Cañon de Colca

Coporaque, Peru with Volcán Sabancaya Erupting in Background

On my kitchen table, I have two guides to Peru which I consult from time to time. Even at my advanced age, I am thinking of going there once the coronavirus is but a dim memory (should that time ever come). I see in my mind a tour I took from Arequipa to the Colca Canyon area back in 2014.

We were in the Andes at between 12,000 and 15,000 feet (3,600-4,600 meters) altitude. I was chewing coca leaves with an alkaloid to keep me from suffering the effects of soroche, or altitude sickness. With meals, I would drink a tea of maté de coca, which had the same effect. Man was not made to live at that kind of elevation without some assistance. Please note that the difference between coca leaves and cocaine is like the difference between Lipton’s Tea and Bath Salts. At that level, it is simply not a narcotic.

Colca Canyon with Farming Terraces Created by the Inca

As it works its way down to the sea, Colca Canyon becomes even deeper than the Grand Canyon. At its deepest point, it is 10,730 feet (3,270 meters) deep. And the whole canyon is only 43 miles (70 km) long. (Just north is an even deeper canyon: Cotahuasi Canyon at 11,004 feet or 3,354 meters deep.)

There is a place west of Coporaque called Cruz del Cóndor where you can see giant Andean condors rising on thermals from far below. At a wingspread approaching 9 feet (3 meters), it is one of the most incredible things I have ever seen. Later this week, I’ll show you some pictures I took there.

A Fiesta in Chivay, Largest Town Around Colca Canyon

The Colca Canyon area is inhabited by the Cabana and Collagua peoples. It is only about three hours from Arequipa along a high, desolate, and unbelievably picturesque route.

I spent only a single night in Colca, and I would like to remedy that. There are scheduled intercity buses that go from Arequipa to Chivay along the same route I took, and I can probably find a tour guide in Chivay. He might not speak English, but my Spanish is tolerable—if the person I’m talking to is patient.

Magical Architecture: Santa Catalina (Arequipa)

A Warren of Narrow Pedestrian Walkways

Surprisingly, the most magical places I visited in Peru were not the world-famous Inca ruins at Machu Picchu or other places, but rather the Spanish churches and convents. After all, the Inca had no writing, so while their ruins showed an incredible knowledge of masonry that could withstand severe earthquakes, there was little that aroused my imagination.

A place that did, however, was the giant convent of Santa Catalina in Arequipa. It occupied something like a whole square mile that was walled off from the city that surrounded it and had a warren of narrow pedestrian walkways.

It Was, After All, a Convent

I spent an entire day, from morning to late afternoon, wandering around the grounds of Santa Catalina, with its monastic cells, courtyards, kitchens, chapels, and even a strange room where the faces of nuns who had died were painted on canvases and displayed.

At Times, It Was Almost Like Modern Art

As Christianity begins its slow fade in the Western World, I begin to look upon religious monuments of the past as being every bit as interesting as that of ancient civilizations. In Peru, I loved visiting the old churches, convents, and museums of ecclesiastic art. I must have attended a dozen masses, just because they took place while I visited.

The Walls Were All Either Blue or Dark Orange

I took dozens of photos which I could have shown here, because Santa Catalina mesmerized me. If you should happen to go to Peru, you will probably wind up in Cusco and Machu Picchu, but for your health, it is better to go first to a place where you will not be so afflicted by the dread soroche (altitude sickness). Arequipa, at 7,660 feet (2,335 meters) is a good place to prepare yourself.

And not just because of Santa Catalina!

The Deepest Canyon?

Colca Canyon in the State of Arequipa

Colca Canyon in the State of Arequipa

Even before my plane ever landed in Peru, I knew that there was a lot more to see than Machu Picchu. In fact, some of the sights were probably more interesting than Machu Picchu—and a whole lot easier to get to.

It could very well be that the most interesting place I visited on my travels was Colca Canyon in the State of Arequipa. It is, together with nearby Cotohuasi Canyon, the deepest on earth—at points more than twice as deep as our Grand Canyon (though certainly not in the above photo).  It was interesting not only from a cultural point of view, but for the range of activities available, the quality of services, and the outstanding scenery.

Two native groups dwell in the area, often interspersed: the Collaguas and the Cabanas. From the time one approaches the altiplano at Patapampa (altitude 15,000 feet or 4,600 meters), one encounters them selling their handicrafts by the side of the road. One could buy quality alpaca sweaters, scarves, and other handmade objects for a few dollars. Around the canyon are a number of villages, including Chivay (the largest), Coporaque, and Maca.

Along the south bank of the canyon west of Chivay is the famous Cruz del Condor, where one can see condors riding on the thermals in groups of two or three. (Look for a separate post on this later in the week.) The scene above is on the way to Cruz del Condor. Visible on the other side of the canyon are agricultural terraces designed by the Incas. The Collaguas and Cabanas maintain them faithfully. This picture was taken at 12,000 feet altitude or 3,650 meters.

I actually took a guided tour to Colca with Giardino Tours of Arequipa. I don’t usually do this sort of thing, but I had no cause to regret it. Our tour guide, Luis, was funny and intelligent, and I deliberately arranged not to participate in some of the strenuous uphill hikes (at high altitude) that were part of the program. (As I would frequently say, my intention was not to be buried at Colca Canyon). One useful feature of the tour was that we were dropped off in Puno, eliminating the need for a separate bus.


