Depending on who you talk to, the Cañón del Colca in southern Peru is the third or fourth, or maybe the fifth, deepest canyon in the world.
Some say Nepal’s Kali Gandaki Gorge holds the title. Where the river runs between the peaks of Annapurna and Dhaulagiri the elevation difference reaches 5,570 meters (18,275 feet). For others the Tsangpo Canyon in Tibet is the deepest; though listed at 5,500 meters (18,000 feet) deep, at one point the river flows 6,009 meters (19,714 feet) below the land above it.
Interestingly, a few imaginative souls are holding out for the discovery of an even deeper canyon somewhere in the Himalayas.
Then there’s the Denman Glacier, hidden under the snows of Antarctica. Reaching 3,500 meters (11,500 feet) below sea level doesn’t make it the deepest in relation to the land around it, but it does make this glacier-carved valley the lowest point of dry land on Earth.
Aside from subterranean glacier beds and monster gorges with unicorns, Cañón del Colca seems to sit at #3 on the list of World’s Deepest Canyons. With a maximum depth of 3,501 meters, this remarkable hole in the ground is fully twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA.
Which is nice. But that’s not why we’re here.
Like most of the 150,000 or so people who come out here every year, I saw Colca Canyon from a lookout near the high-altitude town of Chivay. At 3600 meters (12,000ft) this region is where the grazing of livestock upstream gives way to agricultural endeavors. It is also where the Colca Valley deepens enough to attain true canyon status.
If you are suspicious about this rut in the dirt being twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, you are forgiven. The lookouts near Chivay are only around 1200 meters (3900ft) above the Colca River flowing by down below.
|Chivay's Parroquia Nuestra. Sra. de la Asunción (Parish of Our Lady of the Assumption)|
So why are we here?
Because this place rocks, that’s why. More specifically, this is an exceptional area to see ample evidence of the system of terraced agriculture that has existed here since before the rise of the Incan Empire.
No one is sure exactly when, but at some point the Cabanas, an insanely ambitious bunch, moved here from Lake Titicaca. Straddling the Peru-Bolivia border, a couple hundred meters above Chivay, Lake Titicaca is large enough to fit five Londons or six Los Angeleses, with enough room left over for a few Mt. Fujis. All that space apparently didn’t suit the Cabanas, so they moved here and proceeded to turn the steep slopes of the valley-turning-canyon into countless agricultural terraces.
These terraces, called andenes, have been in existence in some form or another since 2,000 BC. I get a backache just hoeing my wife’s vegetable garden, so I can only imagine the demand for chiropractic services in South America over the past four millennia.
The Incas, said to have originated in the Peruvian highlands in the early 13th Century, came down to the area around Chivay about 1320 AD. They believed the river – here the Colca, downstream the Majes then the Camana – flowed directly to the Milky Way. The Incas thus fell into the habit of tossing gifts and sacrificial bits into the water.
The Incas moved into the neighborhood relatively peacefully, establishing their dominion over the area largely through marriage. The 16th Century Spaniards on the other hand took a brutally violent approach, led by a real asshole named Gonzalo Pizarro. In the 1570s they forced the Incas and the Cabanas they hadn’t already slaughtered to relocate to places called ‘reductions’ – which are kind of like Indian reservations except you roll the first r.
Meant to control the indigenous people, collect taxes from them, conscript their labor for the mines (those Spaniards love their gold), and facilitate the introduction of Jesus, these ‘reducciones’ were also called ‘congregaciones’ to really give them that Christian flair.
Gazing out over the canyon is enough to make you forget about the Spaniards even as you ponder God. The amount of work that must have gone into the creation of the innumerable, unbelievable andenes can make the mind spin itself blank.
Then there are the birds.
The Cañón del Colca is home for the giant Andean condor, the largest flying bird in the world by combined measurement of weight and wingspan, the latter reaching more than ten feet. This condor is also one of the world’s longest-living birds, with a lifespan that can reach 70 years.
As morning rolls over the land and the cool air at the bottom of the canyon slowly warms and rises, the condors spread their wings and glide effortlessly upward, riding the vertical draft.
Aside from the condors, notable denizens of the canyon include the Giant Hummingbird – the largest species of hummingbird in case it isn’t obvious – and the wild vicuña, second cousin to the llama and, it is argued, ancestor to the more domesticated alpaca.
The Incas regarded the vicuña as something pretty special, protecting them by law and using their fine wool to make garments that only royalty were allowed to wear. The Spaniards apparently weren’t much for fine wool if they couldn’t spin it into gold, and through the centuries the vicuña population declined due to hunting until 1974 when they only numbered around 6,000. Thanks to conservation efforts they are no longer endangered, with 350,000 of them partying it up with legal immunity.
|Vicuñas. I think.|
Still, with their wool fetching upwards of $300/kilogram they are ripe for poaching. Over 20,000 kilograms of vicuña wool hits the black market every year. To combat this, conservation efforts include rounding up and shearing vicuñas with hair longer than 2.5 centimeters.
A scarf made of vicuña wool goes for around $1,500. A trip to Peru and Colca Canyon can be had for much less. Trust me.
Then send me the difference. I want to go back.