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South America > Peru > Southern Sierra (Peru) > Colca Canyon

Colca Canyon

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Colca Canyon is in Peru's Southern Sierra region, near Arequipa.

Understand[edit]

Landscape

The Colca Canyon in southern Peru's Arequipa region is an area of astounding scenic beauty, and one of Peru's top tourist destinations. It is best known as one of the world's deepest canyons, reaching a depth of 4,160 m (13,640 ft), whose depth can most easily be appreciated from the Cruz del Condor, a viewpoint where Andean Condors can be seen most days throughout the year. It also offers a vibrant indigenous culture, high-quality handicrafts, and a range of activities from adventure sports to mystical tourism and tourist home-stays. The valley also features an incredible amount of Inca and pre-Inca agricultural terraces and the irrigation systems necessary to operate them.

Chivay is the hub of the valley, 160 km from the regional capital, Arequipa, and most visitors will want to take advantage of the La Calera hot springs 3 km outside of town. Between Arequipa and Chivay, visitors will enjoy passing through a range of unique ecological zones, from desert to altiplano to dry tundra. Animals spotted en route or in the valley include herds of vicuñas (a wild relative of llamas and alpacas) and a variety of birds, of particular interest the giant hummingbird, eagles, Andean geese, flamingos (September through March), and of course the mighty Andean Condor, which can usually be spotted at Cruz del Condor.

A journey to the Colca Valley usually takes about 3½ hours via public bus, across the high Andean plateau, reaching a high point of 4800 meters (15,800 ft) — so take care with altitude and cold — at the "Mirador de los Volcanes," which offers fine views of several volcanoes that soar to more than 6,000 m (20,600 ft).

Tourists generally arrive in Chivay, a nice and very friendly town at the beginning of the canyon, with plenty of hotels and hostels, and restaurants--as well as La Calera hot springs. Chivay is a good place to look for high-quality, locally-produced crafts, in particular goods hand-knitted from 100% alpaca fiber, and elaborately embroidered goods produced by hand on sewing machines (hats, coin purses, belts, etc.) Such crafts are also available in some of the miradors (scenic overlooks) along the highway, and in surrounding towns, but do not be confused by cheaper, industrially-produced knock-offs.

Other towns in the valley offer a range of cultural, adventure sports, archaeological, and other activities. Between Callalli, at the high end of the Colca valley, and Tapay, in the depths of the Colca canyon, you'll find a range of accommodations and activities, as well as microclimates that vary with altitude. In the cold, dry, highlands, livestock production predominates, focused on alpaca and llamas; in the middle zone, agriculture is more important, featuring products such as corn, quinoa, barley, beans, and a variety of potatoes, as well as dairy production; in the canyon, due to the warmer climate, fruit production is possible, including avocados, lucuma, peaches, and apples.

History[edit]

The Colca valley was first populated by hunters and gatherers, probably about 6,000 years ago. Cave art at Mollepunku, near Callalli, is thought to represent the domestication of the alpaca at about that time. There is little evidence of continual habitation until two cultures arrived at about the same time, about a thousand years ago: the Cabanas, Quechua-speaking descendants of the Wari culture, and the Collaguas, Aymara-speakers from the Puno/Lake Titicaca region. They constructed vast expanses of agricultural terraces in the valley, creating irrigation systems to water their crops.

The region takes its name from the qolqas (colcas) that are found throughout the valley, mud and stone granaries built into cliffs or caves where the dry, cool climate makes for an ideal "refrigerated" storage for crops or seeds. (These can be seen at various places throughout the valley, but most easily at the "Puente Sifon" in Yanque.)

In the late 14th century, the Inca arrived, taking the Colca valley into their empire through intermarriage. They helped to perfect the construction of irrigation channels and terraces, and their influence is visible, too, in the stonework of some of the archeological sites.

With the Spanish conquest in the 16th century came the "Toledan reductions," in which the local governor demanded that the population be concentrated in a few major towns throughout the valley, instead of dispersed in their small settlements. This was the origin of most of the towns that are found today. The churches in each town were mostly built between the 16th and 19th centuries.

The Colca first became known to the outside world after the 1981 Canoandes rafting expedition, in which a group of Polish adventurers made the first successful descent of the canyon, and first publicized the possibility of its being the deepest in the world. The construction of Project Majes, a 100-km canal that takes water from the Colca river to irrigate the Majes region, brought hundreds of workers to the area in the 1980s, and a 1991 article in National Geographic magazine all combined to kick off a tourism boom that began in the early 1990s, and hasn't stopped growing yet.

Landscape[edit]

Volcanic.

Flora and fauna[edit]

Alpacas

The canyon is home to the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), a species that has been the focus of worldwide conservation efforts. The condors can be seen at close range as they fly past the canyon walls, and are a popular attraction. The Andean Condor typically lives about 60-70 years, and has a wingspan of 2.1-2.7 m (7-9) feet. It is commonly referred to as the "Eternity Bird," as the bird is a symbol of long life and eternity. 'Cruz del Condor' is a popular tourist stop to view the condors. At this point the canyon floor is 3,960 feet (1,200 m) below the rim of the canyon.

