Touring the Colca Canyon: Part 1

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?

The road to Colca Canyon

The road to Colca Canyon

4800 meters above sea level

4800 meters above sea level

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.

Llama crossing

Llama crossing

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.

Coca tea--wake up!

Coca tea–wake up!

 

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!

Piles of stones for wishes

Piles of stones for wishes

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).

Chivay and some terraces from the road into town

Chivay and some terraces from the road into town

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.

Terraced farming in the Colca Canyon

Terraced farming in the Colca Canyon

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.

Alpacas

Alpacas

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.

Vicunas grazing on the reserve

Vicunas grazing on the reserve

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.

It's like nature's Novocaine

It’s like nature’s Novocaine

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

Goodnight moon

Goodnight, moon

Standing in the Middle of the World

La Mitad del Mundo is the name given to the large complex built north of Quito to mark the equator. As everyone will tell you, it’s not actually the proper middle of the world; the French did the best they could with the instruments they had in the early 18th century, but they weren’t entirely accurate. A different museum, built 200 meters away, purports to be on the actual equator, as determined by GPS, but apparently even this might not be accurate, as the GPS used is unreliable. (I don’t know how that works.) Certainly there’s an appeal in believing that you’re on the exact spot, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter.

Holding the world in the palm of my hand

Holding the world in the palm of my hand

Of two worlds

Of two worlds

I went on what has to be the most well-supervised school trip ever–the ratio of teachers to students was 1:1, with two professors escorting two students from the school to a taxi, to a bus, to the museums. We optimistically took the Spanish tour of the Museo Intiñan, and using context clues and intense concentration, I understood a whopping 20% of what our guide said. But hey, that’s better than nothing.

The real (maybe?) Equator

The real (maybe?) Equator

We passed dusty cases of dead animals–splayed spiders, a giant boa constrictor, other venomous spiders coiled up inside mason jars. Just when I was getting used to looking at those, I turned and saw a small glass case containing a shrunken human head. Well, hello. The Shuar people made shrunken heads as part of a ritual involving the personal power of the person whose head is involved. I later learned (in a great museum in Cuenca) that the Ecuadorian government has outlawed it, and now they’re only allowed to shrink anteater heads.

This does not inspire confidence in the safety of the surrounding countryside

This does not inspire confidence in the safety of the surrounding countryside

Our guide showed us a couple rebuilt homes from indigenous groups in the area; pointed out the cui (guinea pigs) that are raised much bigger and fatter than those in the US, because they’re a delicacy here; gestured to the reconstructed archaeological site filled with pottery and other signs of life from a couple thousand years ago; and named the statues erected in the main plaza, one for each South American country (and one for Hawaii too).

Not an actual archaeological site, but what it might have looked like when they first excavated

Not an actual archaeological site, but what it might have looked like when they first excavated

Mortar and pestle

Mortar and pestle

Guinea pigs, or as my guide joked, lunch

Guinea pigs, or as my guide joked, lunch

Kitchen implements

Kitchen implements

Can't remember which country this guy stands for

Can’t remember which country this guy stands for

Finally, we got to the main event, the tests that supposedly prove exactly where the equator lies. First, I took this awesome photo:

Got it

Got it

Next, I watched water drain in a swirl this way, then that way, and then straight down:

Then I balanced an egg on the head of a nail. I don’t know why this is a thing, but it is a thing. I even got a certificate for it:

I got skills--egg balancing skills

I got skills–egg balancing skills

I’ve heard and read that none of these actually have anything to do with the magnetic force of the equator, which is what our guide told us made all these things possible. I’m not sure which is true–anyone care to enlighten me?

The Mitad del Mundo monument

The Mitad del Mundo monument

Anyway, we left the museum, my egg balancing certificate firmly in hand, and headed down the street to the big Mitad del Mundo complex. I was looking forward to exploring the ethnographic museum in the center of the complex, but when we arrived at the gates, the teachers said, “Okay, we’ll wait out here. You have 15 minutes to take photos in front of the monument, and then we’re heading back.” Buuuuut, what? Seeing the ethnographic museum was advertised as part of the trip. This was an unpleasant surprise. I could just stay and see the museum on my own, but a cab back to town cost $15-20, and the bus back would drop me somewhere utterly unfamiliar, after dark. So I went in, took some fun “I’ve got the world in the palm of my hand” photos, and went back as instructed. The happy ending to this story is that I thought the ethnographic sections of the Museo Pumapungo in Cuenca were really good.

Cheesy tourist photos!

Cheesy tourist photo!