The first references we find to the Colca are in the narrations of adventurers in the extraordinary valley, such as those of the Spanish chronicle writer Ocaña in 1603. Later the learned Raimondi mentions his journey through the famous ravine of Arequipa. But the most detailed documentation of our century is to be found in the publications of two Americans, Robert Shippee and George R. Johnson.
In 1929 they made an aerial expedition on which they took extraordinary photographs; they discovered the Valley of the Volcanos, the incredible depth of the Colca canyon and found "a lost valley of the Incas", as Shippee said in his article published in The National Geographic Magazine (January, 1934). The Colca is also mentioned in detail in the publication Peru from the Air (1930), and in the Geographic Revue of New York (1932).
After flying over the area and discovering many secrets which had remained hidden until then, these intrepid adventurers made an expedition by land. They visited the series of mysterious villages which were of great importance two or three centuries ago, and then, for reasons still unexplained, become isolated and lost until they were literally rediscovered in the last decade.
With the aid of the natives, the Shippee-Johnson expedition constructed an airport in the village of Lari where there is an imposing church. To the great surprise of the inhabitants they landed in a biplane. Many of these people knew neither the automobile nor the railroad, which after 1890 had begun services between Arequipa and Puno.
Intrigued by the magnitude of the canyon and the spectacular sight of the Valley of the Volcanos, the explorers continued their adventure. They crossed Cabanaconde, passing by Choco, and 5,000 m above sea level, crossing the Chila Range with their suffocating mules (sick from the altitude), to get to the Valley of the Volcanos. There they admired from the ground the impressive landscape which seems to belong to the time when the surface of the planet was being formed.
In spite of the wonderful articles written about this territory, I remained completely ignorant of it for a long time. In spite of being from Arequipa, I must confess that I only learned of the existence of these secret places in the 50's when a great friend and university chum, the companion of many adventures, the engineer Jorge Fernandez Santa Gadea, showed me the National Geographic article, "A Forgotten Valley of Peru". By 1984 I was able possible to cross the Valley of the Volcanos to the Colca by the route which Shippee and Johnson used.
With the decade of the 70's the opening of the Colca began due to the irrigation project for the Majes Valley. In its second stage the waters of the Apurímac River will be transferred to the Colca. The Apurímac belongs to the Amazon River system, and is indeed the most distant source of the Amazon, originating on the peak of Mismi at 5,597 m. This was discovered by another intrepid explorer, Loren Mcntyre who published an article in The National Geographic Magazine in 1972. He thus established that the Amazon River is not only the largest river in the world with reference to the size of its flow, but is also the longest in the world, its 6,762 km surpassing the 6,677 km of the Nile.
Touristic promotion was begun by Gonzalo de Reparaz, who wrote in 1955 about the existence of the great Colca Canyon in the UNESCO magazine Correo, and included it in his guide. His description coincides with that of Shippee and Johnson in their book Peru from the Air where they assert that the Colca Canyon is twice as deep as the Colorado Canyon. The Grand Canyon of the Colorado is 1,600 m deep; the Colca 3,400 m. And if we took into consideration the height of the surrounding peaks, Coropuna at 6,425 m and Ampato at 6,310 m, the depth of the canyon would be more than 5,000 m.
The reports by Dr. Reparaz motivated some Polish canoeists to attempt the navigation of the Colca. This was the Polish Student Expedition, CANOANDES 79, in 1981. They managed to travel from Canco as far as the confluence with the Andamayo River, from which point the river is called the Majes. On the first attempt they tried to go from Cabanaconde, but given the difficulties of the river, the rapids and rocks, their kayaks were damaged, as well as the inflatable boat. They were forced to return to Arequipa in order to repair their equipment. Already running out of funds, they were happy to receive the aid of various friends who lodged them and repaired the boats. In early June, they were able to recommence the expedition, this time covering a 50 km stretch of the canyon from Canco to Andamayo. This shows remarkable sporting prowess, if we consider the great difficulties of navigation and the impossibility of rescue in case of emergency.
The young Poles described their experience in an article, "Sport and Adventure in the Rivers of Peru", which appeared in a canoeing guide. There they detailed their experience kilometer by kilometer and recorded their impressions when, for example, the river narrowed to a mere three meters of width, or when they went through a stretch of the canyon between almost verticle walls of 4,000 m on one side and 3,000 m on the other, which they named the "Chocolate Canyon". They also mentioned the marks they saw on a huge rock which seemed to be the tracks of some prehistoric animal. The young Polish students who took part in this expedition, which navigated a great part of the Colca Canyon for the first time, were: Andrzej Pietowski, Piotr Chmielinski, Jacek Bogucki, Steplan Danielski, Jerzy Majcherczik, Krystñof Krarnieski and Zbigniew Bzdak.
