165km (103 miles) N of Arequipa
Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian novelist and most famous Arequipeño, described Colca as "The Valley of Wonders." That is no literary overstatement. Colca is one of the most scenic regions in Peru, a land of imposing snowcapped volcanoes, narrow gorges, artistically terraced agricultural slopes that predate the Incas, arid desert landscapes and vegetation, and remote traditional villages, many visibly scarred by seismic tremors common in southern Peru. Some of Peru's most recognizable wildlife, including llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, and the celebrated giant Andean condors, roam the region.
The Colca River, one of the sources of the mighty Amazon, slices through the massive canyon, which remained largely unexplored until the late 1970s, when rafting expeditions descended to the bottom of the gorge. Reaching depths of 3,400m (11,150 ft.) -- twice as deep as the Grand Canyon -- el Cañón del Colca forms part of a tremendous volcanic mountain range more than 100km (62 miles) long. Colca, though, is no longer considered the world's, or even southern Peru's, deepest canyon; Cotahuasi, at the extreme northwest of the Arequipa department, has wrested away that honor. Among the region's great volcanoes, several of which are still active, are Mount Coropuna (6,425m/21,079 ft.), Peru's second-highest peak, and Mount Ampato (6,310m/20,702 ft.), where a sacrificed Inca maiden, known to the world as Juanita, was discovered frozen in 1995. The valley and its summits are a rapidly growing extreme-sports destination for hiking, mountain climbing, river rafting, and mountain biking.
Dispersed across the Colca Valley are 14 Colonial-era villages, which date to the 16th century and are distinguished primarily by their small but often richly decorated churches. Local populations in the valley, descendants of the Collaguas and Cabanas, pre-Inca ethnic communities that have lived in the region for some 2,000 years, preserve ancient customs and distinctive traditional dress. They speak different languages and can be distinguished by their hats; Collagua women wear straw hats with colored ribbons, while the Cabanas sport elaborately embroidered and sequined felt headgear. (The men once wore distinctive dress as well but today are decidedly less colorful.) Colca villages are also celebrated for their vibrant festivals, which remain as authentic as any in Peru, throughout the year. The valley's meticulous agricultural terracing, even more extraordinary and extensive than the Inca terraces seen in the Sacred Valley near Cusco, were first cultivated more than 1,000 years ago.
Travelers are now spending more time in the Colca Valley, lapping up its extraordinary beauty, quiet traditional life, and opportunities for outdoor adventure sports, but the number-one draw remains the almost ineffable wonder of seeing majestic, giant condors with massive wingspans soar overhead at Cruz del Cóndor lookout point over Colca Canyon and head out along the river.
The Colca Valley is lush and emerald green just after the heavy rains from January to March, but most of the rest of the year it is arid and dusty. Apart from that, the best time to visit Colca is during the dry season, May through November. The condors put on their best show from June to September, although recent reports of dwindling number of Andean condors in the canyon, perhaps due to continuing development in the region, are certainly cause for concern. Though sunny during the day, it can also get quite cold (below freezing) at night -- which is not unexpected, since Chivay is higher than Cusco.
The Air Up There -- The road from Arequipa to the Colca Valley climbs impressively, reaching 4,910m (16,100 ft.) at the Patapampa lookout point. The air is very thin at this altitude, and breathing is not at all easy. The main town in the valley, Chivay, sits at an altitude of nearly 3,600m (11,800 ft.), and nights can be brutally cold. Travelers who haven't yet spent time in either Cusco or Puno/Lake Titicaca should take it easy for a couple of days in Arequipa before heading out to Colca. Soroche, or acute altitude sickness, is common.