One of Peru’s most astonishing yet underrated highlights – the Colca Canyon may be hard to reach but, in the end, it is worth every effort under the Andean sun!
It wouldn’t be a stretch to call the Colca Canyon ‘Peru’s worst-hidden secret’. Not only is it one of the most impressive sites to visit in the entire Andean Mountain Range in the country but it is also one of the most overlooked by visitors, many of whom bypass it to reach Machu Picchu instead. Why, you ask? Well, probably because the canyon, some 160km from the city of Arequipa, isn’t the most conveniently placed treasure in the country. Fancy that, being so magnificent and rewarding yet being overlooked because there’s no direct train-link?!
Depending on your sources, Colca is either the deepest or third-deepest canyon on earth and certainly one of the most jaw-dropping. Not only is it twice as deep as the Grand Canyon (this is known with 100% certainty) but, if you ask us, we’d say it’s twice as magnificent, not least because it’s the best destination in all of Peru to spot the majestic Andean Condor, the largest flying bird on the planet.
Reckon it’s worth a bit of an effort?
Start in Arequipa – The best bonus of Colca Canyon visits
The sparkling white city of Arequipa is one of Peru’s most charming mountain towns and one of the best aspects about a visit to Colca Canyon is that it’ll get you here for a few days, as it’s the nearest major city. Arequipa is renowned as a cultural and culinary gem, home to a spectacularly colourful monastery, world-class museums and a blinding-white Plaza de Armas that seems to have been plucked straight out of a fairy-tale. The colonial architecture in Arequipa is outstanding and, in many ways, is even more impressive than Cusco. Plus, it’s surrounded by dramatic Andean peaks and is a very popular hiking hub for those who don’t want to contend with large tourist crowds. Arequipa and the Colca Canyon offer hiking for hikers, if you know what we mean.
From Arequipa, the drive to Colca Canyon takes about 3.5/4hr and although it is a truly spectacular drive, over some of the highest passes in all of Peru, it’s probably one you’ll want to break up over several days.
Your options for Colca Canyon visits from Arequipa
Most visitors who do make it to Arequipa will opt for a daylong excursion to the Colca Canyon which is, in our humble opinion, needlessly exhausting. Mostly, because the best time to be at the canyon is just after sunrise: that’s when you have the highest chances of seeing condors near the rim and when you’ll see the who gorge drenched in a breathtaking orange hue. That obviously makes for a very early start if you wish to be here by 8am, right? Not only that, you’ll actually miss out on out-of-this-world views because you’ll be driving in the dark.
That just doesn’t seem too wise…
If an eye-watering start to the day and no views aren’t enough, there’s also the fact that the road from Arequipa to Colca Canyon is dotted with isolated Andean communities and borders several nature reserves, all of which you may wish to stop and explore. There are also natural thermal baths in which to soak your bones and archaeological sites to snoop around in. Most daylong tours will include some of these stops on your return drive to Arequipa but, by then, you will have been on the road for almost 12 hours and, from our experience, will be utterly exhausted. Too exhausted to really enjoy a lot of it, to be brutally honest.
So why not break up the trip into 2 or 3 days, instead?
Chivay is the ‘breakfast stop’ of daylong trippers coming from Arequipa. Usually, tour groups get here at about 6am, throw back some black coffee and continue to the Colca Canyon. On our bespoke private tours to Colca Canyon, we leave a little later, skip the crowds and take a whole day to reach Chivay, stopping along the way for photo ops when the 1002nd llama appears along our path. Then, we stay in Chivay overnight.
We love Chivay because it’s unpolished and, even though it acts as a great base for Colca Canyon hiking, it’s retained its very rustic charm. All around Chivay are high-altitude terraced hills, traditional villages that see fewer tourists, thermal pools and plenty of options for afternoon walks.
Moreover, by the time you reach Chivay, you will have covered the longest stretch of the drive to Colca Canyon and no doubt feasted your eyes on the amazing landscapes. By then, you will be left with barely an hour’s drive to the canyon, which you can do next morning.
After spending half a day at the Colca Canyon, your return journey can be taken either back to Arequipa or onwards to Puno, the base town to visits of Lake Titicaca.
A 3-day Arequipa – Colca Canyon – Puno journey is an exceptional way to experience Peru the best way possible (by road) without the need to backtrack.
Trekking to Colca Canyon
Take the first day from the above itinerary and you’ll find yourself overnighting in Chivay. From here, you can set off under the steam of your own legs and trek to the Colca Canyon over some of the most astonishing landscapes of all. Options abound, with most trekking trips taking 2, 3 or 4 days to make loop-trips to the canyon and back. This is an incredible opportunity to trek the Peruvian Andes off the main trodden path, discovering amazing archaeological sites and gorges you’ve probably never heard about.
Trekking at the Colca Canyon is amazing and the fact it isn’t wildly popular is arguably a huge part of its appeal.
Insider tips when planning your Colca Canyon Visit
- Don’t use Arequipa only as a springboard, this is one seriously beautiful city so stay a few days, before your Colca Canyon visit. This is particularly important if you’re coming from Lima or any sea-level destination. Acclimatise first, in Arequipa, and you’ll enjoy your Colca Canyon journey much more
- The wildlife spotting along this stretch of the Andes is unreal – learn more about The Wildlife of the Andes so you know what you can expect to see
- On the morning of your Colca Canyon drive, take motion-sickness tablets as soon as you wake up if you suffer from carsickness. The drive can be a little rough
- The best time to visit the Colca Canyon is between March and June, when condors are at their most active, although May and June are best for hiking
- Cruz del Condor is the most popular viewpoint to see the majestic birds at the Colca Canyon and although sightings are ridiculously common, they are not guaranteed. Most group tours will allocate about an hour here and, if the big birds don’t show, that’s too bad. On a private tour with your own guide and transport, however, you choose how long you stay, and even how many times in the day you visit. That freedom is priceless
- If trekking, be realistic with your fitness level and experience at high altitude. Some of the Colca Canyon hiking options are hard-core (much more than even the Inca Trail) so chat to us about options regarding your experience and wishes)
- The cultural experiences in the Colca Canyon region are not to be underestimated – here, you’ll find some of the most traditional ethnic communities in the country, all boasting their own fascinating histories and traditional clothing, most defined by their distinctive hats. It’s wonderful to visit some of the more remote communities and even indulging in a homestay if you’d love a more immersive experience
- Arequipa is only an hour’s flight from Cusco, the base town for visits to Machu Picchu. Visiting the Colca Canyon, and Arequipa, has never been easier, especially if you’re planning to also visit Lake Titicaca. Why not use the Colca Canyon as an amazing and unexpected stepping-stone between Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca?
It may just be the most rewarding inclusion you’ll make in your tour of Peru
Interested to know how we can plan a bespoke tour of Peru, including Cusco, Machu Picchu, Arequipa, Colca Canyon, Puno and Lake Titicaca? Then see our suggested Peru Tour itineraries, and ask us about luxury options if you’d love to visit Colca Canyon in a little more comfort.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”