The Andes is the longest continental mountain range on Earth, stretching along the whole length of South America. This range reaches 7000 m altitude, and many of the other high peaks rise above 5000 m, in contrast to the nearby Pacific Coast. And it is some points, it is cut by deep canyons, like trenches on the surface of the planet. One of them is Colca Canyon- a spectacular abyss with giant steep slopes, surrounded by snowcapped mountains. Let’s go on a journey to Colca and get the best of it!
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Basic facts about Colca Canyon
Open the physical map of Peru. Here you can see the Andean mountain range along the Pacific coast of South America. And if you zoom at the southern part of the country, you can see two deep trenches that cut the mountains. These are two giant canyons. The northwestern one is called Cotahuasi, and the southeastern one is Colca.
Everything starts with a small stream, deep in the Andes. It begins its way in a small basin, with several villages around its source at about 4600 m altitude. This stream is called Colca, and its way has been destined to reach the Pacific Ocean, cutting the mountain ridges deeper and deeper.
In the beginning, Colca descends slowly on a shallow valley. First, it flows northward, passing through two reservoirs (Jayuchaca and Condoroma). Then, it turns westward. The valley gets deeper. Below 4200 m altitude, it turns southward, until finally reaches the town of Callalli (3840 m). From here, Colca again turns west, and the adventure begins.
Here is the point where the valley turns into a canyon. In the beginning, it is just a “normal” canyon, but after the town of Madrigal, it cuts the mountains extraordinarily deeper. Its slopes also get steeper, until at the town of Huambo it reaches more than 2000 m depth.
At about 1400 m altitude, River Mamacocha merges with Colca. This is the official “end” of Colca Canyon, near the village of Cabanaconde, and here the river has a new name- River Majes. However, the canyon actually is not over here, just it changes into a wider gorge.
Finally, from Andamayo (900 m) the slopes of the deep giant valley open, giving place for riverside plains. The valley opens wider and wider until finally it reaches the Pacific Ocean at Camana.
In general, most of the time Colca-Majes River flows on deep gorges. But only the section between Chivay and Cabanaconde is called “Colca Canyon“, about 56 km long, the deepest of all other canyons and gorges along the river pathway.
Terrain and nature
The terrain around Colca Canyon is harsh. In fact, the river cuts a high plateau, forming edges from both sides of the canyon. These edges are quite sharp, and the elevation difference between them and the river bed is between 1000 and 2000 m. In other words, where the river bed is at around 2000 m altitude, the edges are located at almost 4000 m altitude.
But that’s not all. Beyond the edges, the slopes proceed to ascend, although not as steep as the area directly above the river bed. And about 24 km southeast of Cabanaconde they reach the highest point in the area- Mount Ampato- an extinct volcano with an altitude of 6288 m. Thus, the total altitude difference reaches almost 5000 m, from the confluence of Mamacocha and Colca-Majes (about 1300 m) to Mount Ampato, making Colca Canyon one of the deepest in the world.
The area of Colca Canyon is mainly treeless. The slopes are covered mainly by grass and bush (occasionally). Here you can observe interesting fauna that includes the Andean Condor, giant hummingbird, vizcacha (a relative of chinchilla), vicuna (wild alpaca), and more. You can also enjoy some hot springs (at Chivay), rock formations, and other natural phenomena.
History and local culture
When you explore Colca Canyon, you will see large areas where the slopes are terraced. Who made these terraces and why?
The area around Colca Canyon has been inhabited for thousands of years. Despite its rugged nature, the local people found a way to live here. They made these terraces, called “Andenes” that can be seen mainly below Chivay, and used them for agriculture. And people who settled at higher altitudes lived mainly by livestock farming (alpacas and llamas).
Two ethnic groups were living around Colca for centuries- Collagua and Cabana. The Inca arrived here in the 14th century, and just mixed with the locals. Then, in the 16th century, when the Spaniards conquered what is today Peru, they resettled the native people and from this, the towns that exist today were founded.
In the following centuries, the Spanish colonial period was over and the country of Peru was created. But in this wild place, around the giant Colca Canyon, although some new roads were built, life has been preserved mainly as it has been in ancient times.
How to explore Colca Canyon
The area, marked as “Colca Canyon” is only the deepest and most spectacular part of the whole system of gorges that Colca-Majes River flows, and today it is turned into a tourist area with an entrance fee. It includes the section between Cabanaconde and Chivay, so, let’s first focus on this specific area.
Needless to say, one can expect that such an astonishing beauty offers a lot to see and do. The whole canyon landscape is worth exploring, but there are also some specific spots with unique features, stories, and beauty. Some of them are scenic spots, others are natural phenomena, and there are also some cultural and urban sites.
So, the best way to explore Colca Canyon is to identify these spots and draw the best route between them. In general, this route should follow the course of the Colca River, although some interesting places are apart from the river.
