Peru’s Colca Canyon is the world’s second deepest canyon, nearly twice as deep as the US’ Grand Canyon. (Bjorn Holland/Getty)
Most first-time visitors to Peru make a beeline for the ruins of Machu Picchu, without realizing that they are passing within a bus ride of the epic Colca Canyon.
Slicing through the High Andes like a giant fissure for more than 100km, Colca is the world’s second deepest canyon, approximately 3,400m at its deepest point — a shade shallower that the nearby Cotahuasi Canyon and nearly twice as deep as the US’ Grand Canyon. More impressive than the statistics are the region’s emblematic attractions, including soaring condors, endless trekking routes and unshakeable Spanish, Inca and Pre-Inca traditions little altered since the conquistadors first arrived in the 1570s.
With a few days to spare and minimal planning, it is easy to shoehorn Colca Canyon into a wider Peruvian trip. The area is best accessed via Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, where you can hire a car or hop onto one of many public buses that run daily to various villages in Colca. Alternatively, three-day Colca excursions can be arranged at several city centre travel agencies.
The spectacular 154km drive from Arequipa to Chivay, the main village of Colca Canyon, makes a half circle around the city’s two sentinel volcanoes, El Misti (5,822m) and Chachani (6,075m), before traversing the high plains of the vast, barren Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reserve.
After tasting the rarefied air of the Patopampa Pass (4,910m), you drop sharply into Chivay (3,630m), the Colca’s unashamedly dishevelled nexus that blends tourist facilities with centuries-old tradition. Here you will get your first glimpse of Colca’s manmade terraced fields stacked up like gigantic staircases on the steep canyon slopes. Many of the terraces date back to Inca times and most are still tended to by local farmers who grow crops such as potatoes, barley, beans and quinoa.
The Calera hot springs are an acclimatizing 3km walk up the valley to a scenic spot by the Colca River. Once there, recline in a simple alfresco pool as screaming zip-liners slide terrified across the canyon overhead. The zip-line stretches for 600mbetween the canyon walls simulating the flight path of an Andean Condor. Rides can be booked through one of Chivay’s travel agencies or direct with Colca Zip-lining.
A variety of hotels huddle around Chivay’s main plaza, including the budget Hostal La Pascana and the more expensive, pseudo-rustic Casa Andina, which has its own tiny astronomical observatory with nightly star-spotting shows.
Grab an early breakfast in Chivay before heading 7km west to the village of Yanque, where couples in traditional dress dance the watiti (a love dance of the native Quechua people who live in the Peruvian Andes) every morning in the main square in front of the grandiose BaroqueInmaculada Concepción church. Next stop is the Cruz del Cóndor cliff top lookout, 35km west of Yanque, where huge Andean condors glide majestically above the steep canyon walls using the thermal uplifts that rise from Colca’s shadowy depths. The viewpoint is invariably packed with camera-clicking tourists between 8 am and 10 am when the condors are most active, but, like India’s Taj Mahal, this is an essential pilgrimage and worth every clumsily swung backpack. From the Cruz del Cóndor it is 12km to Cabanaconde, a smaller, salt-of-the-earth version of Chivay that gets only one fifth of the tourist traffic.
Cabanaconde sits on the canyon’s rim and, after a fortifying lunch, it is possible to descend, via a precipitous zigzagging path, to an oasis of fruit trees aside the narrow Colca River 4km and 1,200 vertical metres below. The hike is tough due to the steep terrain and thin air, but the scenic rewards are worth it. The canyon floor supports a handful of idyllic rustic retreats — known collectively as Sangalle — reachable only by foot or mule. Food, natural swimming pools and very basic accommodation is available should you be too enthralled (or tired) to tackle the steep climb back up the same day.