Pura's 10 minute guide to the Colca Canyon
The Colca valley is in southern Peru about 160km northwest of the city of Arequipa and is at an altitude of around 3,600 metres. The main reason most people visit the area is for the Colca Canyon - one of the world’s deepest canyons. Formed by a huge seismic fault between the volcanoes of Coropuna and Ampato, it has a depth of 4,160m – about twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US.
The first major settlers in the valley were the pre-Inca communities of the ‘Collaguas’ – Aymara speakers form the Titicaca and Puno regions and the ‘Quechua’ - speaking ‘Cabanas’. These two communities carved out the agricultural terraces on the hillsides around the valley. These terraces are still used today to farm the staple crops of the region and are some of the finest examples of pre-Inca agricultural terracing in Peru.
The valley is lush and green and dotted with traditional Andean villages. AS this is also one of the best places in the world to see Andean condors, it is a perfect place to relax and kick back especially if you arrive here after trekking in and around Cusco.
Looking out over the Colca Canyon
Colca has more in common with the climate in the Andes. The dry season runs from April to November during which time temperatures usually fall to below zero at night and reach 15°c - 20°c during the daytime.
The rainy season runs from December to March and temperatures are more moderate, varying between 5°c and 15°c. The wet season is when there can be sudden heavy downpours (usually in the afternoon). During this season the natural hot springs can be closed if the river levels are too high. Also, there are less chances to see the condors if it is wet. However, it does not rain all day long and you can still enjoy most activities.
Base yourself around Chivay
Whilst it is possible to visit the canyon on day trip from Arequipa, we always recommend to stay here for a few nights as it really is a beautiful area.
The main town, at least for visitors, is Chivay at the start of the canyon. It is a small town set around the central square where you will find an ATM as well as a few small shops and a market.
We use a lodge about 3km outside of the town, located alongside the river and with its own natural hot springs. Here you can immerse yourself in the beautiful peaceful surroundings of the valley and do as much or as little as you choose.
The welcoming Colca Lodge
Cruz del Condor
‘La Cruz del Cóndor’ is a view point along the canyon where about 40 condors nest in the rocks below. Each morning as the air warms up the condors leave the nest. First they swoop down low in the canyon below. They then get higher and will eventually circle above you – sometimes incredibly close. It is an amazing sight to see these wonderful creatures so close.
A condor swooping over the Colca Canyon
After about 10 minutes they fly off for the day returning at dusk. Obviously, there is no set time that the condors decide to leave the nest but it is usually between 8 and 9 am. If it is foggy or wet they may not even leave the nest.
This viewpoint is very much on the tourist trail and most people do it either as day trip from Arequipa or as a stopping off point on the journey from Arequipa to Puno. You can easily find yourself in a convoy of buses and vans. However, if you do this as a morning excursion from your hotel (not a stopping off point) you will have a lot more flexibility and your guide should be able to avoid the convoy. Consider a private guide.
You will typically be collected from your hotel at about 6:30am and it is about a one-hour drive to the viewpoint. There is only one small dirt road along the valley and this is where you can find yourself in a convoy. The locals also know that if they wear their traditional dress and take their llamas for a walk at around this time then they can make some money by posing for photos. A bus load of people all wanting photos can take time and it can become tedious – especially so if you are not interested in a staged photo. If you have a private guide, then you can just drive on ahead of this.
Condors rising up from the Colca Canyon on the morning thermals
Once at the viewpoint there is no avoiding the crowds but zone it out. Find a spot to sit along the edge of the canyon and wait. The people who do this en route to Puno are on a tight schedule and can only wait so long. Sometimes they do not see the condors at all as they have to move on. However as part of a half- day excursion you can wait as long as you need to. Sometimes it can be an hour or more but it is worth it.
Once the condors have flown off everyone returns to their buses and vans and the return convoy back to the main highway begins. It is much better to hang back, take a walk along the side of the canyon and enjoy the scenery. You can then return to your hotel a little later on and enjoy a relaxed afternoon in the hot springs.
Hiking the canyon
There are lots of hiking opportunities in and around the canyon. You will need a guide. You can choose from gentle half-day walks along the ancient terraces or full day hikes in more remote parts of the canyon. One of the most popular shorter walks is to the Uyo Uyo ruins – an ancient pre-Inca settlement. It is an easy walk along the terraces with great views of the canyon. Have lunch at the ruins and then return – it is about 3 hours in total.
Enjoying the natural scene as a reward after achieving Colca Canyon's summits
It is possible to hike down to the bottom of the canyon but this needs to be an overnight trip as it takes a full day to the bottom, then camp at the bottom and back up the next day. It is a strenuous and demanding walk and remember you are at altitude.
Riding a mountain bike
This is a great area to explore by bike and there are many routes to choose from – ask your hotel. Routes vary from a relaxed ride to nearby villages to more challenging circuits taking 5 – 6 hours.
Note on horse riding: this is offered in the area, though we have received reports that some providers may not meet acceptable standards in caring for their animals, or in safety provision for their clients. As we have not yet had a chance to verify these reports, we currently advise against horse riding in Colca. In the event you do decide to ride, please make sure you wear a helmet; if you are not offered one, please ask.