Oasis on the high plains
It takes a high level of commitment to reach Peru’s Colca Valley — about 4900m of Andean-sized, exhausting commitment. That’s the height of the tallest pass on the fourhour journey from sunny Arequipa over the Western Andes. Altitude sickness is almost certain. In my case the symptoms are breathlessness and brainlessness, as if my skull has been stuffed with bandages to muffle the world.
The best antidote is coca leaves. Tuck a wad inside your cheek, moisten with saliva and swallow the drowsy juices until oblivious. Wake an hour or two later in a valley of dry stone terraces planted with fields of wheat and bushy sheaves of quinoa the colour of orange sherbet. In the distance below is the first glimpse of Colca Lodge. An oasis in the altiplano (high plains), hot springs are the reason this 45-room lodge exists here, in the middle of nowhere. It offers Peru’s only thermal-powered spa and four rock pools fed by geothermal waters.
Colca Lodge nestles between a hillside and a rushing river, 3250m above sea level. A series of pretty terraces and gardens fringe two wings of trim cottages. The main lodge, restaurants and terrace tumble down a rise towards the river. On the far bank is a corral with alpacas and llamas. There is birdsong everywhere. An army of gardeners in khaki uniforms and beige sunhats tends the grounds constantly.
The food and drink is fine — buffet-style dinners lack style but the peppered alpaca, chicken involtini and a quinoa porridge all lure me back for seconds — and the accommodation is an Andean take on rustic luxe. Rooms are styled as thatched mountain cottages with sunny terraces, exposed beams and stone walls. Beds are enormous and comfortable; bathrooms are vast and nicely done.
But the gardens are outstanding. Hemmed by mountains, the alluvial plain is buttressed with dry stone and punctuated by brilliant green lawns, flowering hedges, cushiony beds of pink and white daisies and happy hummingbirds everywhere. At twilight I don my hooded Rocky- style robe and pad down the stone path to the springs. I do a Goldilocks and test the four stone-rimmed pools, choose the hottest, at 38C, and then sink in. It’s delicious. The waters are said to be rich in lithium, which promotes relaxation; a sense of wellbeing is intensified by the sharp chill of evening, and a phenomenal light show overhead as the Milky Way snaps into sharp focus. Totally worth the trials of getting here.
Kendall Hill was a guest of LAN Airlines and Adventure World.
Colca Lodge, Fundo Puye, Yanque, Caylloma, Colca Valley, Arequipa, Peru; +51 5453 1191; colca-lodge.com.
TARIFF: Two-night packages with breakfast and massage from $210 a person.
GETTING THERE: Colca Lodge is several hours by road from Arequipa. You will need a car and driver; mine was organised through Adventure World. More: adventureworld.com.au.
CHECKING IN: hikers.
Golden agers, fit twitchers, hard-core
BEDTIME READING: The Way to Paradise by Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. It’s a quasi-biography of Paul Gauguin, who spent some of his childhood in Peru, and his grandmother Flora Tristan, a militant feminist who fought for the rights of workers and women in 19th-century France.
STEPPING OUT: The rare Andean condor lives deep in the canyon and each morning convoys of tourists head for the Cruz del Condor, a crowded lookout where the birds soar. The sights en route — Peruvian cowboys, oxdrawn ploughs, cactus and wildflowers — are just as captivating.
BRICKBATS: The minibar fridge in my cottage makes an almighty racket day and night. The shower takes about five minutes to warm up, which is ironic, given the hot springs on site.
BOUQUETS: Rooms are decorated liberally with picked flowers — a small mixed posy on the windowsill, red campanulas and snapdragons resting on neatly folded towels and daisies tucked into bathrobes. Lovely.
Colca Lodge, Peru, top and left; cottagestyle guestroom, above