To draw your route and build your itinerary, let’s first identify the points of interest around Colca Canyon that can give you the best experience of the area.
Points of interest in Colca Canyon
There is a road, connecting Chivay with Cabanaconde, at the southern side of the canyon. The road doesn’t follow the bottom of the canyon but goes around the edge. Beyond Cabanaconde, the same road proceeds southwestward to Huambo and to the lower mountains closer to the Pacific Ocean. And in the other direction, beyond Chivay, it proceeds to Callali, from where it divides into other mountain roads.
The section between Cabanaconde and Chivay is 55 km long, and most points of interest are located beside it. So, let’s start from Cabanaconde to Chivay.
Cabanaconde is a small town, located at 3290 m altitude, south of the Colca River. It is a traditional starting point for most hiking routes that descend to the bottom of the canyon and ascend to the edges above it.
The town itself doesn’t offer some specific places of interest, but it is just a nice place with a cool climate, spectacular views around it, and a touristy atmosphere. There are many hotels and other places to stay in the town, reflecting the growing popularity of Colca Canyon among tourists.
The main hiking routes starting from Cabanaconde descend to the bottom of the canyon, cross the river and proceed on the northern slopes. Walking on these routes allows you to observe Colca Canyon from different points.
In this area, the main point of interest are the crossing points, the observing points (“Mirador” in Spanish), and the local villages and lodges:
- “Miradors”– the two main observing points are located on both sides of Cabanaconde (Mirador de Achachihua on the west and Mirador de San Miguel on the east). They provide fantastic views of the canyon, with opportunities to see the Andean Condors. Of course, there are many other good observing points, but these two are the most popular.
- Colca River crossings: there are three main crossings of the Colca River. The western and the lowest one (2120 m) is at Chiurca (there is a small interesting geyser near the bridge), the middle one is at Sangalle village (2245 m), and the eastern, which is the highest in the Cabanaconde area is at San Juan de Chuccho (2390 m).
- Villages and lodges– there are several villages in this area, but the most popular are Llahuar and Sangalle. Llahuar is not a village but just a lodge where you can spend the night. Sangalle is a village in a warm spot with a subtropical forest and is another popular spot for accommodation.
Pinchollo – Lari – Madrigal
These are three villages (small towns), situated at the upper end of the deepest section of Colca Canyon. Pinchollo is located on the south side of the canyon, while Lari and Madrigal are located on the north side. They are connected by a narrow mountain road that crosses the Colca River at 3150 m.
This is not a hiking area (like Cabanaconde), but here you can find some of the best observing points of Colca Canyon. All of them are located right beside the main road between Cabanaconde and Chivay. Here they are:
- Mirador Cruz del Condor. This is the most famous observation point in Colca Canyon. As its name suggests, here you can enjoy majestic views of flying condors over the canyon- a scenery that can remain in your heart for the rest of your life.
- Mirador Cruz del Cura– another spectacular point with different images of the canyon.
- Mirador Wayracpunku. This point is located east of Pinchollo. Here the canyon looks “softer”, and the town-village of Madrigal can be seen on the other slope.
- Mirador Antahuilque. Here you can observe almost plain terraces with small lakes, and the whole slope looks like a giant stair.
If you cross into the north side of Colca Canyon, you can find more interesting points, a combination of fantastic views with some history:
- Fortaleza Chimpa. Here you can see the ruins of an old fort with spectacular views of the canyon from the north.
- Malata Chico Madrigal and Tinquina Pata. These are two more historical landmarks, located on the terraces around the village of Madrigal.
- Cathedral del Colca. An old church from the colonial period, a nice and tranquil place amidst the wild giant mountains around.
This is a small village further east on the road to Chivay. Here you can visit the small Natural History Museum, called Mirador del Molino. Further east the road proceeds to Yanque.
Yanque is another small town, located at 3430 m altitude, on a relatively flat terrace above Colca River which here flows at around 3360 m altitude, only about 70 m below the town. This is a nice and quiet place with more hotels to spend the night in. But the main points of interest are located on the other side of the Colca River.
- Uyo Uyo. It is an ancient ruins site- a town destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century.
- Catarata de Caracuyo. Only about 300 m above Uyo Uyo you can see the small but beautiful Caracuyo Falls.
- Mirador San Antonio. This is another point with good panoramic views over the Colca Valley. And this one also presents some ruins from the 16th century.
- Tumbas de Yuraq Qaqa. Yuraq Qaqa in Quechua means “white rock”. And this place also presents some tombs from Pre-Colonial times. You can still see some skulls.
- Hot Springs Umaru Spa. This is a nice place for relaxation, especially after hiking on the steep slopes of Colca. There are swimming pools with hot water.
