Before my visit to Peru, I only ever really thought of it in terms of Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail. I was most definitely naive to the many fantastic historical and natural sights that the country had to offer. My brother had been to Peru a year or two before and had given me a list of suggestions on places to go. One such spot was the city of Arequipa, which is a beautiful colonial city in the country’s south. After doing some research, I learned that one of the most popular activities for visitors to Arequipa is a trip to the somewhat nearby Colca Canyon.
Colca Canyon is a long and winding valley that runs through the Andes Mountains and boasts some breathtaking landscapes and wildlife. What I hadn’t realised was that tours to Colca Canyon are usually at least 2 days. This is because they tend to involve hiking down into the canyon. I hadn’t accounted for that in my plans and was pretty disheartened. Thankfully, I found out at my hostel that there was the option for a day trip that didn’t include the hike. The only down side was that it was going to be a really long day.
The day trip to Colca Canyon began well before sunrise with the minibus picking me up around 4.30am. Soon we were heading out of Arequipa and climbing up into the mountains. Much of the ride was still in the dark, so the landscapes were hidden from us. It wasn’t until we neared the Patapampa pass that began to get a little lighter and we could see the snow covering the ground. The pass is roughly 4900 metres in elevation and being by far the highest I had been at that point, I was struck by some pretty intense headaches for an hour or so.
They did start to dissipate as we arrived at our first stop in the town of Chivay. After exploring the quite pretty city of Arequipa, the towns around Colca Canyon were eye-opening to say the least. It was immediately clear that the standard of living was lower and that we really were out in the countryside. The main reason for stopping in Chivay was to stretch our legs and get some breakfast in us before making our way into the canyon.
With some food in our bellies, we ventured off into the eastern end of the Colca Canyon. It wasn’t long before we were being presented with lush green terraces over the rocky canyon. The terraces actually reminded me of the rice terraces of Sapa in their shape. Scattered about occasionally were little villages sitting at the foot of mountains and totally dwarfed by them. As the valley widened out, the canyon grew deeper and the view just more and more awe-inspiring. There was some patches of fog hovering over parts of the valley adding to the overall atmosphere of the place.
As we worked our way into the canyon, we stopped for a short break in the village of Maca. There we found markets with all sorts of knitwear which was perfect as I was in dire need of warmer clothing. After buying a beanie and some gloves, I took a look at the village’s church which seemed to be reflective of the type found in smaller Peruvian towns and villages. Nearby we also had the opportunity to get some photos with some ladies dressed in traditional clothes and their surprisingly sedate llamas.
From there it was onwards into the canyon and when we really started to see the region’s mountains come to the foreground. As the canyon runs into the Andes Mountains, there are some significantly massive mountains that it meets. Many of the mountain peaks you can see are well over 5000 metres high. Their height is also amplified by the depth of the canyon itself, which is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. It really is hard to put that sense of scale into words or pictures; you need to see it with your own eyes to grasp it.
The real highlight in my opinion of visiting Colca Canyon occurs once you’ve reached Condor’s Cross. As the name suggests, this is where you are able to see the majestic Andean Condors soar over the canyon. With a wingspan of roughly 3 metres, these condors are the biggest birds in the world in that regard. As we arrived there was very little movement about but soon the birds emerged from down below us and began to circle overhead and through the canyon. All told we probably saw a dozen condors which is very lucky as there are times when visitors may only see a couple or none at all. You certainly develop a respect for how large they are as they fly over your head; it’s really something.
After seeing plenty of the condors and all that Colca Canyon has to offer, we began to make our way back to Arequipa. Along the way we passed the edge of the Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reserve and came across various terrains from plateau wetlands to rocky scrub. Here there were plenty of vicuñas and llamas about grazing, which never grows old. In the end it was a long day of sightseeing but such a great opportunity to see some Peruvian wildlife and dramatic landscapes.
Have you visited Peru’s Colca Canyon? What part of the region would most appeal to you? Please share in the comments below.
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