The road to Chivay and Colca is always a fascinating experience, especially the first hour climbing high to the Reserva Nacional de Aguada Blanca, where it’s usually possible to spot wild groups of wild vicuñas roaming the pampa. At the crossroads where the trails split between the Chivay or Cusco routes and the old road to Juliaca and Puno, it’s possible to make out the unusual volcanic ash strata sandwiched into the impressive cliffs on the northwestern horizon.
Heading north, you’ll soon pass the access track down to the caves of Sumbay (around $7). To stay at Sumbay, you’ll have to camp, but if you have a vehicle, it’s easy enough to stop for an hour or so en route, following the signpost (at Km 103 from Arequipa) down a poor track to the village of Sumbay (4532m), about 1.5km away.
At this point, you’ll need to find the guardian of the cave (often just a tiny shepherd child) who can open the gate for your car to continue another kilometer to a parking area.
It’s a ten-minute walk from the entrance to the caves, down into a small canyon just before the bridge. The guardian will have to unlock another gate to give you access to the site. Although trimmed, the main Sumbay cave contains a series of 8000-year-old rock paintings representing shamans, llamas, deer, pumas, and vicuñas.
The surrounding countryside is impressive: herds of alpacas roam gracefully around the plain, looking for ichu grass to munch, and vast sculpted rock strata of varying colors mix smoothly with crudely hewn gullies.
The main road splits at Viscachani, where a few huts and cafés are left for Chivay and straight on, northeast, for Cusco. The Chivay route continues past circular corrals used as breeding stations for vicuñas and alpacas.
The next major landmark is the region’s highest pass at Patapampa (4800m), marked by a landscape of stone-piled cairns set against a high Andean landscape. If you leave the car or bus, remember to take it easy; breathlessness is natural until you’ve been at a high altitude for a few days.
The occasional viscacha is often seen around this point, darting between the many rocks and boulders that litter the scene. Another rare species, the Yapat plant, can also be spotted at this altitude. Green, semi-spherical, and looking like a cross between a brain and a broccoli flower, the Yapat plant is traditionally used as cooking fuel. However, it is in danger of extinction, so only local peasants are allowed to utilize them.
The road then descends via a winding route toward the Colca Canyon. About forty minutes before arriving at the valley floor, the first of the area’s fantastic pre-Inca agricultural terraces can be seen, with the town of Chivay nestled among them.
Chivay and around
Surrounded by some of South America’s most impressive and intensive ancient terracings, CHIVAY, 163km north of Arequipa and just four hours by bus, lies at the heart of a great hiking/mountain biking country.
It also makes a good base if you want to go whitewater rafting on the Río Colca. Arriving at Chivay by road, a new tourism checkpoint issues standard, mandatory Colca general tourist tickets, which cost US$18 and offer “free” entry to the Mirador Cruz del Condor, other main miradors, and all the major churches in the Valley.
Though Chivay is notable as a market town (with the market itself located along Avenida Salaverry, where you’ll also find a slew of artisanal shops) that dominates the head of the Colca Canyon, it’s not the best place from which to see the canyon. Despite an impressive river running through a narrow chasm visible from the Puente Inca along the exit road towards Coporaque and the other northern bank settlements. Chivay is nevertheless ever more bustling with gringos eager to use the town as a base for exploring the Colca Canyon either in the traditional way, by bus to the Mirador Cruz del Condor, or, more adventurously, by mountain bike, kayak, raft, or strenuous trekking. The town has a growing range of accommodations, restaurants, and bus services for these visitors, making it a suitable place to stay while acclimatizing to the high altitude. Serious trekkers will soon want to move to one of the other canyon towns, Cabanaconde.
Just 5 kilometers east of town, slightly further up the Colca Canyon, the road passes mainly through cultivated fields until it reaches the tiny settlement of La Calera, which boasts one of Chivay’s main attractions. A fantastic series of hot spring pools (daily 5 a.m.–7 p.m.; $6), fed by the bubbling, boiling brooks that emerged from the mountainsides at an average natural temperature of 85°C, are said to be good for curing arthritis and rheumatism.
These thermal baths have been recently renovated, making them the cleanest and best-serviced hot springs in Peru and a delight not to be missed. There’s also a small museum (free) on-site with models and artifacts demonstrating local customs, such as making an offering to Pacha Mama, Mother Earth. Camping is sometimes permitted by Pool 5 but needs to be negotiated with the official at the reception hut on arrival. In under an hour, you can walk from Chivay or take one of the colectivos that leave approximately twenty minutes from the church-side corner of Plaza de Armas in Chivay (90¢).
