means!). In the distance we still see several volcanoes that were visible from Arequipa: Misti, Chachani, and Pichupichu.

Vicunas roam on the Altiplano. Their wool is sheared only once every two years.

Franklin, our driver, sets in for a long ride on this desolate (but paved) road with no place for aid or comfort stops. In the national park we pass through vicunas are protected and roam freely. These delicate tan and white animals, wild relatives of llamas and alpacas, have wool that is 25 times finer than human hair and much prized for weaving expensive garments.

We’re heading to Chivay, 100 miles from Arequipa, and Colca Canyon beyond that. We stop at a small corral with alpacas and llamas sporting colored ribbons in their ears that identify them according to age. We give candy to the young boy who follows as his mother tends to the animals. In this isolated region, some children must travel two hours each way to attend school, and tourists are seen infrequently.

Jarenta is an unusual plant found in this harsh environment.

We’re still ascending; the altitude is now 15,200 feet. Bernice points out the jarenta plant, a moss-like green plant resembling a large, hard rock that grows very slowly in the high altitude and harsh desert environment. We stop for photos of a jarenta that Bernice estimates is 100 years old.

We pass the “under rocks,” the oldest rocks in the Andes, as well as the caldera of a volcano. The Chila Range of snow-capped peaks is seen in the distance with Misme mountain forming the “continental divide” of the Andes.

Eventually we start descending as Franklin curves around a series of “switchback” roads. There’s a fair amount of traffic as we approach Chivay. It’s the biggest town in the province and lies on the upper Colca River at the bottom of the canyon. Agricultural terraces built by the Incas and pre-Inca cultures are everywhere on the hillsides. Every three to four levels create different micro-climates with specific characteristics for growing crops. It’s an amazing site to see, and we wonder how ancient farmers  managed to grow and harvest crops on this rugged landscape.

Terraces from Inca and pre-Inca civilizations dot the landscape and are still used for agriculture today.

We stop in Chivay (still 12,000 feet elevation)  to walk through the market–their supermarket or mall. Held once or twice a week, people come to buy everything from fresh produce to cooking oil, dish soap, brooms, clothes and shoes—even to get a haircut. The women are dressed in colorful skirts, blouses, and jackets—it looks ceremonial, but it’s what they wear every day.  While in Chivay, we peek in the church, since that’s the most important building in any of the Altiplano (highland) communities, before heading to Colca Lodge where we’ll spend two nights.

After spending most of the day in higher altitudes than I’ve ever been in, it’s a relief to reach the valley. But the journey has been extraordinary as we traveled through a kaleidoscope of landscapes and learned about the fascinating history and culture  of this mountainous region.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

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