Visit Colca Canyon
Journey from Arequipa to Colca Canyon, One of the Deepest Canyons in the World
Snuggled between towering Andean peaks in southern Peru, Colca Canyon is one of South America’s most amazing natural wonders. While many erroneously assume that the Grand Canyon is the deepest in the Western Hemisphere, the Colca Valley of Southern Peru dwarfs Arizona’ s canyon and is more than twice as deep! The Colca Valley begins above the headwaters of the Colca River at more than 16,000 ft. above sea level and runs southwest towards the Pacific, reaching depths of more than 13,650 feet.
While few are fortunate enough to visit Colca Canyon in their lifetime, we were fortunate enough to make the 3-hour journey from Arequipa to Colca Canyon during our first luxury Peru tour. The journey from Arequipa to Colca Canyon takes about 3.5 hours in a private car, but you can also catch a bus from downtown Arequipa if you would prefer to save money.
If you plan to visit Colca Canyon, my suggestion is to arrange a Colca tour beforehand through a reputable Peru tour operator and stay two to five nights. The option for an Arequipa Colca Canyon one-day tour is available, but we suggest avoiding day tours to Colca Canyon. Considering the significant distance from Arequipa to Colca Canyon, your best bet is to stay for a few nights if you are going to commit to the journey. If you do opt for the one-day Colca tour, you will spend the majority of your day driving to and from Arequipa, and you won’t have time to visit Colca Canyon’s extraordinary sites.
As we learned on our initial Colca Canyon tour, the journey from Arequipa to Colca Canyon is an adventure in itself. Beginning in Arequipa, the notorious “white city,” you head out across moon-like high desert terrain. The towering, snow-capped Misti Volcano rises above, creating a bizarrely beautiful setting similar to southern Bolivia and northern Chile (in the San Pedro de Atacama area).
After leaving behind the Arequipa’s dust-laden streets, the road begins to transform into a series of switchbacks, gradually climbing high into the Andes to a highland plain referred to as the Peruvian altiplano. Beside the highway, which is nice in comparison to many others in Latin America, herds of vicuñas graze on the sparsely vegetated highland terrain. The landscape is dry and barren with scattered rocky outcroppings. This area of Southwest Peru is a part of the high Atacama Desert and receives less than ten inches of rainfall a year.
About halfway through the journey from Arequipa to Colca Canyon, there is a fork in the road with a convenient store at the corner. Many travelers stop here en route to grab a snack and use the bathroom before proceeding with their Colca tour. Many of the locals from the Arequipa area suggest stopping here to get a cup of coca tea before proceeding towards the valley. In order to visit Colca Canyon, travelers must proceed across an extremely high mountain pass, and the locals swear that coca tea is a must in order to avoid the effects of altitude sickness, or soroche as they call it in the Andes.
After splitting off the highway towards Lake Titicaca and proceeding towards the Colca Valley, the road begins to gradually ascend higher and higher into the Andes Mountains, eventually reaching frigid tundra terrain with scattered icy outcroppings on the side of the highway.
At this point, we began to feel the effects of the elevation. Having just arrived that day in Arequipa from Lima (which is situated slightly above sea level) the rapid ascent had left us with a faint headache, although the coca leaves seemed to fend off the effects of the altitude for the most part. As always, I brought an altimeter to keep track of our elevation. As we winded our way uphill in our Volkswagen Van, we could hardly believe our eyes as we watched the altimeter rise to upwards of 15,000 ft.!
Near the entrance to the Colca Valley we crossed a final mountain pass at an incredible 16,200 feet above sea level. What was even more incredible was to see local women from nearby mountain villages had setup roadside stands at this incredible altitude, hoping to sell hand-woven textiles to travelers before they begin their descent into the Colca Valley. Day-in-day-out these local women sell traditional goods beside the road at the top of the mountain, selling their hand-woven textiles at elevations that exceed even the highest of peaks in the continental United States.
Taken back by the fact that these women are able to live at such extreme elevations, we were lured into stopping at one of these roadside stands, and we ended up purchasing our first of many textiles from some of the local women (keep in mind that Andean textiles are much cheaper if you purchase them in the village markets).
As the animal lover in the group, my dad seemed to be more interested in the resident llamas and alpacas than purchasing textiles from the artisans. After losing sight of him for a bit, we spotted him bottle-feeding one of the alpacas across the street (nothing out of the ordinary).
After crossing the mountain pass, we were rewarded with splendid views of the Colca Valley as we descended towards the indigenous villages along the Colca River.
The views were particularly dramatic due to the enormity of the mountains surrounding the Colca Valley. For centuries the indigenous groups in the local area have worshipped these peaks, for their permanent glaciers create perennial streams that provide much-needed water for quinoa, potato, and other highland crops. Centuries before the rise of the Inca Empire, local subsistence agriculturalists in the Colca area had already established sophisticated irrigation systems that pulled water from the mountain peaks and used gravity to strategically distribute it through terraced gardens along the side of the mountains that line the Colca Valley. Even to this day, these ancient terracing techniques remain evident on the landscape. As we bumped our away along dirt roads through the valley, we had spectacular views of pre-Inca terraces that dated back to the 5th century.
While Colca Canyon remained off the tourist’s radar throughout most of the twentieth century, in recent years Colca Canyon has begun to attract adventurous travelers seeking to check “visit the world’s deepest canyon” off their bucket list. Consequently, a variety of Colca Canyon hotels and hostels have emerged in Chivay, Yanqui, and some of the other villages in the Colca Valley. These range from bottom-of-the-line hostels to extraordinary Peru luxury lodges on the banks of the Colca River.
On our Colca tour, we had arranged a stay at Las Casitas del Colca, a former Belmond luxury property and probably the best hotel in Colca Canyon. Upon arrival at the hotel, the immaculate grounds blew us away. The lodge had an authentic, distinctly Peruvian feel, with indigenous-inspired casitas snuggled into the bottom of the canyon between sacred Andean peaks.
We spent two nights at this extraordinary lodge, pampering ourselves with delicious Andean dishes at the restaurant and retiring in the evening to a fresh Pisco Sour in our private hot tub overlooking the Colca River.
While our evenings in the Colca Valley were spent spoiling ourselves at our Andean luxury lodge, during the day we set out to visit Colca Canyon’s most intriguing sites. We witnessed dozens of Andean condors soar through one of the world’s deepest canyons from the famous Mirador de los Condores. We visited quaint colonial churches with an expert guide that explained how the locals have incorporated their ancient animistic beliefs into their form of Catholicism ever since the Spanish arrived. We relaxed in the mineral-rich hot springs in Yanque, which contain minerals that are said to have cathartic healing powers according to local Colca Canyon shamans.
After two extraordinary nights in one of the world’s deepest canyons, we left behind this sacred valley and headed to Lake Titicaca, the epic highland lake that is said to have been the birthplace of the Inca. While Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca were certainly highlights of our family Peru tour, the bizarre journey from Arequipa to Colca Canyon felt like more of authentic, off-the-beaten-path Peruvian experience, and we will never forget our luxury escape to one of the world’s deepest canyons.