Other notable bird species present in the Colca include the giant hummingbird, the largest member of the hummingbird family, as well as the Andean goose, Chilean flamingo, and mountain caracara. Animals include vizcacha, a rabbit-sized relative of the chinchilla, zorrino, deer, fox, and vicuña, the wild ancestor of the alpaca.

Climate[edit]

The climate is generally cool and dry. The Andean Summer (November through March) is reliably dry, with sunny days and clear, cold nights. Be prepared for temperatures below freezing, particularly in June, July, and August. The rainy season begins, usually, in December, and lasts through April, with February being the wettest month. Temperatures remain cool, with rain or rain showers most days. The valley is at its most beautiful in April and May, when the fields are green and the mountains snow-capped.

Get in[edit]

By bus[edit]

From Arequipa: Buses to Chivay frequently depart from the Terminal Terrestre in Arequipa (3.5 hr, S/15 - 2019). The journey traverses several high passes before arriving in the valley. The road is paved but it is possible to encounter snow or sleet at higher elevations.

It is also possible to book a bus all the way from Arequipa to Cabanaconde (6 hr, S/18 - 2019) but most buses have a 30 min stop in Chivay.

From Cusco: There is at least one company providing private buses to and from Cusco. However, departures are limited to certain days and tickets are much more expensive than public buses.

Fees and permits[edit]

Visitors are required to purchase the Boleto Turistico (Tourist Ticket) for S/70, administered by Autocolca, the regional tourism authority. The Boleto Turistico provides access to the tourist circuit of the Colca, which includes the entire region, both below Chivay (Cruz del Condor, Colca canyon) and above it (Tuti, Sibay, Callalli). The money collected goes for tourism promotion and infrastructure, and development of community-based tourism.

Get around[edit]

Map of Colca Canyon

The individual towns and villages in the valley are small enough to explore on foot. Larger centers such as Chivay and Cabanaconde also have taxis and trucks for hire.

Public buses departing approximately every 1.5 hours service the length of the canyon from Chivay to Cabanaconde, stopping at the major towns along the way (2-2.5 hr, S/5 - 2019). Collectivos may offer more frequent departures to less popular destinations.

See[edit]

  • 1 Cruz Del Condor. The most popular spot for viewing condors. The best time for condor sighting is in the morning, between 7-9AM. If you arrive at 7AM you have about an hour of solitude before the package tours arrive around 8AM. The viewpoint also provides good views down to the canyon floor, 1,200 m (3,900 ft) below. During the day, there are a number of locals selling drinks, snacks, and souvenirs. Don't forget your Tourist Ticket as they are checked at this location.
  • Malata Museo (apparently closed, as of April 2014) is a small yet interesting insight into village life in the Canyon. S/1 or so. Worth the 15 minute presentation by the keen Vanessa, in English, Spanish or Quechua.
  • Yanque Museo: Located by Yanque`s plaza de armas, this small museum run by the Catholic university of Santa Maria, offers an interesting insight to the valley's historical and cultural heritage. Entrance: S/5 (students S/2.5).

Do[edit]

Admiring the views
  • Colca Canyon Tour: the Colca Valley is an area of astounding scenic beauty, with giant Andean terraces and a deep canyon that reaches a depth of 3,140 m (10,300 ft). A journey to the Colca Valley will take you through high Andean plateau, crossing a 4,800 m (15,700 ft) pass which offers fine views of the volcanoes. Along the way, visitors can enjoy unique natural scenery, as well as animal life; such as herds of vicuñas (a wild relative of llamas and alpacas) and various types of birds, including the giant hummingbird, eagles, geese, and the mighty Andean condor. If you like adventure tours, the canyon also offers wonderful treks down to its button, descending throughout huge mountains, exploring oasis-like valleys, thermal springs, and camping outdoors. A basic two day, one night tour from Arequipa costs S/100-140 (2019) and includes transport, several meals, and overnight accommodation at the bottom of the canyon (generally not included is lunch on the second day or the entrance fee). Tours depart around 3AM and return in the evening on the final day.
  • Cycle Cruz Del Condor. After visiting Cycle Cruz Del Condor, ride back to Cabanaconde. This allows you to stop at several more viewpoints that are much less crowded. The road is paved and mostly downhill with the exception of a single large hill. Bicycles, with disk breaks and front suspension, can be rented from the Pachamama hostel in Cabanaconde. The price includes transport via truck to Cruz Del Condor at 6:30AM. S/60.
  • 1 La Calera Thermals. Hot springs with several pools of varying size and temperature. Lockers are provided and refreshments are available for purchase. Collectivos (S/1) depart when full from the main square in Chivay. S/15 adult.

Independent trekking[edit]

Independent trekking itinerary

Although it will likely cost more than a package tour, an independent trek can allow you to escape the crowds and have a more relaxed pace.

