If you google the top 10 things to do in Peru, a visit to Colca Canyon is most likely on the list. At a depth of 3,270 meters (10,730 ft), it is the second deepest canyon in the world. Deeper than the Grand Canyon. Equally impressive is that the Andean Condor can be spotted soaring over this canyon. We had to visit!
From Puno we drove cross country to skip the craziness of Juliaca, and joined up with 34A heading west, then north on 34E, and then west again on 109.
Arriving at the town of Chivray, we had to purchase tickets for entrance to the whole area. (70 soles each). This town was also the last place to find an ATM or to get gas. So we did both.
That done, we headed to the Granja de Colca, a hotel that literally sits on the rim of the canyon. Its location was a tricky drive off the paved road, and when we arrived, to our surprise, the hotel was closed. However, the restaurant was open daily, and Edgar the manager said we could camp in the parking lot.
We spent 2 nights there.
Guests would show up to eat lunch at the restaurant and hang out on the deck for photos. When they left, we had the entire spectacular view to ourselves. Right on the very edge of the canyon (OK 2 feet away) was a wooden bench where we could look down. A thin pole railing in front of the bench restrained us from tipping ourselves in to the canyon.
Watching for condors is a popular tourist activity. Van loads leave Arequipa in the wee hours each morning, drive up to the Colca, and sit on the rim hoping to catch sight of a condor. If we looked way to our right, we could see the white tourist vans lined up each day at another mirador, a mile down the rim.
On our first afternoon, we had just settled in when 3 condors flew right overhead. We could hear the wind in their wings. Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. A few circles in the air and they were gone.
Condors are considered to be the largest flying land birds in the Americas. Having a wingspan of 9-10 feet, the Andean Condor catches warm updrafts in the canyon, relying on thermals to glide, rarely flapping their wings. They swoop and soar, twirl around each other and then sail away. They fly incredibly fast. At first a dot in the sky, in seconds they are overhead. Part of the joy of watching them is that they appear to be having so much fun.
We spent two days there, with many hours watching for condors. We saw them a few more times, but never so close again. The hotel had a gardener, and the yard was overflowing with flowers. Mounds of pink, red and white geraniums. I was excited when two hummingbirds came and sat on the railing right in front of me. They just stared at me, sitting side by side, like twins. White breast with iridescent green throats. But when I picked up the camera, they flew.
Leaving there we headed up the road to Cabanaconde. A village, it is the jumping off spot for treks to the bottom of the canyon.
It had the usual plaza with the imposing Catholic Church. A sleepy little town with friendly locals. Unusual though in that every day a group of very elderly women, and a few men, were out for a walk through the plaza. Slow and bent with age, in traditional dress, this daily stroll seemed to be a significant community activity. Older women wore full length, multi layered, embroidered dresses. The top layer opened at the front, revealing the bottom layer.
Almost all women in Cabanaconde, young and old, wore a hat unique to this town. Red, green, blue embroidery with sparkly bits, the brim was turned up at the back.
Our intent was to hike the canyon, but now looking down into its depth the idea was daunting. We researched, look at routes and made a plan. Then Monday morning at 7 AM, we walked through town to the trailhead. Switchbacks, a long traverse, then more relentless switchbacks. It was steep and rough.
We climbed over and around rocks. Loose stones layered the trail causing shoes to slide out of control. In a blazing sun, we reached the valley floor at 1130, thirsty and tired. But an hour walk remained to get to our first lodge.
Set along the river, Llahuar Lodge had a huge open air restaurant. Sitting at tables you could listen to the river below, and amaze at the striation of colours descending on rock from high above. Out the back door, down a knarley set of rock steps, were rows of small cabins. Yellow wooden boards nailed onto a 2×2 frame. A window that opened but no screen. No matter because the boards didn’t all quite meet anyway, leaving space for the no-see-ums to squeeze inside.
Dumping our backpacks, we headed straight for the thermal pools.
Right at the rivers edge, hot water spilled out of mountain pipes into 3 large cement pools. Continuously, it ran over the other side of the pools into an angry frothy river, black with mountain silt. Listening to its rhythmic fury, we relished in the warm water TIL well past prune.
Day 2 took us on an ascent, then down a road for a few hours.
A final plunge to the canyon floor through a field of cactus, brought us to Sangalle, known locally as the Oasis.
A circle of greenery nestled below caramel and butterscotch canyon walls. Grass, trees, palms, white trumpet flowers, yellow lilies, and clear gushing water spouting from everywhere.
In the midst of this, the Eco Hostel had a bright blue swimming pool. We spent the afternoon dipping, and chatting, while sitting on cracked white plastic loungers in the hot sun. Vale la Pena.
Over the two days we enjoyed visiting with the other hikers. A group from France, and young couples from Australia, England and Wales. A trio of young guys impressed everyone. They had ridden down on unicycles. No kidding, they rode down that rocky canyon trail on a wheel with pedals. One from Poland, one from Nazca, Peru and one from Barcelona, Spain. When they left the restaurant to go to their cabins, everyone ran to the window to watch them ride down the path. Wow!
On our last day, we left at 5 AM. Skipping breakfast, we had a straight up trek.
Three and half hours later, having avoided the sun, we had a congratulatory moment back on the rim. Thirty more minutes on a path, literally right through the corn fields, we finally reached the plaza at Cabanaconde. We had breakfast on the second floor Terrace.
And then I slept all afternoon.
Vanna life: At home this summer we purchased a stainless steel press and a bean grinder, from Amazon. So now for breakfast we can make good coffee from locally grown beans. Yes, life is good.