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Peru's Colca Valley holds magnificent churches

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
December 6th, 2011
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Peru's Colca Valley is rich in natural beauty and history. After the Spanish conquered the area in the 16th century, and herded residents into 24 towns, 17 of which survive today, the outside world left it alone for 400 years. The region only gained international attention due to an expedition by Robert Shippee and George Johnson, whose 1934 article in National Geographic was headlined "A Forgotten Valley of Peru."

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - It wasn't until the 1970s that the area got a major road connecting it to Arequipa, Peru's second-largest city, 100 miles away. It's a stunning four-hour drive from the city, past bare volcanic plateaus and snow-capped peaks. At 13,800 feet, many visitors fall prey to altitude sickness. In addition, the Colca Canyon is the world's deepest, more than twice that of the Grand Canyon.
The valley is home to many beautiful churches. Chivay church is on the main square, in front of a giant crucifix carved into the hillside of the Colca valley, March 13, 2005 near Chivay, Peru. Chivay church is pictured on the main square, in front of a giant crucifix carved into the hillside of the Colca valley, March 13, 2005 near Chivay, Peru.
Sibayo, 12 bumpy miles away by taxicab, looks as it did four centuries ago. Low buildings with thatched roofs made from native ichu grass line the grid of cobblestone streets, and red- or blue-painted doors are the rare pops of color.

The restoration of the church of Saint John the Baptist is Sibayo's main activity. The interior of the church appears austere and bare. Scaffolding covers the ornate wood-and-gold altar, and the niches were empty of statues.

Inca and Catholic influences mix in many Peruvian churches, which were often built on older sacred sites and hold services in the indigenous Quechua language. Carvings and murals incorporate elements of nature, such as the flowers that embellish the doorway in Sibayo.

Across the river from Sibayo is Callalli, a town distinguished by its spiky crown of volcanic rock formations, nicknamed "the castle."

Tremors have repeatedly shaken the valley's churches. Saint John the Baptist, like many, had already been deteriorating when a 2001 earthquake cracked the roof and weakened the structure.

Repair work has been steady but slow. It took two years to fix the roof, and indoor work will continue for at least another two. Conservationists hope that restoring and maintaining the valley's churches will both give locals a sense of ownership and draw tourists, bringing in a little money.

Yanque's early-18th-century church is in better shape, largely because people visit and donate money. Located on the main road to the famous Cruz del Condor, Yanque, like Sibayo, the town has thatched-roof buildings and a manicured square.

It's hard to imagine that the valley once needed such large churches, or so many of them. The roughly 70,000 people who lived here at the time of the Spanish conquest could have filled them, but the structures clearly demonstrated power as much as religion. To Inca farmers, the churches must have looked like spaceships.

Madrigal's Saint James is one of the oldest churches in the valley. Eighteen miles west of Chivay, on a dirt road lined with stone walls, cactuses and lupines.

Inside, the church is dusty and dark, with scaffolding once again covering the altar. Close examination revealed that the eucalyptus-and-bamboo roof was elegantly completed, tied together in the original fashion with llama-skin rope. The murals, painted with natural watercolors, were meticulously restored. The church had once been hung with paintings from the colonial Cusco School, which taught European techniques; perhaps that connection explains its fine-art influence.

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