Colca Canyon: a Volcanic 2 Day Birthday Tour

In November 2016, to celebrate our birthdays, Rocío and I took a two day tour of the picturesque Colca Canyon. In southern Peru’s Caylloma Province, the Colca is one of the world’s deepest canyons and a must visit to see the Andean Condor. I had previously hiked the canyon. This time we wanted a relaxing trip. Booked through our YES Arequipa hostel, the tour was extremely good value.

Day 1

On our first morning we were picked up from our accommodation by the tour bus and driven north to Chivay, the canyon’s principle town.

Vicunas in front of Misti Volcano between Arequipa and Colca Canyon

Vicuñas in front of the Misti volcano

On the way to Chivay we stopped several times, first at the Salinas y Aguada Blanca National Reserve to see wild vicuñas and later, their domestic cousins, alpacas and llamas.

Rocio and I with Llamas and Alpacas between Arequipa and Colca Canyon

Rocío and I posing with llamas and alpacas

Our third stop was at a roadside café for a herbal tea.

Muña and other herbal tea at a stop between Arequipa and ChivayMuña tea on the left and a different herbal tea on the right

From Arequipa’s 2,335 metre elevation, the road north rises up to the 4,915 metre high Mirador de los Andes before descending to Chivay’s 3,635 metres. Many people feel the effects of altitude sickness at Mirador de los Andes and the tour buses usually don’t stop for long. From Mirador de los Andes several volcanoes are visible including Misti, Chachani and Sabancaya. Sabancaya was quiet for now.

Mirador Los Andes, volcano lookout, Arequipa Province

At Mirador de los Andes signs point out volcanoes Misti and Chachani; hundreds of stone cairns surround the viewpoint

Our final stop before our Chivay hotel was at an overpriced buffet restaurant. The food was okay but not worth the price. I guess the tour operator needed to make money somehow.

Entry to the Colca Canyon tourism region costs foreigners 70 soles (AUD28) and Peruvians less. The money is meant to fund maintenance and construction of tourist infrastructure although rumours suggest revenue goes elsewhere.

From our basic hotel we saw a grey cloud on the horizon – the Sabancaya volcano had begun smoking! After checking in, we wandered to Chivay’s main square (Plaza de Armas) for a look around.

Peruvian tourists, Chivay, Colca Canyon, Peru

Peruvian tourists in Chivay’s main square

Adjacent Chivay’s colonial church was a small truck with an enclosed rear: La Camera Obscura. Inside was a Spanish guy passionate about photography. He had fitted out his truck and travelled South America presenting a practical history on early photography to anybody who wanted to watch and listen, donations optional. Of course ever curious Rocío had to see it and I enjoyed the presentation, even in Spanish.

Chivay church from La Camera Oscura, Chivay, Peru

The photography guru demonstrating the camera obscura principle: a reversed and inverted image of the outside church is viewable through a small hole in the side of the darkly lit truck

We met back up with the tour group to visit neighbouring district Coporaque’s natural hot springs spa Aguas Termales Umaru. While most people settled for the pool, we splurged and hired our own private spa for a birthday treat. Combined with Colca sour cocktails and canyon views it was a wonderful, relaxing experience.

View of canyon including private natural hot spring jacuzzis - Aguas Termales Umaru, Coporaque

The private spa rooms are the buildings on the right, towards the canyon floor

Skipping the evening’s folkloric dinner and show and we instead visited Chivay’s main market (Mercado Central). Fortunately, the nearby weekly market occurred Thursdays and from the street stalls we bought mangos and creamed honey and ate churros and alpaca skewers (anticuchos). Ending the evening at Aromas Caffee, we enjoyed Baileys coffee, cedron tea, chocolate cake and ‘hot spring’ cocktail.

Day 2

Dawn day two and volcano Sabancaya was still smoking.

Following an early morning breakfast we got in the bus for a tour west along the canyon, first stop Yanque. And there, we witnessed it – Sabancaya erupting. The volcano emitting a giant cloud of gases and particles appeared surreal and overshadowed (figuratively, not literally) Yanque’s colonial church and colourful dancing in the square.

Sabancaya volcano erupting, viewed from Yanque, Colca Canyon

Volcano Sabancaya erupting into the sky as viewed from Yanque

Church statue Santisima Virgen de Chapi wearing Colca hat, Yanque

A statue of the Santisima Virgen de Chapi wearing the eastern Colca Canyon Collagua hat and clothes in Yanque’s colonial church

Colca Canyon’s enormity impresses and the tour stopped at multiple canyon viewpoints. Almost everywhere locals appeared selling souvenirs, snacks and photos with llamas, alpacas or eagles.

Colca Canyon from viewpoint near Achoma, Peru

The impressive Colca Canyon viewed from near Achoma

Tragically, three months prior to our visit, a fatal earthquake struck the Colca Canyon. The canyon closed for visits until landslides blocking roads cleared and damage assessed. Evidence from the September 2016 earthquake was still visible on our visit including damaged roads and buildings

Earthquake fissure in road, Colca Canyon, Caylloma Province, Peru

Road damage west of Maca caused by the earthquake 3 months previous

Behind the town of Maca giant fissures from a previous quake graced the mountains.

Earthquake fissure behind Maca municipality building, Colca Canyon, Peru

The Maca District municipality building in front of a giant fissure

Maca had the usual colonial era church (dating from 1759) and an unusual private museum featuring the broad bean (fava bean; haba in Spanish). At the time, after seeing bean fields all over the Bolivian and Peruvian high Andes, I thought it was one of the many indigenous South American food plants. In fact, the legume comes from Africa and Asia.

Broad bean varieties, museum in Maca, Colca Canyon

The Maca museum featured several varieties of broad beans

Eagle with man, Maca, Colca Canyon

A Maca man posing with his captive eagle

Also in Maca, we couldn’t turn down another birthday Colca sour, even at 8am! Don Beni made us the local pisco sour variant using sancayo cactus fruit instead of the standard lime.

Don Beni making a Colca sour with cactus fruit, Maca, Colca Canyon Don Beni measuring the syrup (jarabe de goma) for our Colca sour; note the sancayo cactus fruit in the basket

Colca Canyon, more specifically Cruz del Condor, is perhaps the best place anywhere to see the Andean Condor, a magnificent animal and one of the world’s largest flying birds with a wingspan greater than three metres. Condors soar past Cruz del Condor at specific times each morning and afternoon when hundreds of tourists await eagerly. This day we saw at least three condors, good, but not as many as my first visit.

Condor flying, Cruz del Condor, Colca Canyon, Caylloma Province, Arequipa Region, Peru

An adult Andean condor soaring past Cruz del Condor; note the road along the distant mountain side

Colca Canyon, Caylloma Province, Arequipa Region, Peru

Another spectacular Colca Canyon view featuring the Colca River at the base

Colca Canyon woman weaving colourful cloth at souvenir stall

A woman wearing the western Colca Cabana hat weaving at her souvenir stall

We decided to skip the final buffet lunch outside Chivay and instead walked around the area. Sabancaya was still billowing but weaker than earlier. Boarding the bus, our Colca birthday tour was ending, but not the memories.

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