What Is Colca Canyon and Why Is It So Great?
When visiting Peru, a must-see on any traveller’s hit list has to be Colca Canyon. This huge ravine just outside Arequipa is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the USA and holds the title of the second deepest canyon in the world. Colca is a stronghold for the Andean Condor and is an amazing place to see one of the world’s largest flying birds up close as they soar above the canyon on the columns of rising air known as thermals. In addition to an up-close and personal view of Peru’s feathered wildlife, the views are utterly incredible, and the plethora of walking routes in and around the canyon are enough to keep any hiker happy.
How Do I Visit Colca Canyon?
Getting out to Colca Canyon is an easy day trip from Arequipa, Peru’s second-largest and quite possibly one of the prettiest cities in Peru with its snowcapped Andean backdrop (If you would like to know more about the gem of Peru, check out my post on top things to do in Arequipa here!). It takes around three hours to drive out to the canyon and I would recommend doing your research and booking your trip with a tour company – navigating the wilds of Peru can be a little hairy if you don’t know what you’re doing! There are several tour options available from one day to multi-day trips to accommodate for different traveller’s time schedules and activity levels.
With time restraints and an Inca trail trek to Machu Picchu waiting for us in Cusco, we decided to do the day tour. Personally, although it would have been nice to stay and appreciate the beautiful canyon backdrop for longer, I felt like we had a really good experience on the one-day tour and definitely ticked off the things we were most keen to see. If you are thinking about doing the longer trek, I’m afraid I can’t really help you much as I haven’t experienced it myself. But if you want a report on the all bells and whistles one-day tour option keep reading, because you’re in the right place!
First thing’s first, book with a reputable tour company. We booked through Find Local Trips, a website which features several approved and ethical tour companies and were really pleased with their service. In fact, we booked several of our Peru activities through them and found them to be reasonably priced, reliable and provided a great experience. Included in our tour (which cost 25USD) we got return transport from Arequipa, breakfast and a tour guide. Additional costs included 70 Soles entry to Colca Canyon, 15 Soles to enter the thermal baths and the cost of lunch and any souvenirs.
What Should I Pack For A One-Day Tour To Colca Canyon?
The weather can be very variable so as bizarre and backward as it may sound, always take both layers (and a waterproof!) and sun protection such as a hat, sunglasses and sun cream on any day trip in Peru. It can be chilly (and wet!) at high altitudes but also, the sun has great penetration at those heights so you can still easily get burnt.
I suffered a horrific bout of altitude sickness on our Colca tour, so be prepared. Bring altitude sickness tablets, decongestants and anti-nausea medication. If you stop off at the markets before your trip in Arequipa, you’ll find plenty of natural remedies for altitude sickness such as coca leaves (disgusting, but chewing on these leaves does actually work!) and a herbal concoction you dot on your wrists and under your nose which really packs a punch. I was not prepared and paid the price, luckily my sickness passed and I was able to enjoy the rest of my day but learn from my mistake and try and be prepared because temporarily I truly felt awful. Additionally, if you suffer from travel sickness, the roads in Peru are incredibly winding and often quite bumpy, so if you tend to feel a bit queasy while travelling definitely bring appropriate equipment to tackle this.
Swimsuit, towel and waterproof camera ready for the hot springs. Most tours take a detour to the natural hot springs in the canyon on your return to Arequipa so make sure you’re prepared to take a dip!
Money – As explained above there are certain things that aren’t included in your ticket price on most tours so ensure you aren’t caught out by this and bring some extra cash with you.
Drinking Water – even on the day tour you are out hiking for a considerable amount of the day without access to water so make sure you bring some along (preferably in an eco-friendly reusable drinking vessel) to keep hydrated, this is especially important at high altitudes as dehydration can worsen altitude sickness.
A camera – the views and the condors are something you will want to capture to remember forever so make sure you have a way of doing so. Most smartphones these days will get you some gorgeous shots of the scenery but if you’re a wildlife enthusiast I would recommend a DSLR with a decent zoom lens to get the money shots of the condors.
Sensible shoes – even on the day tour you will be navigating some rough terrain so walking/hiking shoes are your most sensible option. Be kind to your feet and they may be kind to you in return.
Snacks are always useful – I would recommend cereal bars or something you can eat on the go as you do go long stints without an opportunity to buy or eat anything.
What Should I Expect on a 1 day Colca Canyon Tour?
Expect an early start, and I mean really early! We were picked up from our hostel around 3am to start the day and travel the 154 kilometres by minibus to Colca Canyon. My advice, get wrapped up warm and settle in for a nap until sunrise at about 6am. At around this time, many tour companies will stop off at a viewpoint for you to catch a glimpse of the canyon and the mountains with the sun creeping up behind them. Unfortunately, this is when I was unceremoniously incapacitated by altitude sickness so I remained on the bus at this point trying not to vomit, but they tell me the views were gorgeous.
We took breakfast at this little local homestay nestled in the valley of the canyon. I would like to refer back to my recommendation to bring snacks here as portions were modest. Our spread of scrambled eggs, bread, jams and tea was very pleasant, but it wasn’t anything to write home about. I’ve found from my experience on other tours in Peru, this is a fairly generic breakfast offering you will come across time and time again during your stay.
Finally, at around 7am when the sun began to really beat down overhead, we made our way to Mirador Cruz del Cóndor to spot the magnificent feathered monsters soaring across the canyon. The tours vary as to what time you visit this condor viewing platform. My advice would be to ensure your tour prioritises this at the beginning of the day because the mornings are when the thermals are at their strongest as the hot air hits the cold and also it’s much less crowded so you’re more likely to see the condors. We were lucky enough to encounter several at close range which is still one of my favourite experiences from my time in Peru.
We spent a good while hiking the general area while our guide explained how the canyon became such a safe haven for the condors and we were given plenty of opportunities to take some amazing keepsake photos. We were lucky enough to be graced with clear blue skies so the beauty of the canyon could be fully appreciated. Next, it was back on the bus and a stop off at a small village where there was an opportunity to stretch our legs, grab something to eat and explore the small yet bustling markets for souvenirs.
Our final stop before returning to Arequipa was the thermal baths of La Calera. These volcanic, heated, waters were exactly what the doctor ordered after a hideously early start and lots of walking. We were given a couple of hours to soak in the water while enjoying being surrounded by the beautiful volcanic valley. It was certainly a great way to end the day!
We arrived back in Arequipa at around 5pm just as the sun was beginning to sink, buzzing with the excitement of the day but equally exhausted and ready for bed! If you’d like to read my personal account of our experience at Colca Canyon, check out my travel diary here! Note, this is not a general tips or guide post, it’s literally my honest ramblings about our experience on the tour in real-time.
So, If you enjoy hiking, great views and the opportunity to spot one of the world’s largest flying birds, you can find few greater places to combine all three than here! This underrated gem of South America is often bypassed by the hoards of tourists making their pilgrimage to Machu Picchu, and while the great Incan temple is definitely not one to miss, Peru has so much more to offer which is often overlooked and Colca Canyon is one of them. If you’re planning a trip to the land of the Incas, make a detour to Colca Canyon because trust me, you won’t regret it!
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