Claimed to be the deepest canyon in the world at more than 1km from cliff-edge to river bottom, the COLCA CANYON may be an impressive sight but is actually estimated to be 170m less deep than its more remote rival, the Cotahuasi Canyon. Both of these canyons are among several in the world that claim to be the biggest or deepest on the planet, depending on exactly how you measure them. In places the canyon’s sides are so steep that it is impossible to see the valley bottom, while the higher edges of Colca are punctuated with some of the finest examples of pre-Inca terracing in Peru, attributed in the main to the Huari cultural era. Craggy mountains, huge herds of llamas and traditionally dressed Andean peasants complete the picture.
The canyon was formed by a massive geological fault between the two enormous volcanoes of Coropuna (6425m) and Ampato (6318m): the Río Colca forms part of a gigantic watershed that empties into the Pacific near Camana. Despite being one of Peru’s most popular tourist attractions, the area’s sharp terraces are still home to more-or-less traditional Indian villages. To the north of Colca, meanwhile, sits the majestic Mismi Nevado, a snow-capped peak that belongs to the Chila mountain range, and which, according to National Geographic, is the official source of the Amazon River; long the subject of argument and speculation, the precise location of the source was finally pinpointed in 2000 by a five-nation National Geographic Society expedition using cutting-edge GPS navigational equipment. The team, headed by 46-year-old maths teacher Andrew Pietowski, identified a spot on Nevado Mismi – a 5597m-high mountain in southern Peru.
Francisco Pizarro’s brother, Gonzalo, was given this region in the 1530s as his own private encomienda (colonial Spanish landholding) to exploit for economic tribute. In the seventeenth century, however, the Viceroy Toledo split the area into corregimientos that concentrated the previously quite dispersed local populations into villages. This had the effect of a decline in the use of the valley’s agricultural terracing, as the locals switched to farming the land nearer their new homes.
The corregimientos created the fourteen main settlements that still exist in the valley today, including Chivay, Yanque, Maca, Cabanaconde, Corporaque, Lari and Madrigal. Most of the towns still boast unusually grand, Baroque-fronted churches, underlining the importance of this region’s silver mines during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. During the Republican era, Colca’s importance dwindled substantially and interest in the zone was only rekindled in 1931 when aerial photography revealed the astonishing natural and man-made landscape of this valley to the outside world – particularly the exceptionally elaborate terracing on the northern sides of bordering mountains.