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Main Colca Villages: Chivay & Cabanaconde

The Valle del Colca is generally thought of in terms of left (south) and right (north) banks of the canyon, with villages and hotels of interest on either. Villages aren't separated by many kilometers, but the roads on both sides are rocky, dusty, and meandering, making for arduous and time-consuming driving. The left bank, which leads to Cruz del Cóndor, sees most of the tourists.

Although Chivay, on the left bank, is the valley's main town, it is still a largely sleepy little place that not long ago got on just fine without electricity. For many travelers on their way to Cruz del Cóndor and other spots in the valley, Chivay, which has the lion's share of restaurants and affordable hotels in the region, amounts to little more than a stopover. For those adhering to a leisurely pace, though, Chivay can be an enjoyable place to hang out; it benefits from an extraordinarily scenic natural setting. The attractive, low-key Plaza de Armas is the focus of attention in town and the site of several restaurants and hostales.

Most visitors hit the soothing and clean La Calera hot springs while in town. Though they can't compare with the thermal baths of Colca Lodge, they're enjoyable and easy to get to, just a 4km (2 1/2-mile) walk or a colectivo ride from town, and inexpensive (S/10); they're open daily from 8am to 8pm.

The first village past Chivay (10km/6 1/4 miles) is Yanque, a modest town with a baroque 18th-century church. In Maca, a village on the way to Cruz del Cóndor that was destroyed by a 1979 earthquake, you'll find Santa Ana, a restored, brilliant white church with a surprising gilded interior. Nearby, perched overlooking the river, is the Choquetico stone, a pre-Inca carved-stone scale model of the mountains across the canyon, as well as a handful of Inca tombs carved out of the cliff face.

The remote, reserved village of Cabanaconde, the last town in the Colca Valley, is a couple of hours from Chivay. Some independent travelers prefer to stay here because it is within (hearty) walking distance, 15km (9 1/3 miles), or a 15-minute drive, from the Cruz del Cóndor lookout point, and it's well positioned for other hikes in the canyon and throughout the valley. The views of the canyon are tremendous, and short walks take you to excellent vantage points overlooking some of the most brilliant agricultural terracing in the area. The locals are descendants of the Cabanas people, and they maintain traditional dress and customs; women wear hats embroidered with flowers and wide skirts. There is a good small hotel and a couple of inexpensive hostales in the village.

The right (north) side of Colca Canyon is less visited. Coporaque, just across the river from Chivay, is a sleepy village with the oldest church in the valley, the charming Templo de Coporaque, built in 1569 with twin bell towers. Just outside the village, and on the way to Colca Lodge, is the stunning Mirador de Ocolle, an amphitheater formed by agricultural terraces of varying shades of green. A new bridge from Pinchollo to Lari leads across a gorgeously terraced valley of pink rock and abundant cacti. Lary's primary attraction is its splendidly simple 1886 church, Templo de la Purísima Concepción de Lari. White with red trim, an orange and green portal, and double bell towers, it looks like a rural Mexican church or something that would decorate the top of a cake. It has recently been restored, and the interior is full of colorful murals and paintings, while the entire altar is adorned with brilliant baroque murals and painted columns. If you're not on a tour, you may have to ask at the shop next door for the key.

Cruz del Cóndor 

Cruz del Cóndor, or Condor Cross, about 50km (31 miles) west of Chivay, is nothing more than a lookout point on one side of Colca Canyon that has become famous throughout Peru for its spectacular inhabitants, graceful Andean condors (Vultur gryphus). At a spot 1,200m (3,937 ft.) above the canyon river, large crowds gather every morning, zoom lenses poised, to witness a stunning wildlife spectacle. Beginning around 9am, the condors -- the largest birds in the world, with awesome wingspans of 3.5m (12 ft.) -- suddenly begin to appear, theatrically circling far below in the gorge and gradually gaining altitude with each pass, until they literally soar silently above the heads of awe-struck admirers before heading out along the river in search of prey. Condors are such immense and heavy creatures that they cannot simply lift off from the ground; instead, they take flight from cliff perches. The condors return late in the afternoon, but only a small group of people attends the show then. Witnessing the condors' majestic flight up close is a memorable and mesmerizing sight, capable of producing goose bumps on even the most jaded travelers (though photographing the condors in flight demands skill, patience, and a substantial zoom lens). It's little wonder that the Incas believed them to be sacred creatures.

The dry months of June through September are when you're likely to see the largest group of condors in flight, and that's when they tend to circle and circle just over spectators' heads as they gain altitude, catch hold of a current, and set off down the river. The smallest number of condors is visible during the wet months of January through April and even October to December. On one trip to Colca in the last decade, I saw at least two dozen condors take off over the canyon, and a guide I spoke with claimed he once saw 54 in a single morning. On my most recent visit, however, I saw just three. There is great concern that the number of resident Andean condors has decreased dramatically, likely in response to the rapid hotel development and increased traffic near the canyon.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.