Suggested itinerary: get bus to 1 Cabanaconde from Arequipa (5 hours, S/17). Stay the night in Cabanaconde. Next morning take the 06:30 truck to Cruz Del Condor (S/4), watch condors. Get the 09:30 bus back to Cabanaconde (S/1-2). Next, walk down the canyon to the 2 Oasis de Sangalle and eat lunch and swim in one of the 5 pools there. At 16:00 or so walk up to either 3 Malata or 4 Cosñirhua and stay and eat at the Museo or Marizio's respectively. Next morning walk to 5 Llahuar and stay there and sit in the hot springs. Next morning get out at 06:00 and walk to Cabanconde to take the 11:15 bus back to Arequipa (or walk to Solo and take the 06:00 truck and then the 09:00 bus from Cabanaconde to Arequipa). No guide required. The only bit you might get lost on is finding the right path to Llahuar from the thatch rest area (it's straight down), and the last day route to Cabanaconde after the bridge (it's a small path near a big rock - ask!).

Buy[edit]

Eat[edit]

Food is more expensive in the canyon bottom than the major towns. You will have to budget around S/20 per meal in the canyon and around S/12 at the rim such as in Cabanaconde or Chivay.

In Oasis de Sangalle a high sulfur content makes tap water unsuitable for drinking, even with purification tablets for a UV filter. A 2.5L bottle of water costs S/12.

Drink[edit]

good drinks by the lomo dam sation

Sleep[edit]

Lodging

In the Colca Canyon there is an abundance of cheap hospedajes in Chivay, Cabanaconde and at the bottom of the canyon, such as in San Galle, Malata, Cosñirhua or in San Juan de Cuccho. Price range around S/8 per night and person.

  • One of the more luxurious accommodation options is Las Casitas del Colca, an all inclusive luxury hotel by the Orient-Express group. Deep in the heart of the Colca Canyon, the hotel boasts twenty individual casitas featuring private heated plunge pools and private terraces with fantastic views of the canyon. Facilities include a luxurious spa, fine dining restaurant, cocktail bar, swimming pool, a vegetable garden which supplies the restaurant kitchen and a small farm home to horses, cows, llamas and baby Alpacas. The hotel can also arrange a variety of activities for guests on or off site, including horse riding, cookery courses, trout fishing, treks, star gazing, local volunteer work and trips to see the famous Andean Condors, all of which are included in the stay price.
  • Refugio del Colca. Located on the road to Yanque and is five minutes from Chivay, capital of the province of Caylloma. To get there, take a car from Chivay to El Refugio. You can take the cars to go to Yanque and stay in el Refugio. is the perfect hideaway for your holidays in the Colca Valley, located along the Colca River in a historical and cultural setting; the perfect combination of nature, culture and comfort.
  • The Colca Lodge is a great place to stay in the Colca Canyon area. The lodge sits near the bottom of the canyon near the Uyo Uyo ruins. You can walk to the ruins from the hotel. They also have their own thermal baths with a small bar nearby so you can sit in the hot springs and order a drink while watching the river flow by. The lodge itself is nicely done with thatched roofs and beautiful grounds. The location is very peaceful and the food is magnificent.
  • Tradicion Colca Lodge, On the Chivay-Cabanaconde road - Yanque village - Prov. Caylloma - Arequipa, +51 54424926, e-mail: . Charming French-run hotel specialized in adventures and horseback rides in the valley villages and in the Canyon as well. The three star hotel has sauna, jacuzzi and massages. A complete spa center. Includes an equitation center and a small astronomic observatory with a 54mm telescope. Tasty food. US$57 double..
  • Julia Ocsa Family House, Canocota, +51 958711159. Julia Ocsa house is a family run host includying activities with locals.

Cabanaconde[edit]

  • 1 Pachamama hostel, Calle San Pedro, Cabanaconde (two blocks away from Plaza De Armas direction Chivay), +51-054-767277. Run by a Peruvian with great English, that has years of experience as a tour guide in the canyon. Rooms are basic and cheap, but the restaurant at night is a lively place with a great fire-oven pizza and a rich alcohol bar. The website includes some possible itineraries in the canyon, more tips available when you will ask. S/60 for double w/ shared bath, S/80 private bath.

Inside the canyon[edit]

  • 2 Llanhuar Lodge. A great place to stay is in the canyon at a place called Llahuar lodge. They have hot springs right next to the river, you can jump in to cool of and climb back into the hot pool. Come around 3PM to still enjoy the sun and a great view. In the evening they serve vegetarian menu for S/10. The best trip is a 4 day hike from Cabanaconde to Llanhuar Lodge then to the remote an sweet village of Fure to visit the waterfall then back via the Sangalle area (Oasis). S/40 for double with shared bathroom, S/20 for a basic dorm bed.
  • 3 Paraiso Lodge, Oasis de Sangalle. Nice lodge in Oasis de Sangalle with a pool, volleyball field and hammocks. Small restaurant on site, with set menu for dinner for S/15. S/30 for double with shared bathroom.

Stay safe[edit]

Some of the trails descending into the canyon are steep with sections exposed to falls. When hiking, ensure you carry enough water as the trails can be very hot in the afternoon and strenuous given the altitude.

If you injure yourself or don't feel up to hiking out of the canyon, mules departing at 6AM and 3PM can be hired for S/60 (2019) from Oasis de Sangalle. A bus also runs along the north side of the canyon from Malata to Cabanconde.

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