… And Then He Spit in My Face!

A Caged Guanaco with Exquisite Aim

A Caged Guanaco with Exquisite Aim

We all know that camels spit at people, but did you know that American “camelids” can also do it? There are four species of American camelids in South America: guanacos (Lama guanicoe), llamas (Lama glama), alpacas (Vicugna pacos), and vicuñas (Vicugna vicugna).

In any case, there I was, visiting the store and little zoo at Incalpaca on the outskirts of Arequipa. It was there I saw this guanaco depicted above who was just in the process of accumulating saliva, which he forthwith spit right into my eye. The Peruvians who were traveling with me all broke into laughter, which I could not help joining in. After all, I was wearing glasses; so all I had to do was wipe them clean.

The guilty guanaco, having done his foul deed, stood proud and tall. This one yanqui forgave him. At the end of the day, I moved on; but he was still in his cage. (At least, he didn’t have to worry about being hunted down and eaten, as his kind are frequently in Argentina and Chile.)

The Mysterious Convent

The Gateway to Santa Catalina Convent

The Gateway to Santa Catalina Convent

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of colonial sights worth seeing in Peru. Probably the most fascinating of them all, however, is the Convent of Santa Catalina in Arequipa. It’s almost more of a citadel than a convent, though some nuns still live on the grounds. It is a gigantic place with stairways leading to nowhere—mainly because most of the second floor was destroyed by the many earthquakes that have hit the city.

It is easy to spend all day wandering through the streets of the convent and in and out of the nun’s cells (such as the one illustrated below). More than anything else, it reminds me of the miniature cityscapes of the Anasazi ruins at Mesa Verde in Colorado, except the convent seems to go on forever.

Nun’s Quarters

Nun’s Quarters

I started seeing the convent with a tour guide. That served only to whet my appetite. After a long lunch break eating rocoto relleno at a second floor restaurant behind the cathedral, I returned to the convent and spent two more hours on my own.

It was endlessly amazing: passages that led off in every direction, walls painted red for public areas and blue for private (or at least previously private) areas. It was as if the convent were decorated by professional artists, with flowers and old furniture and cooking utensils available everywhere.

Oven and Stairway to Nowhere

Oven and Stairway to Nowhere

As I write these words, I find myself wanting to continue exploring the convent for endless hours, looking to turn that corner where I will find cloistered Dominican nuns (of the same order that taught me at Saint Henry’s School in Cleveland, Ohio) praying for my salvation.

Volcano Land

Mount Sabancaya Erupting

Mount Sabancaya Erupting—Seen from Coporaque

The State of Arequipa is full of active volcanoes. Two of them in particular—Sabancaya and Ubinas—have been in eruption for weeks, if not months.

In fact, before the Spanish ever made it to Peru, an eruption of Sabancaya triggered the sacrifice of an Inca maiden (named by archaeologists as Juanita) on neighboring Nevada Ampato to satisfy the angry earth gods. A 12-year-old girl of good family, “Juanita” was marched up Ampato with an escort of priests, given some chicha to drink to calm her nerves, and clubbed to death. It was only in 1995 that Johan Reinhard discovered her remains and brought her body down to Arequipa, where it is on display in the city’s Museo Santuarios Andinos, where I saw it.

The Remains of the Inca Maiden Called “Juanita”

The Remains of the Inca Maiden Called “Juanita”

When I stayed in Arequipa, I awoke every morning to see the city ringed by the volcanoes Chachani, El Misti, and Pikchu-Pikchu. Going north to Colca Canyon, I saw perhaps a score of other volcanic peaks. This is a volatile section of the Pacific Ring of Fire, where the Nazca Plate is slipping under the South American Plate and making the Andes rise and providing pathways for the fires under the earth to rise to the top on occasion.


Under Three Volcanoes

I have made it to Arequipa, which is surrounded by three volcanoes, El Misti, Chachani, and Pichu Pichu. We are at approximately six or seven thousand feet. During the days, the weather is sunny and warm with cool evenings.

Yesterday I visited one of the greatest tourist sites I can remember: the gigantic Convento de Santa Catalina. It is so large as to be almost a city within itself. Here several hundred Dominican nuns lived and died, never leaving the convent grounds. A locuturio was provided to communicate with members of their families, consisting of a series of benches in front of grills. For most of the nuns, they had to have a chaperon to make sure that nothing inappropriate was being communicated (this did not, however, apply to senior nuns).

The grounds had several cloisters and “apartments” for the nuns and their servants, consisting of a spartan bedroom with pryer alcove, servant’s quarters, and a kitchen.

In Arequipa, it was expected that the eldest daughter would marry, and that the second (and subsequent?) daughters become nuns. Consequently, many of the nuns were from good families. Indigent nuns, of which there were several, themselves became servants to other nuns.

Tomorrow I hit high altitude for the first time. I will cross the Pass at Patapampa (15,000 feet) and sleep in Coporaque by Cañon de Colca (10,000 feet). The day after, I travel by bus to Puno (12,500 feet). I have already begin taking Diamox—and I have been mainlining mate de coca to allow my system to tolerate the onset of soroche.