SOUTH AMERICA – THE JOURNEY PART 18
COLCA CANYON, AREQUIPA
Colca Canyon, the world’s second deepest ravine, receives over $US10m in annual tourist revenues but corruption is siphoning the money from the area’s villages.
The loose gravel beneath my boots careered down the mountainside plundering 2,800m into obscurity. Instinctively, I shuddered as I steadied myself, vertigo overtaking my sense of reality. Lifting my eyes upwards I peered along the path and squinted in the brilliant sunlight. I searched for distant figures, a sign of life on the trail, but the narrow track was deserted.
No sign of the signposts
Gingerly I continued, wondering if it would take me to Fure. I’d enquired at the last village, Malata, where the locals had insisted that I stay on the highest path. With some difficulty I found the elevated route but I wanted concrete certainty that I was on the right track. A reassuring sign would have done wonders for my semi-shattered nerves, but they simply don’t exist in Colca Canyon, southern Peru.
The absence of markers is not lost on tourists who are forced to pay US$15 each for the upkeep of the canyon.
Private firm reaps tourists’ money
A foreign volunteer working in the ravine placed the blame firmly at the privately owned firm that charges the entrance fee: “The most common complaint I hear from tourists and the villagers is the complete lack of signage. The locals feel responsible when visitors get lost but it isn’t down to the villagers to make the signs, they barely survive with subsistence farming. The real culprit is AutoColca.”
AutoColca is the private firm which charges the $US15 fee to enter the area. The belief among many tourists is that it is a government body collecting the money, but according to the volunteer this is misleading: “It has no connection to the government. It hides under the facade of being state controlled, even using a web domain with a government address.
“The truth is, it’s a private entity. AutoColca keeps nearly 100 percent of the money brought in by tourists, bribing officials in Cabanaconda to keep quiet about the failed upkeep of the area. Unfortunately, it works.”
The volunteer has spent several frustrating meetings trying to get to the bottom of the corruption, with the mayor simply brushing him aside.
“The good news is that elections were held earlier in the month [October 2010] and the incumbent mayor will be replaced in December. I know his replacement, hopefully we’ll work together to help bring legal action against the corruption, help villagers gain what is rightfully theirs and increase independent tourism in the area,” he told me.
In 2009, 146,000 tourists visited the Colca valley and according to the Peruvian News Agency this generated US$10 million in revenue.
Colca Canyon’s allure
Tourists are attracted by the sheer enormity of Colca Canyon, which is over twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and second only to neighbouring
Cotahuasi Canyon for being the world’s deepest ravine. The looming cliff faces tower 3,400 metres above the Colca River, their jagged peaks covered in scree, scrub and plantations.
It’s not just the rustic life of the villages or the thermal hot springs that draw the crowds. One of the main attractions is the Andes condor which has the largest wing span of any land birds. Tour agencies in nearby Arequipa offer two- to three-day trips with promises of spotting the mystical bird. However, this takes money directly from the villages, with agencies giving only half of the nightly rate to the hostels in the villages.
“It’s heartbreaking for the locals. They want independent tourists to visit but without the correct infrastructure such as signs, many visitors won’t bother,” continued the volunteer.
Independent travel to Colca Canyon
A website was launched in January 2011 to help independent tourists to travel in Colca Canyon. A list of local guides based in Cabanaconda, who don’t work for agencies, will be included for those who want the security of knowing they’re on the right path. In addition, maps, hostel amenities (in Fure, for example, there are no showers or electricity) and multi-lingual pages will help visitors decide on their route. The web address is http://www.cabanacondeperu.com/index.html
As for my own journey in Colca valley, I was grateful for the locals who gave me directions and set me on the right trails. With paths disguised by a mountain of scree, no signs and maps that are near useless, they were the smiling heroes of my trip.
WHERE ON EARTH?
- In 2008, tourism revenue in the country was US$2.2bn
- Machu Picchu is the main money-making magnet with an expected revenue of US$9.8bn in 2010
- The capital is Lima, a port side city
- The world’s second deepest canyon at 3,400 metres
- Is home to over 15 villages
- Has hot springs, geysers and condors
- Is six to seven hours northwest of Arequipa
- Cabanaconda is the closest town to start an independent trek into the canyon
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