Chivay is the largest town in Colca Canyon, and usually is one of the main entrance points for exploring Colca. It is located at 3635 m altitude. Being one of the canyon’s gateways, it is well-developed as a tourist center, with hotels, restaurants, cafes, and souvenir shops.
Walking around the town is a pleasant experience. You can also visit its old ruins (including the so-called “bullring”), not far from the river Colca, as well as the viewpoint with the best panorama of the town- Mirador K’opayoc.
But the main attraction here is La Calera– a hot spring complex, larger than Umaru Spa in Yanque. Here, besides the pools with hot water, you can also enjoy a zip line and a small cultural museum.
How to get to Colca Canyon, starting points
There are two starting points for exploring Colca Canyon- Chivay and Cabanaconde, connected by a 55 km road. And both points are connected by roads to Arequipa- the main city from where you can reach Colca.
Transport for independent travelers
Several buses travel from Arequipa to Cabanaconde, stopping in Chivay, Yanque, and Pinchollo. The whole bus trip is about 5 hours to Cabanaconde, and the price is 20 soles. Buses depart at 1:00, 3:30, 9:45, 11:00, and 14:00.
A much more convenient way is to rent a car. You can find a car in Arequipa (unless you rent a car earlier and use it for a longer itinerary). If you choose Chivay as your starting point, the distance from Arequipa to Chivay is 167 km (about 3-3:30 h driving).
Then, you can back to Arequipa from Cabanaconde through Huambo and Majes (260 km, about 5 hours) to make a full circle. Or, you can just back on the same route through Chivay.
There is an entrance fee for Colca Canyon- 70 soles. You can pay for it at every checkpoint, and they will give you a ticket. There are no “gates” to Colca, but you must show the ticket to the local authorities wherever they ask for it.
Hiking is the best way to experience Colca Canyon- you don’t just observe it from above or below, but you literally “taste” it- its fresh air, its spectacular views, and of course, its steep slopes.
The main hiking area in Colca Canyon is Cabanaconde. As mentioned above, there are lodges in Llahuar and Sangalle, and you can use them for spending the night if you go on a 2 or 3-day trek.
You can go hiking around Pinchollo and Madrigal, as well as around Yanque and Chivay, but there aren’t proper circle routes. Instead, these areas are good only for short walks to the nearby points of interest described above. Of course, if you are more adventurous, you can hike further above Colca, but you would leave the tourist trails. You will reach wild, non-tourist areas, which of course is exciting, but only for experienced adventurers.
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Colca Canyon itineraries
If you want to explore Colca Canyon in full, the best way is to plan at least 5 days for it. These 5 days would include a 3-day trek in the Cabanaconde area, and 2 days exploring the points of interest around Chivay, Yanque, Madrigal, and Pinchollo (of course, with observing condors in Mirador Cruz del Condor.
Otherwise, you have to choose between hiking only, visiting the viewpoints besides the road with the historical landmarks and hot springs only, or parts of both.
Colca Canyon Tours
For those who are not experienced in independent traveling or just don’t have enough time to plan and draw their own itinerary, there are a lot of organized tours to Colca Canyon. Most of these tours are also proper for people who travel fast, in other words, people who want to explore the best of the canyon within 1-2 days.
Although a full experience of Colca Canyon needs at least 5 days as we mentioned above, it is still possible to get some impressions of the canyon for a much shorter time, and these tours are designed for that. In addition, these tours have their best itinerary that is independent of the public transportation schedules.
Let’s take a look at some of the organized tours:
- From Arequipa: 2-day Colca Canyon Tour with Transfer to Puno. This tour is for those who have included Colca Canyon and Lake Titikaka in their itinerary. It is focused on Chivay and Mirador Cruz del Condor and includes some short hikes.
- From Arequipa: 2-day Colca Canyon Tour. This tour is similar to the first one, but finally, it takes you back to Arequipa. Also, on the way, they will take you to some amazing natural spots like Patapampa with its breathtaking views of Mount Ampato and other peaks of the Andes.
- From Arequipa: 3-day Trekking Tour to Colca Canyon. This tour is focused on the trekking experience of Colca Canyon. So, it takes you to the hiking area of Cabanaconde, with spending the nights in San Juan de Chuccho and Sangalle. It also includes a 40 min stop in Mirador Cruz del Condor.
- From Arequipa: Colca Canyon Full-Day Guided Tour. This short tour is designed for the best impressions of the canyon in the shortest possible time. It guides you to Mirador Cruz del Condor through Chivay, gives you an opportunity for a short hike (walk) and on the way back to Arequipa you will stop in Patapampa for more fantastic views of the Andes.
Beyond Colca Canyon
Colca Canyon is an amazing place, but it is only a small part of the huge landscape of the Andes. So, it would be much more exciting to include it in a longer itinerary focused on the southern part of Peru, or even more- to the best of Peru, Bolivia, and northern Chile.
