The Colca river, one of the sources of the Amazon, starts high up in the Andes and carves its way down towards the Pacific. About 100 miles northwest of Arequipa, the river created the Colca Canyon, described as the Valley of Wonders by Nobel Prize winning author Mario Vargas Llosa. Colca is one of the most beautiful places in Peru and a highlight during the best tours of Peru.
The canyon actually remained fairly unknown with the general public until the 1970’s when rafters were the first to make it to the bottom. At well over 11,000 feet it’s more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and stretches for some 60 miles between the small mountain villages of Chivay and Cabanaconde. Across the valley there are 12 more tiny Spanish Colonial villages, dating back to the 16th century and with picturesque little churches. Below Chivay the canyon walls, which are not as steep there, have been converted into heavily terraced landscapes for agriculture.
The Colca Canyon is one of the most important draws for bird watchers on the best tours of Peru travel. It’s the foremost area in the world to see the Andean condor, the largest bird in the world capable of flight. A stop at Cruz del Condor, the pass where they soar gracefully on the warm thermals is an incredible experience from a viewing point 4,000 feet above the canyon floor, at times seemingly close enough to touch them.
You can enter the canyon from both ends with most people opting to go to Chivay on the day before to get accustomed to the altitude, before descending into the canyon proper the following day. With heights reaching up to 16,000 feet, this is a good idea even if you are in good physical condition. The Peruvian quality hotel chain Casa Andina has a property in Chivay (Huayna Capac street), that probably forms the best option to spend the night.