You’ll read in many Peru guidebooks that you simply MUST visit Kolca Canyon if you can make it to nearby Arequipa. Maybe…maybe not.
With that “unmissable” review, and with no time in our itineray to program a multi-day hike or even an overnight stay in the canyon, we opted for the one-day tour. That involved getting up at 3 AM to sit under blankets in a dark bus zipping all over Arequipa to pick up fellow tourists.
Kolca Canyon is Twice the Depth of the Grand Canyon
When it starts to get light- at least in November- you are somewhat descended in the canyon. Though much was made by the tour guide on the bus of comparing Kolca Canyon to the US Grand Canyon and one in China, this was vis-à-vis the canyon depths. If you’ve experienced that initial gasp as you approach the Grand Canyon’s luxurious southwest orange, red, golden hues with blues too--- well, this is not what you should expect here. Rather, it’s more a moonscape, at least in November, and more and more so as you descend.
Our bus tour guide, an area native, told us that while the government is technically the land owner, it is the people who live there who make the rules. Here, as elsewhere, pre-Inca worship of Pachamama and Pachapapa were evident in the stones atop boulders, signs of offerings made to these gods. We were told the key times for these observances are August 1 and in February after the rains have given the people water, and they are happy.
Indeed, it is an arid landscape.
Locals of higher canyon elevations, Collaguas, speak one language (Aymara) and below the Cabanas speak Quechua. In the past, the ways the different peoples tried to differentiate from each other included different styles of cranial deformations, long ago abandoned. When you see women sporting white hats with sequin bands, you are seeing an evolution of those more drastic fashions.
Arriving at the first stop in the mid-canyon descent you come to Chivay for the usual missable Peruvian breakfast just as the locals are getting to their day’s work. From the distance of a bus herd, you feel the hard scrabble nature of their lives.
Your vista often includes a volcano puffing in the distance. You pass the volcano you see in Arequipa, El Misti, and continuing on your journey, the volcanoes of Sabancaya (active), Ampato (dormant) and Hualca Hualca (extinct). Note: Ampato is the volcano where the Juanita mummy was discovered.
After this quick stop for breakfast, on you go, timed to catch glimpses of the condors of the canyon. You’ll hear many disclaimers that they don’t always appear, but appear they did, one by one, and then two, and then again. This is likely a matter of calendar, with November being a better time for sighting as they are incubating eggs. They are cool, not really flying but instead gliding. Most of the people trying to snap memories probably didn’t get them, because cellphone cameras or simple point and shoots probably are insufficient. Bring your zoom.
And, if the idea of being damp on a long bus ride home doesn’t deter you, bring your swim suit too, so you can take advantage of the hot springs in Yanque, the last town you visit in this one day tour. If you opt out of the dunk you can wander around taking in the zip liners and the luxury resorts below the town.
It strikes this writer that this canyon is an odd place to put luxury resorts, given how many more beautiful spots one sees in Peru. It would be interesting to know how many of the resort customers are the well-heeled from Arequipa on quick getaways vs. international guests.
This one-day tour itinerary – typical we here—also included a stop to soak up vicuna, llama and alpaca herds, and a guanaco at the Centro de Interpretacion do la Reserva Nacional Salinas. They are easy to fall in love with.
Final tip—bring insect repellant as you will encounter sand bugs and their stinging bites that can linger for weeks or months after the journey.
On a longer trip, there is more to do.
Go for an overnight to give you more freedom to explore beyond this very beaten tourist path? Make it a several day hike through the Canyon? We can’t speak to these options directly except to say a one-day trip to Machu Picchu put the possibility of a return there to arrive via two-day trek instead of train as an intriguing option. Not so after a one day quick visit here.