Peru’s Colca Canyon is not only the second-deepest canyon in the world, but also one of the best locations in South America for close-range viewings of the endangered Andean Condors. The canyon is easily accessed from the colonial ‘White City’ of Arequipa.
Admire Andean condors in flight while venturing into Peru’s deepest canyon
Colca Canyon is a whopping 13,650 ft (4160 m) deep and proudly bears the title of being the second-deepest canyon in the world. Its stunning scenery and the opportunity to spot the Andean condor soaring in the blue skies above adds to the charm of this unique destination.
Most visitors set off on a Colca Canyon tour from Arequipa, a beautiful colonial city with several rustic Spanish buildings and churches built from a white volcanic material called sillar that’s exclusive to the area. Arequipa is appropriately called La Ciudad Blanca, or the White City, and was declared a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO.
While traveling to Colca Canyon from Arequipa you pass highland landscapes and the Aguada Blanca National Vicuña Reserve, where you can spot herds of the elegant vicuñas by the side of the road. Also, keep your eyes peeled for viscachas – native rodents that look much like rabbits- as the road traverses a staggering 15,830ft (4825m) at the Pata Pampa Pass and the Mirador de los Volcanes en-route to Colca Canyon.
Chivay is the main village and the linking point between the two sides of Colca Canyon, and is where most tours start in earnest. It is also home to a lively market and shops selling high-quality local handicrafts, and best of all, just a short walk out of town are the hot springs of La Calera – perfect for a relaxing soak after a day of exploring.
Unlike many canyons, Colca is fertile and inhabited, with extensive pre-Columbian terraces and unspoiled, traditional Andean villages. The Collagua and Cabana peoples who lived here for at least 2000 years, from 800BC onward, built an ingenious terracing system on the valley walls that collects snowmelt from the nearby volcanoes. To one side, the smoking Sabancaya Volcano looms at 19,606ft (5976m), one of the most active volcanoes in the Americas, but don’t worry, the most you will see of an eruption is a billowing ash cloud. While alongside is the more docile, but higher Ampato Volcano at a colossal 20,630ft (6288m), and where the famous ‘Ice Mummy’ was discovered.
The River Colca begins high in the Andes and descends from 11,483ft (3500m) above sea level at Chivay, the first settlement on the edge of Colca Canyon, to reach 7218ft (2200m) at Cabanaconde, the small, last village in the canyon.
Descending to the deepest part of the canyon, you reach the Mirador Cruz del Condor, the best location to spot the legendary condor. The Andean condor is a national symbol not only of Peru, but of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador, and plays an important role in the folklore and mythology of the Andean regions. Considered the animal of the spirit world according to Incan cosmology, it is easy to understand why when you see the majestic creatures swooping through the air. The population is unfortunately dwindling due to loss of habitat in parts of South America, but in Colca Canyon, visitors have the advantage of being able to see the birds at fairly close range as they fly past the cliff-edges.
A relative of the vulture, the bird is not pretty close-up, but with wingspans of up to 10.5ft (3.2 m), the sight of condors soaring gracefully on the thermal drifts created in the canyon is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For more chances of seeing the condors, come in the dry season between May and December; however, in the rainy season the valley is lush and green, with many flowers.
Many people choose to experience Colca Canyon on a two-day trek. Be prepared, this is for those who love trekking, as the way down – and the way up again – is long and steep. However, less enthusiastic trekkers can always opt for a mule ride.
Whichever way you choose to experience Colca Canyon, here you will see some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, and maybe, just maybe, a soaring condor.
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Peru Tourism Bureau:
‘Frozen Inca Mummy Goes On Display’ (National Geographic):