National Reserve Salinas and Aguada Blanca
The road from Arequipa to the Colca Canyon travels through the Reserve Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca (RNSAB). It is one of the region’s underrated, yet spectacular destinations, providing vistas of volcanoes, lagoons, wetlands, and unique flora and fauna that thrive in the extreme high altitude environment. Browse our comprehensive guide below for essential facts and travel tips to help you plan a trip from Arequipa and the Colca Canyon.
Choose Your Arequipa Tour
Standing like guards at the entrance to RNSAB, the volcanoes Misti and Chachani flank the main road between Arequipa and Colca. The twin volcanic peaks are preludes to the wonders that await further into the reserve. Adventurous, altitude-ready travelers can climb either one of these and a few others in the vicinity. Venerated as apus (mountain spirits) by pre-Inca and Inca cultures as well as by some Peruvians today, the peaks are also sites of ancient burials.
- Misti, 5821 m — Known for its seasonally snow-capped, perfectly symmetrical cone. Six Inca mummies were found in the crater and are now stored at the Museo Santuarios Andinos in Arequipa.
- Chachani, 6075 m — Highest mountain near Arequipa.
Other climbable volcanoes near the reserve:
- Ubinas, 5672 m — Most active volcano in Peru, sent up small explosions and ash plumes as recently as 2015. Located on southeastern border of RNSAB
- Coropuna, 6,425 m — Largest and highest volcano in Peru, considered to be the site of an important pre-Columbian temple. Archaeologists have found an Inca trail going up to 5,500 m, where it disappears under glacial ice.
- Solimana – 6,093 m. Also spelled Sulimana, one of the highest peaks near Coropuna. Can be visited en route to Cotahuasi.
- Ampato, 6,288 m — Snow-capped peak was where the famous Ice Maiden mummy was discovered in 1995.
Northern Access To RNSAB
The typical route from Arequipa to Colca transits through the northern edge of the reserve. There is a checkpoint at Cañahuas.
Sumbay Cave Paintings
On the back side of Misti Volcano, 88 km from Arequipa at 4,100 meters above sea level, these cave paintings are estimated to be between 6,000 and 8,000 years old. There are approximately 500 animal figures, including camelids, felines, and Ñandúes, as well as human figures holding weapons or appearing to dance. Archaeologists have also found pre-ceramic artifacts in the vicinity. The caves are part of the Sumbay rock forest which has been formed from the erosion of volcanic material. Members of the adjacent Sumbay community are in charge of guiding tourists to the caves.
Tambo de Cañahuas, 75 kilometers from Arequipa, is the principal checkpoint for visitors to the RNSAB. Around 1,800 vicuñas inhabit the Pampas Cañahuas highlands. During an event called “Chaccu,” the vicuña herds are captured, clipped of their wool, and released. This provides an alternative to hunters who would otherwise kill the vicuñas for their valuable wool. Approximately 18 kilos of wool are collected during the Chaccu.
Centro de Interpretation de Toqra
Located in Patahuasi, the Toqra Interpretation Center displays photographs and scale models that show the diverse landscapes of the reserve and the various wild animals and plants that inhabit it. The center also documents the cultural activities of native communities in the reserve and the history of ancient cultures who have resided here. Outside the center, there is a mirador (lookout point) with amazing vistas.
Abra de Patapampa
Located at 4,910 meters (16,109 ft) above sea level, the mountain pass at Patapampa is literally the most breathtaking of the reserve’s destinations. From here, the road begins its 1,200-meter descent into the Colca Canyon. Mountain biking tours frequently begin here and continue to Chivay. Hardy Andean saleswomen gather here to sell various crafts to tourist who stop to appreciate the views.
Southern Access To RNSAB
The southern road from Arequipa to RNSAB goes directly to the Laguna de Salinas and other attractions in the southern and eastern sections of the reserve. There is a checkpoint at Salinas Huito.
Laguna de Salinas
Located behind the northern flanks of Pichu Pichu Volcano in the southwestern corner of the reserve, Salinas Lagoon is home to a vast number of bird species. The lake sits at 4,300 meters of elevation and spans over 6,000 hectares. It’s the only place where you can see all three species of highland flamingoes — Chilean, Andean, and James’s — as they forage for food in the shallow waters. During the dry season, the water evaporates and leaves behind deposits of sodium chloride which is mined by residents of nearby communities.