The Colca Canyon
Claimed to be the deepest canyon in the world at more than 1km from the cliff edge to the river bottom, the Colca Canyon may be an impressive sight but is some 170m less profound than its more remote rival, the Cotahuasi Canyon. Colca Canyon was formed by a massive geological fault between the two enormous volcanoes of Coropuna (6425m) and Ampato (6318m), with the Río Colca forming part of a gigantic watershed that empties into the Pacific near Camana. Despite being one of Peru’s most popular tourist attractions, the canyon’s sharp terraces are still home to more or less traditional Indian villages.
Meanwhile, to the north of Colca sits the majestic Mismi Nevado, a snow-capped peak that belongs to the Chila mountain range. According to National Geographic, it is the official source of the Amazon River.
Trekking in and around the Colca Canyon
There are dozens of treks in the Colca Canyon, but if you’re planning on descending to the canyon floor, even if just for the day, it’s best to be fit and prepared for the altitude; it’s tough-going and becomes quite dangerous in sections. Guides do recommend it, and several tour operators offer this service, for which you’ll pay from $80 to over $150 a day per person. Competition between companies is high, so check out all the options and determine what you’re getting—from the quality of your guide, transport, and accommodation to the quality of equipment used for adventure activities and whether there may be any supplementary charges (for entry to museums and so on).
Treks from Cabanaconde
A 15-minute walk from the plaza in Cabanaconde takes you past the bullring to the Mirador Achachina, a good spot for seeing condors and viewing the western end of the valley from above.
A more classic arrival by foot from Cabanaconde to the top of the Colca Canyon is just a ten-minute walk along a relatively short track beyond the newly constructed Casa de Pablo hostel, a five-minute walk from the plaza.
The descent from here follows an incredibly steep path, quite dangerous in parts, down to the Oasis, a rustic lodge and campsite right at the bottom of the canyon, below Cabanaconde; it takes one and a half to two hours to descend and four or five to get back up. Many people stay the night, camping or renting space in one of the huts run by the Casa, as mentioned earlier by de Pablo. Alternatively, there’s a growing choice of accommodations in the center of Cabanaconde.
An alternative trek is the popular eight-hour hike from Cabanaconde to Lake Mucurca (4000m), where the beautiful Ampato volcano is reflected in its crystalline waters. The adventurous trek along a trail closer to or around (04 to 06 days) the massive, astonishingly beautiful snowcapped mountain peak Ampato
The Ampato Trail has one very high pass—about 4850m at crossing two trails on Cerro Quenahuane above the Quebrada Condori – and most of the walking is at over 4200m.
Colcas de Chichinia
A relatively easy two-hour walk from the village of Coporaque takes in the Colcas de Chichinia, a semi-intact set of pre-Inca tombs from the Huari. Today, they lie exposed at the foot of the cliffs on Cerro Yurac Ccacca (also known as Cerro San Antonio). A path leads out from a block or two just below the plaza, crossing the stream as you leave the settlement behind and climbing steadily towards a prominent, pink, rocky outcrop. The tombs are just below the four-thousand-meter contour line. Several overhangs have been partially filled in with stone as permanent thrones for pre-Inca mummies, placed here ceremoniously to spend eternity watching over the valley, gazing east towards several sacred mountain peaks.
To the southwest, the partly tumbled but still impressive Huari village can be seen stretching from the tombs down to a significant Tambo-style (Quechua for house or resting place) building on the bottom corner, which commands views around the valley. Because it’s little-visited, the path for entry partly fortified the Tambo section, even to the principal.
It isn’t marked and more or less leaves you to find your route; given this, it’s essential not to damage the stone walls and agricultural plots you must find your way through. To get back to Coporaque, you can either drop down the road and trace this back up to the settlement or go along the small aqueduct that follows the hill’s contour from the Tambo back to where you started to climb towards the tombs.
The road to Mirador Cruz del Condor and Cabanaconde
In the mountains to the southwest, dominated by the glaciers of Ampato and Hualca, the volcano Sabancaya can often be seen smoking away in the distance as you travel the 50km to the Mirador Cruz del Condor and Cabanaconde. From Chivay, the first village the road winds through is Yanque.
A delicate white church, a small archaeology museum, thermal baths by the river, horse riding facilities, and mountain bike rental. And, after Maca, some of the area’s best-preserved pre-Inca ruins.
This town lies right on the fault line. It is a highly active tremor zone with visible effects on various land movements. Abandoned houses, deep fissures running here and there across fields or through settlements, and road re-routings as the route continues through a very dark tunnel just beyond Maca.
Mirador Cruz del Condor
As a gateway to Mirador Cruz del Condor, the settlement of Pinchollo has a small museum and a tourist information office with photos and a model representing the canyon. Here, you can purchase a tourist ticket for the Colca area ($18), covering access to the Mirador Cruz del Condor and all the churches in the Valley (which don’t charge).
