Short-term tours are a risky prospect. They’re usually organized to see one particular attraction, so that’s the focus, but all tours add stops along the way to make you feel you’ve got good value for your money. The main risk lies in the guide—will she hurry everyone along to keep to a strict schedule, then linger far too long at overpriced souvenir stands; or will he appreciate that everyone wants to take photos and admire the scenery, and not pressure everyone to get going? There are other risks, too—will the food be decent, will the transportation be comfortable, will the other people on the tour be fun?
I’m not a long-term tour kind of traveler; I like my independence too much to follow a guide around for 8 days in a row and stick to their schedule. But there are some attractions that are extremely difficult or expensive to see on my own, and that’s when I turn to short-term tours, like visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels outside Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam or driving out to the Škocjan Caves in Slovenia. For the weekend of my birthday this year, I decided to risk a short-term tour to the Colca Canyon in southern Peru. I lucked out—it was a good tour.
The best part of the tour (other than the stunning, jaw-dropping, give-up-on-adjectives-because-this-country-is-too-beautiful scenery) was the guide, Elizabeth. She does this tour multiple times a week, gripping a microphone in one hand and the rail of the careening bus in the other, but she’s a pro, never giving any indication that this was tiring work or that she was bored repeating the same information over and over.
She also asked the driver to stop multiple times along the road in the national park, and let us have more time to take photos than most other bus groups I saw on the same road. Granted, this meant we arrived in the valley town of Chivay an hour later than scheduled, but that didn’t affect anything, because we had a cushion of time in town anyway. Elizabeth also gave the entire tour in two languages—she’d give a little speech in Spanish for the 23 Spanish speakers on the bus, and then she’d repeat the whole thing in English for the 3 of us who couldn’t get past “gracias.” Impressive!
Back to that stunning scenery: The land around the canyon is a vast, brown desert, and it was surprising to see the landscape change drastically into lush, terraced farmland after an hour or two of driving. “Colca” roughly translates to “granary” in Quechua, and that’s exactly how the Incas used this region when they conquered it—as the bread basket of the empire. Before the Incas got there, two ethnic groups populated the valley, building their terraces first at the top of canyon, the better to look down and see any advancing enemies, and then moving farther down into the canyon as their population grew (and later, as the Incas demanded more taxes in the form of crops).
By the time the Spanish arrived, about 60,000 people lived in the canyon. After only four years of their “mine all the gold, import all the diseases, take food from the locals” approach, the local population dwindled to 45,000. Today, 10,000 people live in the area, 7,000 of them concentrated in the town of Chivay. Agriculture and tourism tie for the main industries in the area.
Agriculture, as Elizabeth described it to us, includes not just the terraces of grains and vegetables, but the plains populated with llamas and alpacas. Both llamas and alpacas have been domesticated for hundreds of years. They’re herded across the vast desert terrain and along the craggy tops of the canyon walls, and every so often they’re sheared, and the hair is used for super warm clothing and rugs.
There’s also an animal called a vicuña, which is wild and protected by the Peruvian government. They’re the same type of animal as the llama and the alpaca, a camelid, but they’re much rarer. Their hair is even softer and the clothes made from it even more expensive. (Apparently, there’s a hefty fine for anyone without a license who tries to shear one, and even a jail sentence.) The road leading to the canyon is dotted with signs warning drivers to decrease their speed, because vicuñas graze here.
One of the ways to cope with the incredibly high altitude of the Andes is to chew on coca leaves. Coca leaves, of course, are the stimulant used in Coca-Cola (they say they don’t use the leaves anymore, but Elizabeth said Peru sells thousands of tons of coca to the company every year, so…), and also one of the ingredients used in producing cocaine. Locals drink coca tea and chew on the leaves, to aid in digestion, alertness, and access to oxygen. Elizabeth showed us how to do it—roll up at least 9 leaves around some ash, which acts as a catalyst, stick it in your back teeth, and chew for at least 20 minutes. It made the left side of my face numb. I suppose I did feel a little more alert, but it’s probably not a habit I’ll pick up.
Oh and in answer to the other questions about short-term tours: the food was pretty good but a little overpriced, the bus seats were a little small but otherwise it was comfortable, and the people were nice.
Next week, in Part 2: an elegant central plaza, traditional dances at a peña, and condors soaring through the mountains