About 2.5 hours (60 km) from Arequipa, Salinas Huito is one of the checkpoints for entry to the RNSAB. Most of the town’s residents work as miners at Salinas Lagoon, extracting salt from family-owned parcels. In recent decades, workers have mined the lagoon for boron, which is then sold to the private company Inkalabor.
On the road between Arequipa and Laguna Salinas, Chiguata was once the principal route to access the Misti and Picchu Picchu volcanoes. Today, the small town of cobblestoned streets preserves traditional stone and adobe houses with straw roofs. Surrounding it are gorgeous terraces and various attractions, including pre-Inca and Inca ruins, petroglyphs, waterfalls, and a small forest of queñua trees. Located 30 km southeast from Arequipa, the Chiguata District sits at an elevation of 2,946 meters above sea level and experiences cold weather all year.
Things To Do
Spot fauna and flora
It looks and feels like a different world at 12,000 feet above the sea. Sit back in the comfort of your car seat, but keep your eyes open for the rare plants and animals that inhabit this extreme environment. At Laguna de Salinas, you’ll see flocks of parihuana or Andean flamingo. The birds’ white chests and vermillion wings are said to be the inspiration for the Peruvian flag colors. The rolling pampas of the puna are also inhabited by the guanaco, the largest wild Andean camelid, and the taruca (Andean deer) which is recovering from near extinction. At the highest altitudes, you’ll see the green yareta, a low dome-shaped shrub that only grows at high altitudes.
Watch the birds
The reserve brims with unique fauna, but bird watchers are in for a real treat while exploring the reserve. The wetlands, called bofedales in Spanish, are home to 44 species of aquatic birds, including 3 species of flamingo, whose population can swell up to 25,000 during the wet season. Other birds include Andean geese, crested ducks, and giant hummingbirds. The Bofedales Pampa Toqra, on the road between Arequipa and Colca, is a popular place to stop.
Climb volcanic peaks
Arequipa is located directly over one of the tectonic fractures that have created the Andes over millennia. Between the city and the Colca Canyon, there’s no shortage of mountains to climb. Misti and Chachani are favorites for their proximity to the city. Coropuna is also popular as the highest volcano in Peru. There are literally dozens more to choose from.
Downhill Biking in Salinas y Aguada Blanca
Tour operators can organize mountain biking tours depending on your interests. Possible routes:
- around Salinas Lagoon and descend to Arequipa
- from Chachani downhill to Arequipa
- start near Patapampa Pass and decent to Chivay and the Colca Canyon
At high altitude, cold temperatures and the lack of oxygen can take their toll. Full-finger gloves and a windbreaker can ease discomfort. Tour operators also carry oxygen in case of emergency.
Located 35 km northeast of Arequipa, the Salinas y Aguada Blanca National Reserve was created in 1979 to conserve the natural resources and landscapes of this zone. It is a stunning example of the arid puna environment. The reserve extends over an area of 367,000 hectares and hosts an array of enchanting sights such as lagoons, volcanoes, wetlands, dotted wth pre-Inca ruins and unique wildlife.
Elevations range between 2,800 m and 6,050 m. Most attractions are situated around 4,300 m. Many travelers transit through quickly while traveling between Arequipa and the Colca Canyon. Those who intend to extend their visit to the reserve should make sure to be acclimated before attempting any strenuous activity.
The reserve experiences consistently cold weather throughout the year. Average temperatures range between 2 C (36 F) and 8 C (46 F), with drastic drops in temperature at night.
From October to April, high winds called heladas come in from the Bolivian altiplano to the east, bringing rain, snow, and hail, and extremely low temperatures down to -20 C (4 F).
The rainy season in from January to March. The dry season from April to December is the best time to visit for ideal road and weather conditions.
Distance(s) From Arequipa:
- to Laguna de Salinas (checkpoint) – 3.5 hours
- to Chiguata (en route to Salinas Lagoon) – 35 minutes
- to Centro de Interpretation de Toccra (checkpoint en route to Colca) – 2.5 hours
- to Chivay – 3 hours