By: Walter Wust
From the book Arequipa Salvaje (Wild Arequipa)
Lost in the depths of the Andes, in the department of Arequipa, the Andagua Valley offers us an awe-inspiring setting with towns built on blocks of lava in the shadow of nearly one hundred volcanos of all sizes. Whether extinct or dormant, these volcanos remind us of just how fleeting human life is in the grand scheme of things.
Over a length of the 65 km (40 mi.), the Andagua Valley features thirty-two volcanic cones and sixty-seven domes—known as “blisters” to vulcanologists—formed by degassed lava or other, direct eruptions from beneath the Earth’s crust.
The rest of the terrain consists of forests of cacti and colorful chocho plants (a type of lupin) that give the valley a strong impression of having only recently been formed. Thirty-six of these volcanos have names. Although most of them are located in the Andagua Basin, others can be found in the surrounding mountains. There are also over a hundred eruptive centers, small craters or fissures formed by the exhalation of gas and lava. From Andagua, we can visit the volcanos and even climb several of them. The highest of them all is Pucamaura, standing 350 m (1,148 ft.) above the valley floor. Others range in height from 50 to 70 m (164 to 230 ft.), while the smallest ones, such as Chilcayoc Grande and Chico, are just 15 to 20 m (49 to 66 ft.) high. At the valley’s westernmost point, there is even a volcano that is used as a bullring during patron saints’ feasts each year. The age of these small volcanos can be deduced by their height. The largest date to the Pleistocene, running from 1.8 million years ago up to 10000 BC, while the smaller ones are from the Late Holocene, i.e., the last twelve thousand years, and are often covered with cacti or bushes. The valley’s landscape is accented by the town and Chachas Lake, whose waters disappear beneath the surface, running underground for a stretch before forming Mamacocha Lake near the town of Ayo, a few kilometers south. From Ayo, we have an incredible view of the snow-capped mountain Escribano (5,273 m (17,300 ft.) above sea level), which separates the Andagua Valley from the Colca.
Nature at the foot of the volcano
To date, 272 plant species have been recorded here. Of these, thirty-five are endemic, seven are cactaceae in danger of extinction, and two are classified as vulnerable. There are also sixty-one useful species, including medicinal herbs and plants used to build houses or make handicrafts, as well as others used for ornamental or mystical purposes. Of particular note is an unusual species known as the lloque (Kageneckia lanceolata), a high Andean tree prized for its timber that is now in danger of extinction due to overlogging.
The flora of Andagua is truly strange, thriving on top of volcanic ash in the few places where there is no lava. The dominant vegetation consists of cacti, especially the big sancayos and several candelabras, both of which are widely used by the local residents for medicinal purposes. The adaptive ability of the cacti found in the Andagua Valley is truly incredible, considering the adverse climate and soil conditions, as well as the high altitude. Thirty-five species of cactaceae have been registered here. They can often be seen covering the valley slopes, forming compact stands that gracefully display their large, colorful flowers and fruits, some of which have significant medicinal and nutritional properties.
Other species are useful in building housing and walls, making handicrafts (various types of baskets), and even as mystical symbols (one of the species is known by the name of “the Virgin Mary’s tears”). Among the cacti that live in the Andagua Valley, the most famous is undoubtedly the sancayo or sanky (Corryocactus brevistylus), whose fruit has been consumed by the valley’s inhabitants since ancient times. This fruit is picked by shepherds during long journeys to quench their thirst and calm their hunger along the way. Scientific research has found that this fruit has numerous properties beneficial to our health. There is a reason, after all, that it has long been used in natural medicines to fight diabetes, lose weight, or treat osteoporosis. It is also used to prevent gastritis and diseases of the liver. Thanks to its high concentration of potassium, it is also excellent for rehydration. This noble plant was given its scientific name by the railroad engineer Thomas Avery Corry (1862–1942), who was one of the people to discover it while building Peru’s southern railway.
Among the valley’s fauna, seventy-six bird species, twenty-seven mammals, four reptiles, and three amphibians have been reported. With certain rare exceptions, most of them are common to the ecosystems found at this altitude. One exception is the tillandsia, a plant normally found in the desert or the coastal lomas, or fog oasis, ecosystem. There are also Amazonian species such as an otter of the genus Lontra, known locally as the huallaque; seven species of bats; significant giant hummingbird (Patagona gigas) populations; and healthy populations of condors, vizcachas, Andean mountain cats, pumas, white-tailed deer, tarucas (or north Andean deer), vicuñas, and guanacos. Species from distant habitats such as the coastal valleys can also be found here. Such is the case, for example, of the river prawn, which lives here at its highest point of altitude.
Playing with fire
The Valley of the Volcanos is the setting of a handful of picturesque towns whose inhabitants make a living by raising llamas and alpacas—as well as certain animals species introduced during the colonial period—and growing native crops such as potato, quinoa, kiwicha, and corn.
In recent years, locals have become involved in other activities such as mining and tourism, which have contributed in one way or another to their economic development. The most notable towns here are Orcopampa, Chilcaymarca, Andagua, Chachas, and Ayo, all of which are the capitals of their respective districts and home to the majority of the fifteen thousand people who live in this area.
Like the towns of the Colca, these were founded in colonial times as “Indian reductions,” to which indigenous populations were forcibly relocated. Archaeological evidence suggests that the valley has been inhabited for approximately six thousand years, starting with hunter-gatherers who left traces of their presence in rock paintings such as those of Allhuire depicting camelids, humans, and geometric motifs.
Following the emergence of agriculture and livestock breeding, the zone was later inhabited by the Kunti, Chuquibamba, and Aruni peoples. These ethnic groups were farmers and outstanding artisans skilled in making textiles and ceramics. In the late fifteenth century, the Incas incorporated this region into their empire: the Tahuantinsuyo. With the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, a number of towns and “Indian reductions” were created, such as Chilcaymarca, Tintaymarca, Misahuanca, Chapacoco, Andagua, Chachas, and Ayo. After Peru gained its independence, the area’s importance as a mining hub led to the creation of the town of Orcopampa.
Andagua: the heart of the valley
With its modern main square, or plaza de armas, surrounded by cypress trees pruned in the shapes of animals and other objects, and an austere Mestizo Baroque church, Andagua is the largest town in the area. It is strategically located in the central part of the valley, where pedestrian and bridle paths converge with the roads to Arequipa—via Viraco and Majes, or via Caylloma and Colca—as well as paths to the towns of Chachas and Ayo and the road to Huambo in the Colca Valley. Andagua is sits in the middle of a picturesque rural landscape where locals grow potato, olluco, fava beans, oca, and barley on terraces of ash and lava. Here we find the twin volcanos of Huanacaure, and not far away, the deep and narrow fissure of Paccareta where the river flows toward the lake and the Pumajallo Waterfall. Heading south from Andagua, there are a number of other places worth visiting.
First are the remains of Antaymarca, an archaeological site featuring circular structures with underground chambers that were probably used for funerary purposes. Then comes the volcano Kanalla-Mauras, which has a bullring in the crater that suddenly springs to life each year during the festival season. Finally, there is the scenic outlook of Soporo, where visitors can catch a view of the twin volcanos Chilcayoc and Jechapita, as well as the great lava flows, Lake Chachas, and the imposing Cordillera de Chila.