Since the journey of these young Poles, the same feat has only been repeated four or five times. This is not surprising when one considers the difficulty of navigating the river. It requires extremely experienced, and brave, canoeists. In April of 1985 a lamentable accident occurred in which the lives of Alvaro Ibáñez, Carolina Tiango and Luis Figueroa were lost.
Since the Colca Canyon is the empire of the condor, the first documentaries were filmings of this magnificent bird. Some remarkable films of great impact were produced. One such was The Flight of the Condor by Michael L.A. Andrews of the London BBC. In one of the scenes the canyon is shown from a helicopter. The American television program American Sportsman, produced by the American Broadcasting Company, also made a documentary in which, with the aid of an ultra-light plane designed and piloted by Larry Newmann (one of the crew members of the aerostatic balloon which crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific for the first time), spectacular scenes following the flight of the condor were filmed.
Another important film was that made by the team of Francis Thompson, directed by Bayley Silleck, for presentation at the Smithsonian Institute in 1984. They captured exceptional scenes of condors using an enormous camera with a special IMAX system. During the preparations for the film, in the middle of the canyon, I had an accident. Most unfortunately I broke my leg and my frieds the filmmakers had to become a rescue team- fisherman's luck.
In 1982 Jean Michel Cousteau began a documentary on the peak of Mismi, which was the point of departure for the Amazon expedition of Jacques Ives Cousteau. It was also the place where, some years before, the Andean explorer and amateur archeologist Peter Rose, a South African engineer, and chief engineer of one of the encampments of the Majes irrigation project, found, very near the top of the Mismi, a golden idol 10 cm high which represent an adolescent girl. Presumably this was an offering to the "apu", the mystic spirit of the mountain and the origin of the waters which give fertility to the earth, according to beliefs which have existed since pre-Incan times. In these Andean peaks in the south of Peru and the North of Chile the Colca is in an area influenced by the Amazon basin. The Cousteau expedition was interested in determining the relationship between this region and the Amazon. They discovered certain elements, such as the engraving of a tucan on the cave wall of Mollepunku, which lead one to believe that even in prehistoric times some link between the populations of the Andes and the Amazon may have existed. The petroglyphs of Toro Muerto along the lower Colca in the Majes Valley also represent various animals (snakes, birds and such) and even dancers which are typical of the Amazon.
Among the many adventures enjoyed in this fantastic region, those shared with friends like Torgny Andenberg, with whom we filmed the now classic documentary From the White City, must not be forgotten. Nor can we forget other friends such as Billy Hare, Fred Allert, Alejandro Balaguer, Charles Carty, Francois and Charles Patthey, and the brothers Jordi and Jaume Blassi, photographers and adventurers with whom for many years we traveled the hidden marvels of the Colca region and learned to know and value these jewels of nature and of Man.
We live in an epoch when the inhabitant of the great city desperately needs to be reintegrated into the natural environment. Normal conditions of life in a contaminated ambiance where we are surrounded by artificial elements, have caused Man to totally lose contact with nature. In the Colca region one can find the perfect conditions for sport, adventure, scientific observation, and most important of all, contact with nature.
The Colca River and the famous canyon, of an average depth of 3,400 m over a 100 km stretch, is a great challenge to the canoeist. To make the whole journey, given the conditions of navigation, a great deal of experience is necessary. Nonetheless, there are some stretches in the high country, that is in the valley proper, in which navigation, although still fascinating, is not dangerous.
There are attractive ascents for the mountaineer, such as the volcanos Coropuna, 6,425 m high and Ampato, 6,310 m high. Or there is the Chila Range. One of its peaks, the 5,597 m high Mismi, is, as we mentioned above, the most distant source of the Amazon. Hikes and trips on horseback are other interesting possibilities for traveling through the valley proper and the canyon or for crossing to the Valley of the Volcanos (Andagua). Other absolutely fascinating excursions can be made following the Incan roads to Cusco or Arequipa.
The majestic presence of the condor in the region is by no means the only animal attraction. There are over a hundred species of birds existing in the region. Especially interesting among them are the flamingo of Salinas Lake, the Andean goose and the giant choca in Indio Lake. As far as mammals are concerned the vicuna, the guanaco and the taruka are among the most interesting.
There are also wonderful opportunites in the cultural area for experiencing ancient civilizations, and even prehistoric Man. There are archeological remains from the prehistoric period such as the caves of Ccollpa and Mollepunku. There are also pre-Incan and Incan ruins, such as the cities of Juscallacta, Uyo Uyo, and Pomonuta, or the hanging tombs in Choquetico where you will also find stone statuary. There are also the ruins of some chiefs' palaces in Yanque and Lari and the amazing "colcas", containers for food, in Chininia.The villages are especially interesting because of their state of preservation. You will find them very much the way they were 400 years ago. They were laid out during the colonial period as "Indian Settlements", each one with its church as the dominating symbol. The churches are important architecturally and contain many objects of great artistic value, such as paintings, sculptures and silver, all of which are in great contrast with the modesty of their surroundings.
