Colca Canyon is do-able in just a few days and is well worth it. If you HAVE more time, and enjoy a little trekking, it's an incredible place to spend some time exploring on foot.
Driving to Colca is a bucket list item in itself (at least with the weather conditions we experienced). The roads are under construction and in many places, are still nothing but gravel. This means they can be easily manipulated by the elements... Even certain parts of the concrete bridges were disintegrating on the edges due to water runoff higher up on the rock walls and pouring rain. We never drive at night but we were pulling in to our first stop around 4 or 5 pm and the fog was so thick, we couldn't see 10 feet in front of us. Keep in mind the road is only large enough for one car on each side and at some of the sharper turns, only one can pass at a time. This is bad news when the edge of the road doesn't just mean falling into a ditch, but rather falling off into a crevice deeper than the Grand Canyon.
I know I'm making it sound insane. And during the day-time, you realize that they are working hard to finish the roads and that they are being done very well. But with zero visibility, it FELT as crazy as I'm describing.
With the sun shining, bright blue skies, tunnels through the cliffs and unbelievable clouds hovering over the depths of the canyon... that's a completely different story.
Arequipa, must be mentioned because so many people take trips to Colca straight from Arequipa. We drove from Cusco instead (about 4 hours by car). Arequipa is about the same distance away from the Canyon, but it's further south. The best part about this drive is passing by the volcanoes of Misti and Chachani.
WHAT WE DID:
Chivay: Chivay is the largest main town entering Colca Canyon. The La Callera hot springs are just north. We didn't seek them out, but we hear they’re the best in the area. We spent our time in Chivay having lunch at Urinsaya. This buffet came highly rated on TripAdvisor and had plenty of traditional options, fresh soups, more salads and vegetarian options than most places, plus meat options for Tyler. The quaint little town is more bustling than those succeeding it, but they all have something special to offer.
Yanque: Continue driving into the Canyon after you pass Chivay and you will find a smaller village called Yanque. You'll begin to notice the small main squares in these villages, each with it's own unique church. Down a gravel path, past the square, you'll find the Aguas Thermales de Chacapi. We didn't actually pay to visit the baths themselves but you can see them from the bridge up above. We’re not huge thermal bath fans unless they're VERY special, but we still think the area was well worth the visit. Our favorite part was just walking down to the water (to the right of the thermal baths), where you can see the Colca Lodge, a fabulous hotel with it's own private hot springs and an entrance from the other side of the canyon.
Cruz del Condor lookout: keep driving past Yanque toward Cabanconde and you'll find the most popular lookout in Colca Canyon. Want to watch the Condors sweeping through the sky? They're known to be all over this area and despite the heavy tourism, it's worth a visit. You must go early and remember to check the season because they were not flying around in late December/early January when we were there (which also explains the rain and dense fog we had while driving in). Still, if you’re lucky and arrive early enough you may see one or two at this time of year. Keep in mind that its possible to see them at some of the other lookouts just up the road from the actual “Cruz del Condor” and you may be able to avoid the mass of people (even during low season).
Maca: still further down the road toward Cabanconde is a friendly village called Maca. Remember to check out the little cathedrals in each square (they’re all a little different so you may enjoy stopping in each one to snap a few pics). We also found a tiny market catered to tourists with a giant Eagle and baby Llamas that you can pet and hold for a small tip. Porque no??
This is the city from which you begin the decent to the oasis at the bottom of the canyon. There are quite a few options for hikes: a longer multi-day circuit with stops at multiple lodges, or a steeper descent straight to the oasis town of Sangalle where you can sleep for one night and hike out the next morning. We hear SOME can do this trek down and up in one day but have read that its incredibly challenging. The map we were given however, says it’s only 3 hours down and 3 hours up (shorter than many of the day hikes we’ve done on our trip... so it must be very steep). If you’re not up for the challenge and you only have a day for Cabanconde, here are two great viewpoints that you can check out around the city: Mirador San Miguel and Mirador Achachiwa. You can walk to them in the morning and be done by early afternoon.
We stayed in Hotel Kuntur Wassi and ate at the restaurant upstairs overlooking the city (surprisingly delicious, well-plated and thoughtful food). Because it was low season, we booked a basic room online for a good price and were given the superior room. The hotels in town are a little older, but they were clean, had friendly staff, and of course Mate de Coca Tea served at all hours of the day.
We may have visited during the rainy season with fewer condors and rain every day at 2pm, but the clouds were absolutely beautiful and the cool breeze made it feel like the perfect place to take a dip in some hot springs or cozy up under a blanket at one of the lookouts. Also, the weather made for beautiful, crisp mornings and almost NO other tourists. Just be sure to read up on the trekking before you go.
Our Favorite Part? Honestly just driving our car along the road in between towns (yes, those initially terrifying roads). The lookouts seem endless and you’ll want to stop at ALL of them (give yourself time to do so!). The cliffs and tunnels are incredible. Roll the windows down, turn up the music, and drive slowly :)
VIDEO OF THE DRIVE TO COME!
See you down the road!
Meg + Tyler