One Peruvian destination growing in popularity every season is the beautiful historic town of Arequipa, along with a host of superb natural attractions in the surrounding area, none of which are more spectacular than the depth-defying Colca Canyon. Located around 160km northwest of Arequipa, Colca Canyon is a must-visit for all nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts visiting Southern Peru.
The Colca Canyon is the second deepest canyon in the world, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, boasting dizzying heights, gorgeous natural scenery and breath-taking views at every turn. It stretches a vast area of over 100km, is home to numerous charming traditional villages, and features a fantastic network of hiking paths allowing you to experience the full beauty and diversity of the area. Throw in adrenaline-fueled adventure sports, sublime trekking, magnificent wildlife, thermal springs and a fascinating Andean culture, and you have a destination that never ceases to amaze. Here we take a look at the best trek and tour options available when visiting Peru’s Colca Canyon.
Trekking is by far the most popular activity in Colca Canyon and depending on your energy level you can arrange anything from a short stroll to the most impressive viewpoints, to an epic multi-day hiking adventure weaving along green valleys, around volcanic peaks and staying overnight in traditional settlements en route.
Owing to its vast length and depth, the Colca Canyon contains an extraordinary variety of microclimates, habitats and scenery changes. Hike for just a few hours and you’ll encounter everything from barren steppes to ancient terraced farmland and lush valley floors. In fact, the canyon is so deep, that whilst the hills are cool and dry, the bottom is almost tropical in nature, dotted with palm trees, ferns and exotic fruits including avocados, peaches and lucuma. It’s this diversity that makes Colca Canyon such a memorable hiking destination.
The best Colca Canyon treks include the “Basic Colca Trek” that descends down into the canyon to a tranquil spot called The Oasis. This is perfect for day-trippers, taking an hour or two on the way down and 4 to 5 hours on the way back, though be warned that the path is very steep!
For something a little longer, the “Tapay Trail” is a 2 to 4 day trek that winds through diverse landscapes, taking in plenty of impressive viewpoints and passing Inca and pre-Inca ruins and picturesque traditional settlements.
For a real challenge, The “Ampato Trail” is a 4 to 6 day tour around the flanks of a spectacular volcano, encompassing high passes, snow, ice and jaw-dropping scenery. You can arrange a guided tour from Arequipa, hire a private guide in Chivay or Cabanaconde, or choose to go solo for more flexibility.
Notable highlights not to be missed include catching sight of the smoking Sanancaya volcano, which is one of Latin America’s most active. Also keep an eye out for the towering Mismi Nevado, a snow-capped mountain that sits just to the north of Colca and that’s thought to be the official source of the Amazon River.
The canyon is also home to an incredible array of traditional pre-Inca agricultural terraces that line the steep valley sides in picturesque fashion. These elaborate terraces are attributed to the Huari cultural era and are some of the finest examples of their kind in Peru.
The Colca canyon has a long history, being home to several indigenous cultures and numerous remote traditional villages, many of which remain virtually untouched by the outside world. If you’re looking to mingle with the locals, a great way to gain greater insight into the local way of life is through organising a homestay at any number of the villages that dot the hiking routes.
The town of Chivay is a hub of activity for those exploring the canyon and a great place to soak in the vibrant Andean culture. Traditionally dressed women line the streets selling high-quality locally-produced handicrafts, that make great gifts and souvenirs. Spend time browsing the fascinating wares which include carefully-woven garments, often knitted from 100% alpaca fibre, embroidered goods such as hats and purses, along with intricately carved ornaments.
A literal high point of any visit to Colca Canyon is stopping by the Cruz del Condor viewpoint at 3320 metres. This is the best place to appreciate the dizzying depths of the canyon and one of the only places where you can actually see all the way down to the valley from the top. This is also an excellent place to witness majestic Andean Condors (the largest bird in the Americas) circling around the canyon cliffs in search of food.
They can usually be seen throughout the day, but for the best sighting plan to come early (around 7-9 am) when the Condors rise on the morning thermals. Colca Canyon is also home to plenty more fascinating wildlife species, such as large packs of llama and plenty more birdlife including eagles, Andean geese, flamingos and the giant hummingbird which can often be spotted feeding on flowering cacti.
The canyon is home to the Colca River and together with other rivers scattered throughout the wider region, offers some of the most thrilling rafting in the world. December to March is the best season to take to the water. For a taster, sign-up for a half-day tour encompassing 2 hours of exhilarating rafting.
There are also tour operators offering 5-day river expeditions down the Colca for those after a real sense of adventure. You’ll navigate grade 3 to 5 rapids, admire staggering geological formations, sleep on the banks of the river, and experience unspoilt and isolated portions of the canyon few get to see.
After a long day spent trekking or rafting, there’s nothing better than taking a hot swim to soothe those aching muscles and relax the mind. Luckily, Chivay is home to a wonderful set of thermal springs, popular with tourists and locals alike. Entry is only $1.50, so don’t forget to bring your swimming costume and towel for the perfect way to round off an adventure-filled day. There are also some marvellous hot springs in Yawar, though the remote location deep in the canyon means getting there will take a bit of effort!
One of the world’s deepest canyons and realm of the majestic Andean condor, the Colca Canyon is the perfect place for adventure seekers and those in search of peaceful relaxation, amid some of the most stunning scenery Peru has to offer. Quite simply, Colca Canyon is one of those places that has everything … and more!
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