All along the valley and the canyon thermal springs bubble up, as for instance at Sibayo, La Calera and Yanque. All of them are worthy of being considered yet one more attraction in this mysterious region so little known until such a short time ago.
The lost valley of the Incas
For reasons still not clearly determined the Colca was almost completely ignored during the Republican period, until it almost disappeared from the map. Only Caylloma was somewhat remembered because of its importance as a mining center.
It was with the beginning of engineering work for the immense Majes project, an amazing labor which directed the waters of the Apurimac River, the most distant tributary of the Amazon, to the Colca River in order to irrigate the pampas of Majes, one of the driest deserts in the world, that access was opened to the mysterious valley in the decade of the 70's. In order to realize this ambitious project it was necessary to construct great dams across the Apurímac and Colca Rivers, more than 100 km of tunels and 40 km of canals. The results brought water to the pampas, making 60 thousand hectars of land fertil, and generated 650,000 kw of electrical energy.
It is interesting to contrast this great modern engineering project with those carried out in the Colca more than 1,400 years ago, and still in use today. This refers to the creation of more than 6,000 hectars of terraces on the slopes of the deep canyon which were necessary for agricultural production. Water was brought to irrigate these little fields by an ingenious system of canals from the scattered springs on the heights, since the river is so deep within its walls at this point that it is impossible to use it. Thanks to this amazing pre-Incan engineering feat the Colca was an important source of food for many centuries. The great agricultural project of today, the irrigation of the Majes, carried out in the region 1,400 years later, has allowed us to discover "The Valley of Marvels", as the writer Mario Vargas Llosa calls it in his foreword.
In order to construct this great system of irrigation, it was necessary to open more than 400 km of roads and build several villages to house the more than 4,000 men who worked on the amazing project for 10 years. As costly as the project was, we realize its justification when we consider that the people of the Andes and the Colca, in order to assure the fertility of the earth and thus obtain the harvests which assured them of being able to nourish their families, always made offerings to the "apu" the supreme being of the snowy peaks and the origin of water.
The realization of the Majes Project required the formation of a powerful international consortium, since it was necessary to use the most modern technology, and to have available funds sufficient to finish a work which in its first stage alone cost some 700 million dollars. Thus the Majes Consortium was formed, made up of five companies from different countries. These were: A.B. Skanska Cementgjuteriet, of Sweden; Tarmac Construction Ltd., of Great Britian; Entrecanales y Tavora, S.A., of Spain; The Foundation Company of Canada Ltd.; Concor Construction (PTY) Ltd., of South Africa; and the ELECTROCONSULT companies of Italy which carried out the studies and supervised the work. The participation of the government and Peruvian technicians was also important in the studies and in the execution of the project.
To the surprise of Peruvians and foreigners alike, this important setting, full of history and culture, in which we find prehistoric remains at least 6 million years old, remains of the pre-Incan ethnic groups the Collaguas and the Cabanas, remains of the Incan Empire and testimony of an important colonial presence, appeared to the world. Little by little researchers appeared who incited the rest of us to want to know the Colca. Its importance makes it imperative to make the riches of the region known to the world. It is necessary to develop tourism in order to ensure the adequate conservation of this living treasure.
In 1983, in the face of little faith and much scepticism on the part of Peruvian tourist businesses, the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Arequipa together with the Autonomous Authority of Majes, the head entity in the Majes Project, and with some economic support from the Fund for Touristic Promotion in Peru, initiated the Program for the Touristic Development of the Colca. Touristic development means not only the necessity of providing a sufficient number of comfortable accomodations for visitors and the promotion of tourist attractions, but also a solid organization which can guarantee the adequate conservation of the natural and cultural resources. To fulfill this need the Peruvian Government created the Colca Authority in 1986 with law 24521. This makes the zone and the area of its influence a National Reserve and regulates its management.
Since then tourism has begun to develop and various travel agencies offer tours on a regular basis. The magnificent instalations of one of the encampments for the Majes Project (Achoma Staff) are used as the center of operations. This encampment was built in order to house numerous technicians, many of them with their families. Once the work was finished the technicians returned to their homes and the place was converted into a touristic village, complete with restaurant, inn, and other services for visitors.
The Colca is accessible from the city of Arequipa. This city is a well developed tourist center with hotels, restaurants and an airport with air service to Lima, Cusco, Puno and Tacna. Furthermore it is connected with Bolivia and Chile by the Pan-American highway and with the Matarani - Arequipa - Puno - Cusco - Machu Picchu railroad. From Arequipa one can reach the Colca by 140 km of paved road. The road passes numerous centers of attraction on a tour of approximately five hours. It goes through different zones, rich in exotic fauna and abounding in extraordinary and suggestive landscapes.