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 meters (13,640'), 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 enroute or in the valley itself 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 3-1/2 hours via public bus, across the high Andean plateau, reaching a high point of 4800 meters (15,800')--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 meters (20,600').
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, archeological, 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, quinua, 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.
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 world after the 1981 "Canoandes'79" rafting expedition, in which a group of Polish kayakers & adventurers made the first successful descent of the canyon, and first publicized the possibility of its being the deepest in the world. In Dec.1981 they published whitewater guide book "In Kayak Through Peru", first of this kind book in entire Latin America. Then in 1988 in Poland was published book "The Conquest of Rio Colca" first in Polish. In 2000 this book was published in English in Arequipa Peru. 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 1980's, and a 1991 article in National Geographic magazine all combined to kick off a tourism boom that began in the early 1990's, and hasn't stopped growing yet.
Flora and fauna
The climate is generally cool and dry. The Andean Summer 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.
From Arequipa: Buy a bus ticket at the bus station (terrestre) to Cabanaconde for 17 sol (price 01/2016). Bus takes about 5 to 7 hours. There is a stop halfway in Chivay (might be cheaper) where you can also get off. Of course you can always ask the bus driver to stop anywhere you want apart from these two towns. Buses go multiple times a day, the earliest at 01.00 AM, then 03.00 AM and after that at 11.00 AM and the latest at 2PM. Take note that this bus will arrive after dark, and travelling the mountains by night is not recommended. Time schedules might change so make sure you check in advance (for example when you arrive in Arequipa). Most bus companies that offer buses to Colca Canyon are situated in the middle of the bus station, on the right of puerta 2.
Visitors are legally required to purchase the Boleto Turistico (Tourist Ticket) for 70 soles (USD 28) as of Dec. 2013, 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, development of community-based tourism, and a guide recently told us a small amount is used to supply carrion to bring out the condors at Cruz del Condor.
Autocolca representatives are stationed at Chivay, the Cruz del Condor, and entrances to the Colca Canyon from Cabanaconde to check tickets.
Malata Museo is a small yet interesting insight into village life in the Canyon. 1 sol or so. Worth the 15 minute presentation by the keen Vanessa, in English, Spanish or Quechua.
Colca Canyon Tour
The Colca Valley is an area of astounding scenic beauty, with giant Andean terraces and a deep canyon that reach a depth of 3140 metres. A journey to the Colca valley will take you throughout high Andean plateau, reaching at one point a high pass of 4800 metres, which offers fine views of the Volcanoes. Along the way visitors can enjoy unique natural sceneries, as well as animal life; such as herds of Vicuñas (a wild relative of Llamas and Alpacas) and various types of birds, of which stand out the giant hummingbird, eagles, gooses and the mighty Andean Condor. If you like adventure tours, the Canyon also offers wonderful treks down to its bottom, descending throughout huge mountains, exploring oasis-like valleys, thermal springs, and camping outdoors.
The tours run from Arequipa cost about 140 soles for 2 nights, or around 70 soles 2 days 1 night(feb 2014), not including the entrance fee (70 soles) and have a restricted route. We did three nights on our own, staying in various hospedajes in the canyon and in Cabanaconde (the gateway town for the canyon). The complete cost was 175 soles, but we ate well and drank beer. This is much more fun for the adventure traveller than going on a tour, (as they are mostly lame). Suggested itinerary: get bus to Cabanaconde from Arequipa (5 hours, 16 soles). Stay the night in Cabanaconde. Next morning take the 6.30am truck to Cruz Del Condor (4 soles), watch Condors. Get the 9.30am bus back to Cabanaconde (1-2 soles). Next, walk down the canyon to San Galle and eat lunch and swim in one of the 5 pools there. At 4pm or so walk up to either Malata or Cosñirhua and stay and eat at the Museo or Marizio´s respectivly. Next morning walk to Llahuar and stay there and sit in the hot springs. Next morning get out at 6am and walk to Cabanconde to take the 11.15am bus back to Arequipa (or walk to Solo and take the 6am truck and then the 9am bus from Cabanaconde to Arequipa). All too easy, no guide required. The only bit you might get lost on is finding the right path to Llahuar from the thatch rest area (its straight down), and the last day route to Cabanaconde after the bridge (its a small path near a big rock - ask!).
If you're into hiking and have the time checking out the Catarata de Fure and hiking through the side canyon which it forms is worth the extra miles. Fure is a small little settlement in a more isolated but beautiful part of the canyon. Fure has two hospedajes, the Hospedaje La Cascada De Huaruro and Fure Wasi, offering beds and camping spots. Ask for specific directions as not all trails leading to Fure are easily navigable.
Food is more expensive than in town. You will have to budget around 12 soles per meal in the canyon and around 7 soles at the rim such as in Cabanaconde or Chivay.
good drinks by the lomo dam sation
In the Colca Canyon here is an abundance of cheap hospedajes in Chivay and Cabanaconde as well as at the bottom of the canyon, such as in San Galle, Malata, Cosñirhua or in San Juan de Cuccho. Price range around 8 soles per night and person. Bring enough cash from Arequipa or Chivay. No ATM in Cabanaconde or canyon pueblos.
Free camping is possible next to the hot springs just outside of chivay, camping near the church is common place. Within the canyon most hostels will allow you to pitch your tent on their grounds for a couple of dollars per night. Free camping is also possible within the canyon but you sacrifice the comraderie and facilities offered by the hostels for only a few pesos.