Just a little further down the road, the Mirador is the most popular point for looking into the canyon’s depths; it’s around 1200m deep here. And where you can almost guarantee seeing several condors circling up from the depths against breathtaking scenery (best spotted 7–9 am; the earlier you get there, the more likely you are to have fewer other spectators around).
Cabanaconde and around
The bus terminal at the small but growing town of Cabanaconde (3300m), 10km on, is an excellent base to descend into the canyon. An impressive high wall and painted gateway mark the town’s eighteenth-century cemetery. The city also has several semi-destroyed stone buildings and leftover doorways from the late colonial (or Viceregal) era.
If you can make it for the Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen, usually between July 14 and 18, you’ll see the bullring in full action and the town in the throes of a major religious festival and party. From Cabanaconde, the road becomes a little-used dirt track, continuing down the valley via Huambo and Sihuas to the coastal Pan-American Highway. You can catch buses back to Arequipa to complete the circuit. If you’re thinking of hitching, be aware that few trucks use this route, and it’s only recommended in the dry season (June–Sept) for those well-prepared with food and camping equipment.
Toro Muerto and the Valley of the Volcanoes
It’s difficult not to be overwhelmed by the sheer size and isolation of Toro Muerto and the Valley of the Volcanoes. These two locations, though over 100km apart, are linked by the fact that the rocks on which the Toro Muerto petroglyphs carve were spewed out by volcanoes, possibly from as far away as Coropuna or Chachani in the Valley above during the Tertiary period, about fifty million years ago. How can you visit Toro Muerto and the Valley on guided tours from Arequipa? Still, many people independently choose to make one of the most exciting—albeit long and exhausting—trips to southern Peru.
The Toro Muerto petroglyphs
The Toro Muerto petroglyphs consist of carved boulders strewn over a kilometer or two of a hot desert. More than a thousand rocks of all sizes and shapes have been crudely, yet strikingly, engraved with various distinct representations.
No archaeological remains have been directly associated with these images, but it is thought that they date from between 1000 and 1500 years ago; they are primarily attributed to the Wari culture, though with probable additions during subsequent Chuquibamba and Inca periods of domination in the region.
The Valley of the Volcanoes, Arequipa
Following 65km of the Río Andagua’s course, the valley skirts the non-active volcano Coropuna, the highest in Peru (6425m). At first sight, just a pleasant Andean valley, the Valley of the Volcanoes (Valle de los Volcanoes) is one of the strangest geological formations you’ll ever likely see. A stunning lunar landscape, the valley is studded with extinct craters varying in size and height from 200 to 300m. About 200,000 years ago, these small volcanoes erupted when the lava fields were degassed due to one of Coropuna’s significant eruptions.
The main section of the valley is about 65km long; to explore it in detail, you’ll need to get maps (two adjacent ones are required) from the South American Explorers’ Club, the Instituto Geográfico in Lima, or the Instituto de Cultura in Arequipa. As well as a tent—or a sheet of plastic and a suitable sleeping bag if you’re feeling adventurous—you’ll need good supplies, especially water and a sunhat; the sun beating down on the black ash can get unbelievably hot at midday.
The best overall view of the Valley can be had from Anaro Mountain (4800m), looking southeast towards the Chipchane and Puca Maura cones. The highest volcanoes, Los Gemelos (The Twins), are about 10km from Andagua. The Andomarca volcano has a pre-Inca ruined settlement around its base to the south.
First navigated by a Polish expedition in 1981 and declared a Zona de Reserva Turistica Nacional in 1988, the magnificent COTAHUASI CANYON (Cañon de Cotahuasi), 378km from Arequipa, has since opened up to visits that don’t necessarily involve major rafting trips. However, getting to this wild and remote place is even more adventurous and less frequently attempted than the Valley of the Volcanoes trip. One of the world’s deepest canyons, along with nearby Colca and the Grand Canyon in the US, runs more or less parallel to the Cordillera de Chila, an official source of the Amazon, and boasts some pretty impressive statistics: around 3400m deep and over 100km long.
Arriving from the south along the difficult road from Arequipa (some 375km long), the route passes along the bottom of the Canyon, where the main settlement, Cotahuasi pueblo, can be found. It has a variable climate but isn’t particularly cold. It is rapidly developing a name as an adventure-travel destination and continuing north to the village of Alcha (near the hot springs of Luicho), the road forks. To the right, it heads into the deeper part of the Canyon, where you’ll find the village of Pucya and, further up the Valley, heading pretty well northwest.
About 40km from Cotahuasi, the Wari ruins of Marpa can be seen straddling both sides of the river. Still, another hour away is the larger and better-preserved Wari city of Maukallaqta.