By Russ Lawrence | September 30, 2016

The Beauty of the Colca

It was never my intention to become an international adventure travel guide. I owned an independent bookstore for 23 years, for crying out loud, I’m not Indiana Jones, but here I am, about to guide my fourth group of visitors to Peru’s Colca valley, where we’ll have a shaman conduct a ceremony of thanks and appreciation for Pachamama (mother earth), view condors, visit artisans (at a co-op I helped to establish), hike to archeological sites with rock art depicting the domestication of the alpaca, and go blasting down from a 16,000-foot pass on our bicycles. Ideally, my clients will fall in love with the Colca, as I did seven years ago.russ4

My wife, Jean Matthews, and I were Peace Corps volunteers in Chivay, the largest town in this Andean valley, from 2009 until 2011. Until the day we were assigned there, we’d never heard of Chivay, but it didn’t matter. We had applied to the Peace Corps with the understanding – the hope, even – that we’d end up in a remote location we’d never heard of, eager to integrate ourselves into a new and alien culture, and perhaps to do some good along the way.

As our bus came over the top of the pass and the Colca valley hove into sight, we both spontaneously burst into tears. It’s that beautiful.

One of the reasons we both loved to travel was to learn how many different kinds of beautiful there are in the world. We lived in western Montana, which is spectacular, and I’d been struck by the beauty of places as far-flung as the Himalayas, Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, and east Africa’s Serengeti plain. The Colca’s scenery is sere and austere, especially in August, when we first saw it.

The high country above 15,000 feet is volcanic, almost barren, and in the “lower” altitudes the cold, dry-season months of June, July and August reduce most crops to brown stalks.russ1

It’s still beautiful.

What we learned, over the next two years while living in Chivay, is that there is another kind of beauty, one that you come to appreciate only by traveling and staying, and that’s the beauty of a people and their culture.

In the Colca valley, two cultures – the Collagua and the Cabana – have flourished and blended over a period of hundreds of years. Their roots go much deeper, just as the history of Peru itself goes back thousands of years, each new culture building on the lessons of the last. The Inca, of course, were the masters of such integration, taking the best of existing cultures and then raising it to the level of art. Thus, the valley offers traces of civilizations as old as the Wari, who first practiced crude terracing a thousand years ago, through the Inca, who arrived around 1320, to the Spanish colonial era, which began with Pizarro’s arrival in 1540.

Today, the local culture draws on all this, and more, integrating it into what is sometimes referred to as the “Andean Cosmovision.” This is a blending of Catholicism with beliefs rooted in a reverence for Pachamama and her gifts, and the “apus” (or mountain spirits) that watch over the valley and its people.

The relative isolation of the Colca valley, up until just 30 years ago, has resulted in a place where native festivals still take place for the benefit of the locals, rather than as tourist-oriented events.

That said, the people of the Colca were more than eager to include us in whatever was going on – religious festivals, national holidays, weddings, and native shamanic ceremonies.

russ3As agents of economic development, we decided that one of the best strategies would be to find ways to get visitors to stay longer, dig deeper, and to spend more money in ways that directly benefited the local economy. We helped local guides develop new offerings – bike tours, hikes to local attractions, visits to artisan co-ops – and we promoted the value of buying local, hand-made crafts, instead of buying the mass-produced souvenirs available everywhere.

While living in Chivay, we had the opportunity to become acquainted with Quechua Benefit, spending a few days here and there as translators for medical missions they sponsored in the valley. Through those contacts, Jean enlisted Quechua Benefit as a sponsor of her project to provide beautifully embroidered polar fleece blankets and hand-knitted alpaca hats for newborn infants in the Colca’s highlands.

When we left after our two years of service, many of our ideas for economic development had yet to be adopted by the locals. We decided that we would walk our talk, by bringing a group of tourists to the Colca for a 5-day stay that integrated everything we’d talked about. And we did it.

Then we did it again.

We branded our tours “Encounter Peru,” and focused on the Colca, where few U.S. tourists go, spending five days in the valley, including one or two nights in homestays, before moving on to Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu, to conclude a 13-day itinerary.russ2

Our commitment to continued friendship with and service to the people of Peru was tragically interrupted when Jean was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She died, at the age of 58, in December of 2015.

I accompanied a group for a shortened tour in May of 2015, and am soon to depart on another, full-length tour in October of 2016. I will share stories of Jean with my friends, and shed a few tears. Then I will throw a leg over my bicycle, and go flying down an Andean road with my clients, filled with joy as I point out rock formations that look like condors, locals harvesting barley by hand, and odd-looking, Dr. Seuss-like plants adapted to the harsh environment — not because I’ve forgotten about Jean, but because Jean wanted me to continue doing exactly that.

Scenery that literally brings tears to my eyes; a culture rooted in legend; the largest flying bird, the Andean condor, soaring over one of the world’s deepest canyons; the smiles of friends I haven’t seen in a year: these are the things I share via Encounter Peru. Whether you visit the Colca with me or come on your own; whether you travel to other parts of the world, to places you may have come to love; or whether you read these words from a chair from which you seldom rise – I hope you’ll discover for yourself how many kinds of beautiful there are. And then, like Jean and like me, find ways to share them.

Russ Lawrence can be reached at or +1 (406) 363-1279. Visit his travel website, Encounter Peru, at

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