The most famous canyon on earth is undoubtedly Arizona’s Grand Canyon, but it’s by no means the biggest. In fact the world’s two deepest canyons are both a long way from the US. If you travel all the way down through Mexico and Central America, cross the Panama Canal and head the Pacific Coast to Peru, you’ll find the stunning Colca Canyon, and its near neighbour, Cotahuasi. The Grand Canyon doesn’t look quite so grand compared to these two behemoths – both are twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, although surveys have differed over which of the two is the world’s deepest.
One of the major problems with visiting Cotahuasi is that it’s hugely inaccessible. There are almost no roads going anywhere near it, let alone into it and it’s very, very sparsely populated, meaning that you need to carry all your supplies in with you. However, the infrastructure in Colca Canyon, which is much nearer the regional capital of Arequipa, is much more developed and so although it’s definitely still an adventure, many people manage to fit in a visit to Colca as part of their Peru holidays.
Generally speaking, people take a two-day trip into Colca Canyon from Arequipa. The road journey takes you through the Salinas-Aguada Blanca National Park, where you can observe alpacas and llamas, along with their reclusive relatives, vicuñas. The smallest of South America’s camelids, vicuñas look like Bambi crossed with a llama, and this area is probably the best in South America for seeing them in the wild. Sadly for nature-lovers everywhere, vicuña wool is prized by connoisseurs for giving the warmth of wool but with the fineness of silk, and it’s incredibly valuable. So much so, that a vicuña-wool shirt will cost you more than $10,000. However, here in the Salinas-Aguada Blanca Reserve, they are protected and thriving.
The drive into Colca Canyon takes most of a day and so it’s not really feasible to do as a day trip. Most visitors stay overnight in the town of Chivay, which is more or less in the middle of the Canyon. Before you get to Chivay, however, you will pass through some smaller villages where time seems to have stood still since the colonial era – the houses are also still built traditionally with stone walls and thatched roofs, and you can still see the locals wearing their traditional dress. Each of the villages also has a fine church, and these are among Peru’s best examples of the mixed Spanish and indigenous architecture known as the mestizo style.
Between the villages, you will be treated to the jaw-dropping views which are the real attraction of the journey. The vast scale of Colca Canyon can be hard to get a handle on at first, but the thousand-year-old terraces which line the sheer sides of the canyon help to give some sense of proportion, as does the odd pin-prick of an alpaca in the distance! As well as stopping at the villages along the way, most tours will also stop at special mirador viewing-points so that you can be sure of getting some fabulous photos as well.
After an overnight stay in Chivay, you can get up at dawn and drive to the best mirador of all, which is called the Cruz del Condor, or Condor Cross. Here you will have some breathtaking views down into one of Colca’s deepest sections, and you will also be directly opposite the nests of Colca’s resident giant Andean Condors. On a good day you can see several condors launch themselves from the nests and swoop down into the Canyon to catch the morning thermals, before spiralling higher as they head out for the day’s hunting – the journey can take them right down to the Chilean coast, hundreds of miles away. Even if you’re not a birder, this is undoubtedly one of the highlights of many people’s Peru holidays.
And if you can spare just a little more time in Colca, then you can stay at one of the many lodges in the Canyon, and give over a couple of days to trekking in Colca Canyon. Even if you only allow one extra day you could manage a trek down on to the Canyon floor, where the views back up the sheer sides are especially impressive. And if you’re feeling super-fit and ready for a challenge then you could even try climbing the massive El Misti volcano for a real bird’s eye view of the area…
If you’d like to incorporate a visit to Colca Canyon into your Peru holidays then http://www.realworldholidays.co.uk/ is a UK-based tour operator which specialises in tailor-made travel in Peru. They can arrange everything from group tours to individual services with private guides and transport so that you can enjoy Colca at your own pace. The only thing they can’t guarantee is the condors – never work with children or animals…