After a rough journey, we reached a gorge deeper than the Grand Canyon – and spent the next week following Incan trails in search of Andean villages, hot springs and endangered condors.
By Christine Lavin
I’m not going to lie. When our driver pulled up at 7am in front of our hotel in Arequipa, my family didn’t exactly leap into the small van.
We had been traveling together for almost three months across the far corners of the South American continent, and were now in southern Peru and nearing the final stages of our extended travel odyssey. Sights were starting to blur together, everyone’s jokes were stale, and the long van rides were becoming less of the fun adventure I’d dreamed they’d be. To make matters worse, on this particular morning, my oldest son declared that his stomach was cramping just as we loaded the last of our five worn duffels into the back of the transport. I accepted the fate our family’s travel gods had in store for us and wedged myself into the second row.
Over the next three and a half hours we passed through vast barren plains populated by only copper mines and guanacos, the undomesticated cousin of the llama and alpaca. Wild as they may be, the flocks wandered with mannerly ease across the seemingly infinite terrain, barely flinching at the sound of our diesel engine as we zoomed by.
To divert our two boys’ attention away from their abdominally unstable older brother, we made a game of spotting these frolicking camelids camouflaged within the landscape. Even the best “Where’s Waldo” books couldn’t rival this IRL challenge. Just as we hit our stride, however, we ascended into the windy mountains and lost our surroundings within blustery snow squalls.
One hundred miles and four vomit stops later, we pulled over to catch our breath – literally and figuratively. Our jaws dropped at the spectacular view.
Bathed in a warm glow of mid-day sun, the expansive Colca Canyon unfolded below us. From our perch, we could appreciate how one river’s unyielding intention will patiently, century after century, carve through the earth to reveal its conquest. It is an awesome aberration of geographical formation. Thank you travel; once again, you push our boundaries of discomfort only to dutifully reward us with breathtaking bounty.
Into the Deep
The Colca Canyon is one of the highest and deepest in the world. The base of the valley sits at 12,000 feet above sea level, higher than Machu Picchu. At 13,648 feet, it is twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. Lining the gentler slopes of the lush valley like fresh wallpaper are miles and miles of ancient Inca terraces. My son said that it looked like a life-sized three-dimensional topographical map. We found it impossible to find a bad lookout anywhere along the canyon’s rim.
We descended into the valley, passing briefly through the small town of Chivay and towards Hotel Aranwa, beautifully nestled along the rocky shores of the Colca River. It was early March, the tail end of Peru’s rainy season, so the river was justifiably raging at that point. The rafting adventures that draw tourists in the peak season of April to November were nowhere to be seen.
With impending showers on the horizon and a recuperating kid, we opted out of a tour through the markets of Chivay in favor of a soak in the region’s renowned hot springs. Due to the seismic activity of the nearby valley of volcanoes, the Colca Valley is sprinkled with natural hot springs, or thermal baths, where one can enjoy a warm soak in waters rich with minerals thought to have medicinal healing properties.
The largest of these baths is La Calera, located in the town of Chivay. It has five pools, ranging in temperature, as well as a small museum. I’m sure it’s worth going to, however for this afternoon, the smaller and lesser-known baths located adjacent to our hotel suited us just fine. We were definitely among the locals in this hidden gem, receiving our fair share of stares and odd glances, which after months on the road, we knew to mean we’d succeeded in finding the road-less-traveled.
Valley of the Incas
Aptly coined “The Forgotten Valley of Peru” by the late author Robert Shippee, the Colca Valley region maintains a rich cultural history dating back to before the 16th Century when the Spaniards invaded the region. Prior to this time, the Incas lived scattered throughout the valley. In 1570, the ambitious Spanish viceroy Francisco de Toledo ordered the native inhabitants to re-settle into more centralized communities, aiming to consolidate and strengthen the Spanish power in the Andean region. These communities, tucked away among the extraordinary landscape, continue to maintain a strong sense of heritage in their customs to this day.
While most tourists come to Colca Canyon for the trekking and condor sighting, wandering through these communities should not be missed. The most obvious way to distinguish the home community of one local from another is through their colorful hats, worn mainly by the women. The hats are richly adorned and showcase and intricate embroidery. All are worn with a strong sense of pride.
Trekking between communities and ruins of the Colca Valley is outstanding. The abundance of trails offers myriad opportunities to explore the valley’s beauty and history. After a hearty day of roaming the hillsides, trekkers can choose from several simple accommodations where they can soak their tired muscles in hot springs.
The Condor’s Cross
One of the most popular destinations in the Colca Valley is the Cruz del Condor, a renowned spot in the deepest part of the canyon where the world’s largest birds soar in their natural habitat through the valley’s air vortexes.
Unfortunately, spotting one of these endangered birds of prey is rare. The population of the Andean condor is rapidly declining due to overhunting and irresponsibly used poisons that kill the birds in their mating prime. If we had any chance of seeing one up close, this location had the best odds of anywhere in the world.
We arrived at the cruz early in the morning, when sightings are most common, but encountered nothing more than disheartened tourists and abundant fog that blanketed the entire valley. Not one voluminous vulture in sight.
We shrugged our shoulders, dismissed the site as a touristic draw for “condor newbies”, and proceeded on with our day’s adventure. Later that afternoon, on our return trip home, our guide, Miguel asked us if we wanted to stop and give it another try even though afternoon sightings are much less common. We arrogantly assumed that we had learned all there is to know about condors from our journey through the highlands of Ecuador in February, so we voted to continue on back towards the hotel. Our typically meek guide strongly encouraged us to reconsider our decision. With zero crowds and clear visibility, he again urged us to make another quick stop.
At that very moment, as if cued by the Peru Department of Tourism, three massive condors rose up above the crest of the canyon walls, gracefully surfing the wind as if they could see the air’s crests and troughs with infrared eyes. We raced out of the van with full abandon towards the canyon’s edge where they flew past us in staggeringly close proximity.
Never underestimate the awesomeness of seeing something in nature do what it does best – even if you have seen it before. Good call, Miguel, gracias.
Good to Know
Trekking Galore Natural beauty and culture provides all the entertainment here. There is lots to explore if you have a good pair of walking shoes and are willing to stray from the crowds. Short and long treks are everywhere in the Colca Valley, replete with Incan ruins, natural geysers, and local villages. Paths that lead through the small village oasis of Sangalle are a great option for those looking for an overnight excursion.
Rainy Days Beware of predictable afternoon showers, especially in the rainy season of late January-mid March.
Start in Arequipa Arequipa is the departure city for an excursion to the Colca Valley. Plan on spending a night there, and exploring the city’s historic corners, both before and after your time in the valley.
Stay at Casa Andina For a midrange hotel, we liked Casa Andina. For a family of five, accommodation ran $150-$200 a night for two rooms in early March, including breakfast.
Christine Lavin – April 2019
Christine Lavin has always been drawn to global travel, initially though foreign studies programs, then throughout her career in international business. In 2018, she traded career and Connecticut for a South American family odyssey. She continues to follow the road-less-traveled with her husband and three boys. Read more of their adventures at ourlatinleap.com
© ROAM Family Travel 2019 – All rights reserved
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