So, let’s see what is beyond Colca Canyon
Colca River flows down through the Canyon, by the lowest point of the “Colca Canyon” tourist area- Llahar Lodge. Here the tourist trails finish, but the canyon and the river proceed downwards. What is there, beyond the lowest point that tourists go to?
So, from Llahuar, only experienced adventurers can proceed on some wild, dangerous, and steep paths, sometimes even without a path, where descending can include even canyoning (canyoneering). Here the people changed the name of the river to Majes. Soon, Majes River merges with Mamacocha River, then proceeds to Andamayo, where the canyon finally opens into a wide valley with plains. Finally, the river reaches the Pacific Ocean.
But you can reach the low stream of the Colca-Majes River just on the road. West of Cabanaconde, the road passes through Huambo and descends to Andamayo. There are no special places of interest here, but if you proceed by the river, you would reach Camana and the Pacific Coast. Here you can enjoy La Bomba Beach– one of the best beaches in Peru.
And what is in the other direction- upwards, behind Chivay?
In this direction, you just gradually ascend to the high plateaus of the Andes. Some roads partially follow the river upstream, which in this area is not a deep canyon but just a highland valley. But these roads mostly cut the distance through the highland until they reach the source area of the Colca River and proceed further east.
And where do they lead beyond the Colca River source? The most significant place they lead is Lake Titicaca– the largest lake in South America and the highest navigable lake in the world. And more specifically- these roads lead to the town of Juliaca and Puno, and Bolivia.
North of Colca
If you watch Colca Canyon from the various “miradors” along the road between Cabanaconde and Chivay, probably you can think: “and what is beyond the high mountains on the other side of Colca?”
High mountain rise over Colca, reaching more than 5000 m altitude. This area is wild, with some challenging hiking and mountaineering routes, but they are only for adventurous and experienced hikers. And the main points of interest there are some mountain peaks, a small picturesque lake named Ticllacocha, and some scattered villages in the valleys.
But there is one special point that would impress everybody who is enough adventurous and interested in geography. This is the source of the Amazon River– the largest river in the world! Amazon has several sources, and the most distant one is located here, only about 18 km (in a straight line) from Chivay, at the foot of Mt Mismi (5597 m).
And if you travel further north-northwest, you can reach another giant canyon, one of the largest canyons in the world– Cotahuasi.
South of Colca
Finally, what is in the south? As we mentioned above, the southern slope of Colca doesn’t end with the canyon’s edges but proceeds to ascend further, higher and higher, until it reaches some peaks that rise more than 6000 m above sea level.
These peaks are extinct volcanoes. They are accessible, but only by experienced mountaineers who have to be ready to hike on rugged rocky terrain and glaciers (no permits required). The highest of them is Ampato (6288 m). The other two are Hualca Hualca (6025 m) and Sabancaya– a still active volcano (5976 m).
But if you can’t reach their summits, at least you can go hiking around their foot to some fantastic viewpoints with the best panoramas of the mountains. One of the viewpoints is on the road between Arequipa and Chivay, called Patapampa. Another interesting point on the same road is Crater de Chucura, a trench with volcanic origin. You can also reach Pinchollo Geyser by 2-3 hours hiking south of Pinchollo, located at the north slope of Hualca Hualca.
In general, there are two seasons in the Colca Canyon area- the wet season (December to April, with February the wettest month), and the dry sunny season during the rest of the year. The main difference is just between the rain and clouds, and the sunny weather- there is not much difference in the temperature. Have in mind that in both seasons it can drop below freezing in some high-altitude areas.
So, the dry season is the high season in Colca Canyon. But the first part of it- between April and June is the best for two reasons. First- everything is fresh green after the rainy season, and the high mountains are mostly covered by snow. Second, this is the best time of the year to observe flying condors.
This is Colca Canyon- one of the most spectacular places in South America. It is a treasure for every traveler, for every explorer, for its geographical value, and for its incredible beauty. This beauty can be discovered not only in the fantastic landscapes but also in the majestic image of the Andes, rising beside the Pacific Ocean, combined with the ancient native culture. So, plan a journey to Colca, and let the flying condors over the deep canyon leave the best impressions in your heart!
Take a look at this video for more impressions from Colca Canyon:
Check some travel books about Peru and Colca Canyon:
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Hi, we are Krasen and Ying Ying. Krasen is from Bulgaria, and Ying Ying is from China. We are passionate about geography and history, and we believe that the best way to experience it is by exploring the Earth in reality, not in a school, and not virtually.
So, we created this blog Journey Beyond the Horizon, where we share geographical knowledge, travel guides and tips how to experience it when you explore our planet, and a lot of inspiration.
And we wish you a happy journey, not just virtually, but most of all- in reality.