One of the downsides of visiting the Colca Canyon is the trip there. As an isolated set of communities, there is only one road there. Which means that there is only one road back. Visiting Colca between Arequipa and Cusco, it is dismaying to have to backtrack over the same ground. However, one of the positives of a visit to Colca... is the trip there!
Reaching Arequipa from the coast, the route we climbed was from the barren desert into more temperate zones. Leaving Arequipa, we drove out through the surrounding slums as we began our climb. El Misti, the conical volcano that watches over the city was picked out by rosy-fingered dawn. Climbing, we hit the altiplano—still semi-arid, but thriving with life compared to the Nazca deserts. It was here that the Incas herded their llamas, and grew their potatoes. Maize was grown in the valleys. What the tourist passing through will see is vast stretches of stony ash-grey plateau, ringed with majestic snow-capped peaks.
The road passes through the Aguada Blanca National Vicuna Reserve. Here the vicuna, the smallest and shyest (and most endangered) of the llama family roams free in herds. From the bus windows I saw a herd of them picking their way across the plateau.
The other llama breeds - alpaca and llama themselves - can be seen in a domesticated fashion. Weathered old men still herd them from one pasture to another. As we stopped at a roadhouse before the pass, a shepherd drove a flock past unconcernedly, their cowbells clonking in the (by now) bitter chill of the heights. I wish I could tell you the name of this roadhouse. It offers toilet facilities (bring your own paper), and steaming hot mugs of coca tea, to help you acclimatise to the rarified oxygen content of the air. A selection of nibbles are for sale, as well as postcards, maps, and locally made goods: woven Peruvian hats, alpaca scarves and gloves, llama wool sweaters. Prices are surprisingly reasonable, and you cannot begrudge money going back into such an isolated community. I bought a leather gaucho-style hat, to replace the baseball cap I had lost somewhere over Nazca.
Emerging blinking out into the sunlight revealed a comical sight. From the hamlet, a trickle of women, brightly arrayed in traditional costume, waddled rapidly towards us, their daughters running ahead. Eager to make a sale they produced their own goods for sale. Tricked out llamas were produced for us to have our photographs with. A jolly-natured fête had appeared from nowhere.
Ruefully, we climbed back onto the bus. Here was the climb in earnest up to the Pata Pampa Pass. At 4900m, this is the highest I traveled in Peru. At this altitude breathing really is difficult. Indeed, one girl fainted as we breached the top of the pass, and had to be revived with an oxygen canister and breathing mask! The driver hurried on down the switchbacking road as it descended to the green and fertile gash of the Colca Canyon.
It was only on the return trip that we were able to stop at Pata Pampa. It is a strange tri-color world. The rocks underfoot are a uniform grey, the sky above a brilliant blue, and white was seen in the odd skein of cloud, and the snow which capped the peaks of distant mountains. One further streak of grey could be seen in the sky: smoke from an active volcano. As if to return the favor, there was a splash of blue on the ground, as the sky was reflected back by a small pool of mirror-still water.
At this height, the chill was notable. In a fit of manly bravado, I strode around manfully, claiming not to be affected by the shortage of oxygen. Dutifully, I performed a series of starjumps for the cameras. And then regretted it when I tried to summon up the strength to climb back onto the bus!
One final odd thing about the pass: travelers had left their mark on the landscape. Alongside the road there were small towers of pebbles balanced atop stones balanced atop