(Phone Code: 054 all villages)
Set amidst 6,000-meter (19,680-ft) peaks that plunge into a lunar-like landscape decorated with rocks, ichu grass and the bizarre-looking yareta plant, the Colca Canyon is famous for its natural beauty, cultural history and adventure treks. With an average depth of 3,400 meters (11,152 ft), Ca帽贸n del Colca is more than twice as deep as Arizona's Grand Canyon. Colca鈥檚 most profound point, at Satay (near Huambo), measures 4,160 meters (13,645 ft).
The Colca Canyon region is divided into valley and canyon. The broad valley stretches east from Maca, where most of the villages are. The narrow, deep canyon proper, whose steep walls plummet to the river, extends from Pinchollo to Huambo.
A long chain of volcanoes drape either side of the R铆o Colca. Edging the canyon鈥檚 south rim are Ampato (6,288 m / 20,499 ft), Sabancaya (5,976 m / 19,482 ft) and Wallqa Wallqa (6,025 m / 19,642 ft), among others. On the north side of Colca Canyon are Sepregina (5,432 m / 17,708 ft), Bomboya (5,200 m / 16,952 ft), Qewisha (5,315 m / 17,327 ft) and Mismi (5,597 m / 18,246 ft). Coropuna (6,425 m / 20,946 ft) is midway between Colca and Cotahuasi canyons, as is the Valle de los Volcanes.
Mismi is especially noteworthy: A 1982 expedition sponsored by Jean-Michel Cousteau discovered that this stratovolcano is the source of the Amazon River, thus proving it is longer than the Nile. The 2001 National Geographic Society and a 2007 Brazilian scientific expedition confirmed this. On the north slope, a solitary cross marks the beginning of this river, which begins as glacial melt, becoming the R铆o Carhuansanta, which then flows into the Apur铆mac, Ucayali, Mara帽贸n and Amazon rivers, thus making it the world鈥檚 longest river system.
Chivay is the gateway town into Ca帽贸n del Colca. From here, a number of roads lead into the canyon. The south side of the river is the most commonly traversed, and includes the villages of Yanque, Achoma, Maca, Pinchollo and Cabanaconde. Between Pinchollo and Cabanaconde is the Mirador Cruz de C贸ndor. Southwest of Cabanaconde lies Huambo, which may also be reached from Arequipa by a rudimentary road. The villages on the north side of the river are less visited, with the exception of Coporaque near Chivay. The other settlements on this side are Ichupampa, Lari, Madrigal and Tapay. To the east of Chivay are the Ba帽os Termales La Calera, Tuti, Sibayo and Callalli, with the Pintura Rupestre Mollepunku. There are many other small hamlets clinging to the sides of the canyon, like Sangalle (El Oasis).
Travelers usually start off the 151-kilometer (92 mi) trip to Ca帽贸n del Colca in Arequipa, and make the bumpy four-hour journey across the spectacular Andean landscape. Most of this region is part of the Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca, a stunningly beautiful area rich in wildlife. Flamingos, geese and black-faced Andean gulls lounge in salty lakes, while vicu帽as graze in nearby grasslands and vizcachas scurry across the rocky landscape. Towering over this natural playground is Volc谩n Misti (5,830 m / 19,123 ft). The traditional route from Arequipa climbs as high as 4,700 meters (15,416 ft), passing the petroglyphs at Sumbay cave, and crossing the desolate Patapampa plain dotted with mysterious stone piles built by the Collagua. At Patapampa is the so-called Mirador de los Andes, from where over a dozen volcanoes may be seen. From here, the road drops into Chivay, the gateway to Colca Canyon.
A great way to explore the region is on foot, via the numerous ancient trails that wind their way between villages. Today, in addition to its rich cultural heritage, the canyon offers tremendous outdoor adventure opportunities, like mountain climbing, horseback riding and whitewater rafting. Soloists should bear in mind that the canyon is extremely large, with a lot to offer in terms of sites and activities. If you want to do a lot or are limited by time, you may want to consider going with an agency. If you do decide to travel Lone Ranger-style, it's easy to catch a bus to Chivay or Cabanaconde, and explore the canyon on foot or by colectivo.
Upon arrival in Chivay, tourists must pay an access fee to enter the canyon: Foreigners $26, Peruvians $7.50 and other Latin Americans $15. Passports must be shown. Tickets are good for 10 days, but you may not leave the area. (If you do, you will have to pay the entry again.) You may buy the ticket at the Auto Colca office in Arequipa (Monday-Friday 8:30 a.m.-1 p.m., 2-6 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m.-noon. Ca Puente Grau 116. Tel: 203-010, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com, URL: www.colcaperu.gob.pe) or upon arrival. If you are visiting Ca帽贸n del Colca on tour, check to see if the entry fee is included in the price of the package.