Twice the depth of Arizona’s Grand Canyon, the Colca Canyon in southern Peru measures up as one of the deepest and most spectacular canyons on the planet. It’s a journey into deep and vibrant Peru, where traditional Andean culture holds on to its roots, condors soar upward from the depths, and iconic Peruvian vicuñas and alpacas roam in the nearby highlands.
Colca is not your typical Andean landscape, however. The region contains Peru’s main concentration of volcanoes and geothermic activity, which translates to unique peaks and natural hot springs.
Today, the Colca region is coming of age as a destination. Since its beginnings as a stop on the rugged backpacker circuit, Colca has paved the way for travelers of all kinds. The canyon now lures a full international spectrum of groups, couples, outdoor adventurers and even families. In this high Andean region reached only by a winding scenic drive from Arequipa, two premier lodges surprise guests with their refinement and sophistication.
History and charm in Arequipa, the white city
The Colca adventure begins with a stay in Arequipa, gateway city to the canyon region. The city sits at 7,675 feet of altitude, which lends itself nicely to at least one night of acclimatization. High mountain passes of up to 15,745 feet await on the drive into the canyon.
Three volcanic peaks – Chachani, Misti, and Pichu Pichu – form a stunning backdrop to Arequipa. The city’s pearly ornate architecture was built of white volcanic stone, which gained the historical center UNESCO World Heritage status. It also gained Arequipa its nickname “the white city”.
To end a day of exploring the city’s colonial edifices, famous convent, and mummified remains of the Incan ice maiden known as Juanita, check in to El Libertador. This regal rose-colored hotel is a top pick among Arequipa lodging and a landmark in the city. Dine on traditional cuisine, relax by the side of the pool and stroll the gardens where you’ll run into El Libertador’s resident tortoise, age 120. Another upscale option is the boutique-style Casa Andina Private Collection, a fully restored colonial mansion made of Arequipa’s signature white volcanic stone.
Colca Lodge: hot springs at 10,665 feet
How to reach Colca? Sit back for a 4-hour scenic highlands drive beyond Mount Misti with its peak at 19,101 feet, and through the Aguada Blanca Reserve, where you’ll pass herds of gracious vicuñas, the Andean camelid with the finest wool. Along the Colca River, you’ll pass the towns of Chivay and Yanque. Then, in the heart of the canyon, you’ll reach the oasis-like Colca Lodge.
First thing on the to-do list here is to take a relaxing dip in the hot springs pools, heated by 100% thermal energy and rich in rejuvenating minerals. Book a first-class treatment with the spa’s specialists.
Colca Lodge makes a great base for active exploration of the canyon. Take a short hike to the nearby ruins of Uyo Uyo, explore the back roads on bikes, or walk through traditional towns like Achoma and Maca with their expansive pre-Incan step terraces that farmers still cultivate today.
Casitas del Colca: villas with a view
Not far from Colca Lodge is the equally exquisite Casitas del Colca, a TripAdvisor Traveler’s Choice Winner in 2012. In your own private deluxe “casita” house, soak your bones in a heated plunge pool. Take in the sweeping view of the valley from your terrace, or head over to the Samay spa for a mind-melting massage.
With such superb amenities, both the Colca Lodge and Casitas del Colca will almost have you forget about the excursions and adventures nearby. A must-do daytrip is a visit to Cruz del Condor lookout point, one of the deepest points in the canyon, where the river runs at almost 4,000 feet below the canyon rim. You’re highly likely to spot the majestic condor in flight. Or take a horseback ride to the neighboring town of Yanque with its 18th Century church.
A culture-rich region
For culture seekers, a morning visit to one of fourteen Spanish-style villages and their churches. Chivay offers a glimpse at the typical dress of the region. Note the detail and delicacy of the embroidery on women’s skirts, vests, and hats. As an ancient weavers’ poem goes, “let me get caught up in the colorful threads and make thousands of rainbows”.
Colca is a place with deep traditions and pre-Incan roots. Its local people can trace their heritage all the way back to the Collagua and Cabana cultures, whose weaving and step terrace agriculture practices are still kept alive today.
When to go
The ideal time to visit Colca canyon is May through September, during the dry period. Any time between mid-April and mid-November is recommendable.
Luis Felipa is the Founder and Owner of Southwind Adventures.