Colca Excursion: Colca Valley

From Patapampa Pass we dropped down into the Colca Valley, to the town of Chivay.  We didn’t drop very far, though.  Chivay is still at 12,894 ft above sea level. 
The Colca Valley has been inhabited for centuries, first by pre-Inca groups and then by the Incas themselves.  The pre-Incans had terraced an enormous percentage of the valley for agricultural purposes and the Incas preserved or reconstructed a portion of those terraces for continued use.  As you can see from the photos, most of the Inca terraces are still in use today.  They’re just narrow plots of land held in by stone walls.  There is no room for much of the modern agricultural machinery that we know in the United States, so the people generally work by hand or with the assistance of mules and donkeys.

The ancient people who lived in the Colca Valley constructed storehouses in the cavities of the many cliffs in the valley.  These storehouses were used for food and other perishable items that the people needed either for trading purposes or for their own survival during lean times.  These storehouses are called “colcas”, hence the name of the Colca Valley and Colca Canyon.  The colcas we saw were built into a cliff above the river; we viewed them from a bridge.  I was struck by how the colcas resembled the Native American cliff-dwellings in the Western United States, such as Mesa Verde.  (The people constructed similar structures as tombs elsewhere in the valley, but those technically are not colcas.)

There wasn’t much to the town of Chivay.  A short stroll through the streets quickly exhausted its entertainment potential.  About three kilometers outside of town was a hot spring, and we went there with our group.  The hot water felt good, but I was a little disappointed with the springs and couldn’t help comparing them unfavorably to other springs I’ve been to.  These springs had been built up into artificial pools that were a little shabby in appearance, making me think wishfully of the really neat naturally occurring pools that I went to in the cloud forests around Quetzaltenango in Guatemala.  Also, the pools weren’t that hot.  We tried out the first pool and then ran from one pool to the next (freezing our nubbins off every time we got out of the water), but all the pools were basically the same temperature as — or a little cooler than — the first pool.  The baths in Budapest, with their nearly infinite variety in temperature (ranging from extremely hot to freezing cold), made for a much more exciting exercise in system-shocking contrasts.  Still, it was fun to splash around for a while in the warm sulphuric water.

Later in the evening, after dinner, Amanda and I seized what has turned out to be our only opportunity for star-gazing.  Amanda has a “Star Walk” app on her iPhone and iPad, which maps out and labels the stars from the perspective of wherever you are on earth.  So we were able to stand in the middle of the dark and deserted (and kind of creepy) street of Chivay, holding these devices up into the air and tracing out a bunch of constellations that we’d never normally see in the northern hemisphere.  I discovered that I had correctly identified the Southern Cross on the drive back from Ollantaytambo.  I also found Scorpio (my own sign) and a number of others.  Being so high up in the sky, and in such a small village, we were able to see a ton of stars with remarkable clarity.  The Milky Way was a very clearly defined band across the sky.  We saw a few shooting stars.

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