first-time visitors to Peru make a beeline for the ruins of Machu Picchu, without
realizing that they are passing within a bus ride of the epic Colca Canyon.
through the High Andes like a giant fissure for more than 100km, Colca is the
world’s second deepest canyon, approximately 3,400m at its deepest point -- a
shade shallower that the nearby Cotahuasi Canyon and nearly twice as deep as
the US’ Grand Canyon. More impressive than the
statistics are the region’s emblematic attractions, including soaring condors,
endless trekking routes and unshakeable Spanish, Inca and Pre-Inca traditions
little altered since the conquistadors first arrived in the 1570s.
With a few
days to spare and minimal planning, it is easy to shoehorn Colca Canyon into a
wider Peruvian trip. The area is best accessed via Arequipa, Peru’s second
largest city, where you can hire a car or hop onto one of many public buses
that run daily to various villages in Colca. Alternatively, three-day Colca
excursions can be arranged at several city centre travel agencies.
spectacular 154km drive from Arequipa to Chivay, the main village of Colca
Canyon, makes a half circle around the city’s two sentinel volcanoes, El Misti
(5,822m) and Chachani (6,075m), before traversing the high plains of the vast,
barren Salinas and Aguada Blanca National
tasting the rarefied air of the Patopampa Pass (4,910m), you drop sharply into
Chivay (3,630m), the Colca’s unashamedly dishevelled nexus that blends tourist
facilities with centuries-old tradition. Here you will get your first glimpse
of Colca’s manmade terraced fields stacked up like gigantic staircases on the
steep canyon slopes. Many of the terraces date back to Inca times and most are
still tended to by local farmers who grow crops such as potatoes, barley, beans
The Calera hot springs are an acclimatizing 3km walk up
the valley to a scenic spot by the Colca River. Once there, recline in a simple
alfresco pool as screaming zip-liners slide terrified across the canyon
overhead. The zip-line stretches for 600mbetween the canyon walls simulating the
flight path of an Andean Condor. Rides can be booked through one of Chivay’s
travel agencies or direct with Colca Zip-lining.
of hotels huddle around Chivay’s main plaza, including the budget Hostal La Pascana and the more expensive, pseudo-rustic Casa Andina,
which has its own tiny astronomical observatory with nightly star-spotting
early breakfast in Chivay before heading 7km west to the village of Yanque,
where couples in traditional dress dance the watiti (a love dance of the native Quechua people who live in the
Peruvian Andes) every morning in the main square in front of the grandiose Baroque
Inmaculada Concepción church. Next stop is the Cruz del Cóndor cliff top lookout, 35km west of
Yanque, where huge Andean condors glide majestically above the steep canyon
walls using the thermal uplifts that rise from Colca’s shadowy depths. The
viewpoint is invariably packed with camera-clicking tourists between 8 am and
10 am when the condors are most active, but, like India’s Taj Mahal, this is an
essential pilgrimage and worth every clumsily swung backpack. From the Cruz del
Cóndor it is 12km to Cabanaconde, a smaller, salt-of-the-earth version of
Chivay that gets only one fifth of the tourist traffic.
sits on the canyon’s rim and, after a fortifying lunch, it is possible to
descend, via a precipitous zigzagging path, to an oasis of fruit trees aside
the narrow Colca River 4km and 1,200 vertical metres below. The hike is tough
due to the steep terrain and thin air, but the scenic rewards are worth it. The
canyon floor supports a handful of idyllic rustic retreats -- known
collectively as Sangalle -- reachable only by foot or mule. Food, natural
swimming pools and very basic accommodation is available should you be too
enthralled (or tired) to tackle the steep climb back up the same day.
iron-legged hikers who make it back to Cabanaconde, Hotel Kuntur Wassi has warm, modest rooms and an exceptional restaurant where the plucky
chef puts his own novel spin on Peruvian fusion food, enlivening alpaca steaks
and trout with interesting sweet and savoury sauces.
back to Arequipa, it is worth visiting some of the isolated settlements on the
north side of the Colca River, reachable by a rough single-track road.
Colonised by the Spanish in the 16th Century, Colca harbours more than a dozen
of these small villages notable for their ornate churches, soporific main
squares and esoteric agricultural and artisanal specialties, including
embroidery and alpaca wool products. In pre-Inca days, the valley was inhabited
by two linguistically different groups, the Cabanas and the Collaguas, and
their descendants can still be distinguished by their traditional hats: flat
straw hats embroidered with a lace band for the Collaguas in the east and
rounded felt hats intricately embroidered with cotton for the Cabanas in the
west. Although, population movement in the canyon is more fluid these days, you
can still get a good idea of where you are by looking at the hat shapes.
deeper into Colca’s cultural nuances in settlements like end-of-the-road
Madrigal, a bucolic backwater perfect for a slow unflustered digestion of
traditional life; sleepy Lari, where
one-day treks set off for the source of the Amazon River; or Coporaque where
you can enjoy lunch and a dip in the hot springs of the luxury Colca Lodge.
If you can tear yourself away before the sun sets, it is a straight
three-to-four hour drive back to Arequipa.