Chalkmarks High drama in the Andes

Natalie Chalk experiences a view that takes her breath away.

The Colca Canyon is 11 London Shards deep and a must see for anyone visiting the Andes.

The sun is fierce yet the air cold. It is 11am in the Andes and I’ve just arrived off a packed mini-bus at Colca Canyon from Arequipa in southern Peru.

We’d left before dawn and had rumbled along bumpy roads in second gear for hours preventing any chance of sleep.

As I pile out of the bus, I’m grateful to stretch and breathe in the crisp thin air.

The Andean highlanders, their cheeks bitten red by the sun, meet us with cups of warm mate tea. The drink, made out of dried leaves from the coca plant, is said to relieve altitude sickness.

It doesn’t feel like the end of the world but the beginning!

Wearing their colourful ponchos and embroidered skirts, their welcome is in stark contrast to the cold, heavy canyon walls.

An old world survives up here from before the Incas: the green fields are laid out in a patchwork of steeped terraces just as they’ve been for more than 500 years.

The people have won the battle with history but are impoverished in the modern world. They rise early to set up stalls selling Coca Cola, alpaca hats and bracelets to busloads of tourists.

Peru is the world headquarters for extreme landscapes with jungle in the north, coast and deserts in the west, and here in the east the Andes – the longest mountain range on Earth.

It makes for a curious country, each terrain offering up a different culture.

I turn up my collar against the chill and follow the staircase that leads down from the road to the lookout at Cruz del Condor.

There’s no force that can stop you wanting to lean forwards to look down the precipice to see the sliver of river at the bottom.

Colca is the second deepest canyon in the world. Nearby Cotahuasi takes the number one spot but that’s much harder – and bumpier – to get to.

Here, the golden rock drops 3,400m to the bottom – making it more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. That’s 11 London Shards down.

As I stand at the edge, nothing seems to move down there although there will be pumas and llamas in the valley.

Overhead the giant condors that give the spot its name circle as the wind whistles.

A frightened boy screams “Dad!”

Everybody turns. A man had slipped a few paces on the loose ground but he wasn’t in any real danger. Perhaps the high altitude had made him feel faint but that boy’s shriek made the hairs of my neck prickle.

It’s as if we have become used to not being this close to nature. The cold air gives everything has a sharper edge. But I travel for landscapes like this.

While our cities are always developing this is a great unchanged hostile expanse built by Mother Nature millions of years ago. The stillness makes you more alert. It doesn’t feel like the end of the world but the beginning.

I think I need that cup of tea.

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