Colca Canyon is the second deepest canyon in the world, and nearly twice as deep as the Grand Canyon.
It is also one heck of a stunning 3 hour drive through the high Andes from Arequipa – passing between volcanoes and across the Pampa Cañahuas nature reserve before the highest point of 4160m where you can stop to view the different volcanoes dotting the horizon. At least you could if it were not snowing up there – a dramatic difference to the heat of Arequipa.
As you travel, on the sides of the road in the pampas you can also see llamas, sheep and alpacas grazing, and if you are lucky, the protected Vicuña (which is also on the Peruvian coat of arms). Vicuñas live in the high alpine areas of the Andes and are also a species of camelid, however unlike llama and alpacas, they are not domesticated. Vicuña wool is very very expensive as the animals need to be caught from the wild, and can only be shorn every 3 years, producing a small amount of very fine wool. You could buy a pair of Vicuña wool socks for £726.
I have also finally figured out the difference between alpacas and llamas. Llamas are taller, bigger and have longer legs than alpacas. If it looks shaggy, with long banana shaped ears and a flat, level back, it’s a llama. The brightly-coloured tassels and bells seen on llamas and alpacas in Peru are done so ownership of the animal can be determined from a distance. Each family has it’s own particular thread colours which are woven into the wool on the ears, and also used around the neck of the animal.
From the highest point of the journey, we started the long descent into the small town of Chivay (3,630m) where we stayed the night. In the steep hills surrounding the town are man-made terraced fields (some which date back to Inca times) and is where the locals still grow potatoes, beans and quinoa for export. Chivay is 1.5 hours from the Condor lookout, so coming from Arequipa, it makes a good place to stop for the night before visiting the lookout in the morning.
Cruz del Condor is one of the deepest points in the Canyon, and an area home to the giant Andes Condor. In the morning all the traffic is heading to the lookout – a procession pf vans and buses driving along the winding dirt road. As a consequence, every day from 8-10am, the lookout is packed with people – Peruvians, schoolchildren and foreign tourists alike, waiting for the condors to ride the warm thermal air currents up from the bottom of the canyon. The Andes Condor has a wingspan of up to 3.2m and relies on thermals to stay airborn, rather than flapping its wings. In the air they look effortless and graceful, up close however they are pretty ugly-looking. The canyon is so deep, that from the lookout, you cannot even see the bottom in some places.
Peru’s Colca Canyon is definitely worth the trip – amazing scenery, good food, cute towns and friendly locals (of the 2 and 4 legged varieties).