Your Peruvian itinerary will almost certainly include Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu, but this amazingly diverse country has so much more to offer. For breathtaking views, up-close encounters with condors, and an authentic slice of real Andean life, it’s hard to beat the Colca Canyon and its surrounding valleys and villages.
Situated about 100 miles from the city of Arequipa, the towns of Chivay and Cabanaconde seem torn from the pages of a history book. Wizened locals in florid ponchos and an array of headwear buy and sell produce in the market, chewing coca as they go. Llamas graze on the higher slopes, and quinoa and potatoes grow in ancient terraced fields which are still plowed manually.
Vaya Adventures guests usually stay in the delightful Casa Andina Colca, on the outskirts of tiny Chivay. The rooms are built from local stone, and the overall ambience of the place is distinctly Andean. The real highlight of the hotel is the small planetarium and observatory, which offers nightly shows during the dry season, when the night skies in the valley are a sight to behold.
Chivay is a charming place, and the market warrants inspection as the quality of the crafts here is far superior to that in more touristy towns. There are small thermal springs situated just out of town, which my wife and I had all to ourselves when we visited. Sipping piña coladas in the icy mountain air, with terrified zip liners careening above us and the towering Andes as a backdrop was definitely a surreal experience!
There are also loads of good walks in the area, which pass through Incan terraces and lead to towns ever smaller and more otherworldly than Chivay. If walking’s not your thing, or if the altitude hasn’t treated you kindly, ask your guide to drive you around to get a feel for the countryside.
Quaint though Chivay may be, few people would visit if it weren’t for its proximity to the Colca Canyon, which at 13 650 ft deep is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Unless you’re extremely fit and adventurous, the canyon is best visited in a vehicle. The road from Chivay to Cabanaconde is utterly spectacular, reaching a high point of 15 800 feet at the Mirador de los Volcanes, where you can enjoy views of the canyon below and immense 20 000 ft volcanic peaks above.
Another mirador (viewpoint) which attracts even more attention is the so-called Cruz del Condor, where majestic condors can be seen almost every day of the year flying past at eye level. Their 10 ft wingspans and 30 lb bulk truly have to be seen to be believed.
If you’re planning a visit to the canyon, please note that it can be clouded over in the rainy season which runs from December to March. When I visited, there were by no means uninterrupted views, but I thought the clouds added to the atmosphere of the place.
Also, if you’re really into record breaking, the Colca Canyon is not actually the deepest canyon in the world: that honor goes to nearby Cotahuasi Canyon, which is 500 feet deeper, and even more remote and unaware of modern life. Vaya Adventures can arrange visits to Cotahuasi too, and it is especially popular among hardcore hikers.