Valle de los Volcanes – Peru’s volcanic playground

The conquest of a dream

The first time the outside world heard of this place was in 1929, when a pair of adventurers, Robert Shippee and George R. Johnson, watched speechless as they flew over the spectacular scenery of this valley lost in time. The rickety little airplane, which the explorers had baptized the Washington, served to trace a route which a few months later would enable them to link the modern world with this remote corner of the Arequipa highlands.

rain season

enlargeThe rain season turns the arid hillsides an emerald green. It is a time of joy and hope in the land of the volcanoes.

Shippee, a historian and pilot, and Johnson, a photographer for the Peruvian Navy’s aerial photography service, were the first Westerners to make the long haul by horseback to the village of Andagua, the gateway to the Valley of the Volcanoes.

The expedition set off from the village of Cabanaconde, in the far eastern corner of the Colca Canyon, and headed in search of the tiny valley they had spotted from the air months ago. “The place did not appear on any of the maps and the only reference we had was the name of the village at the head of the valley: Andagua”.


enlargeLike huge cushions, the yareta thrive at an altitude of 5,000 meters (16,400ft.) above sea level.

The inhabitants of Cabanaconde had never heard of this valley riddled with volcanoes of all sizes; but several of the locals guided the expedition to a mountain pass that was to lead them into a neighboring valley.
“They walked down to the river and crossed over an ancient hanging bridge. The zigzagging path took them up the facing side of the canyon. After 11 hours of exhausting trekking, Cabanaconde seemed to lie exactly the same distance away, and they were exactly at the same altitude as when they began the hike.

“The trek through the mountain pass was a tough one. They wrapped their dog – a tiny mongrel called Pibe – in thick blankets and slung him aboard the horses. Expedition members had to put some ammonia under the horses’ noses to keep them from collapsing.

“After a week in the mountains, the expedition reached the valley. They made camp in the crater one of the volcanoes, from where they could gaze out in wonder over dozens of scattered peaks.”

Back to reality

The potholes in the road jar me out of my reverie into that epic journey, reminding me that the bone-shattering route is taking us deep into the bowels of Andagua. We have left behind a fertile valley where two villages dispute the finest view of the canyons below: Viraco, bustling with commerce, and Machaguay (made famous by a mambo tune), the more hospitable of the two. The road climbs steeply up to a mountain pass which looks out over a sweeping plain of rocks eroded by the wind and rain at the foot of Mount Coropuna.

Mount Solimana

enlargeMount Solimana (6,323 m./20745 ft.) lights up with the hues of dawn, heralding a new day.

Here, the freezing cold and solitude are only broken by the arrival of a couple of shepherds, their skin blackened by the fierce highland sun, hustling along their flocks of alpacas and llamas. A mirror-like lake and a towering mountain of reddish rock glittering in the afternoon sun signal that it is time to start the descent to our objective. Grateful to be able to leave behind the thin air at 4,600 meters and head down to gentler country, we plunge into a world of gullies of white sand and bizarre rock formations.

church of Andagua

enlargeBuilt from mud-brick and volcanic stone, the modest church of Andagua is open to visitors.

The landscape in Jallhua Valley is positively lunar, except for the clumps of purple chocho flowers that grow everywhere, lending the solitude a touch of Japanese garden. Here and there, large bright-green lumps stand out amongst the sand and rocks. These are yareta, plants as old as time which have witnessed the passage of mule caravans since Man first came through this territory.

After winding endlessly, the road appears to disappear. We stop the car and gaze out across the scene. The view is simply impressive: standing on a cliff edge, we experience possibly the same thrill that Shippee and Johnson felt over 70 years ago when they discovered the bizarre landscape that now spreads out at our feet. In the hazy distance, the arid valley is flanked by mountains that seem to touch the sky. The eastern fringes of the valley in front of us appear to be crowned by a snow-capped peak. This is Mount Escribano (5,273 meters), the dividing line between the Colca and Andagua Valleys.

thick grove of trees

enlargeA thick grove of trees frame the Valley of the Volcanoes. In the background appears the Chila massif, separating the valley from the Colca Canyon.

Time in a timeless land

Sprawling across a terrain that is scarred by the traces of countless lava flows and basalt rock, a group of perfectly-shaped cones emerges. The craters soar heavenwards, impervious to the passing of the centuries. These are Chilcayoc, Los Mellizos (the Twins), Suisuya, Chapite and Pucamaura.

A lake filled with dark waters called Chachas lends the final touch to the panorama. The lake’s waters are believed to flow for many kilometers underground before bubbling once more to the surface to form another lake, Mamacocha, near the village of Ayo, but several days’ trek from here.

Finally, we have made it. The Valley of the Volcanoes welcomes us in its entire splendor.

The Prehistoric valley

farmers start the day

enlargeDespite the hail which has carpeted the ground, the farming folk start the day’s work. Temperatures often plunge to -10°C in winter.

Andagua Valley, which lies at an altitude of 3,600 meters, is split by the Andagua River, and is a classic prehistoric spectacle. The valley floor, which has been formed by repeated lava flows caused by constant eruptions, is riddled with stubby volcanoes (at least 80, according to experts). The volcanoes surged upwards like blisters as a result of the escaping gasses from the lava or due to other eruptions from the heart of the Earth’s crust.

The highest volcano in the Andagua Valley is Pucamaura, which rears 350 meters above the valley floor. There are several other volcanoes just 50-70 meters high, and even some, like Chilcayoc Grande and Chilcayoc Chico, which stand just 15-20 meters high.
One of the volcanoes, located to the far west of the village of Andagua, is actually used as a bullring during the festival in honor of the patron saint.

The Origin

The birth of the tiny volcanoes of Andagua was a recent local geological event within the history of volcanic formations in southern Peru, occurring some 200 million years ago in the Quaternary Era and part of the Historic Era.

Andagua features odd flora, which flourishes in the volcanic ash in the few spots not covered by lava. Cactus is the dominating plant in the area, particularly the towering sanqallo and the odd chachacoma variety, which the locals use for medicinal purposes.

Guide Sheet

Andagua Valley runs perpendicular to the Colca Valley, 320 km (200 m.) northwest of the city of Arequipa.

The average altitude of the valley is 3,650 meters, although to get there, visitors will have to climb through mountain passes over 4,800 meters.

There are several restaurants and a rustic hotel in the main square in the village of Andagua. One can also rent rooms in homes nearby. Telephone services are restricted, and diesel fuel can be bought.

Access routes:
The most direct route sets out from the detour to Aplao (122 km west of Arequipa). From Aplao the route follows a packed dirt road as far as Acoy (6 km) where the route turns right and leads to Viraco, Machaguay (75 km) and the mountain pass at Lagunillas (35 km). From there the trail drops to the valley of Jallhua until it follows a detour at the mine of Orcopampa (15 km). The village of Andagua lies just 4 km away.

What to bring:
Plenty of warm clothing and lots of fluids

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