Touring Colca Canyon

The number one activity I (and most visitors to Arequipa) wanted to do was a tour to the Colca Canyon. There are three main options for this you can book online or through nearly any travel agent (which there are dozens of around the main square) – one-day tour, two-day tour with an overnight in the town of Chivay, or overnight trekking tour with an overnight down in the canyon. We chose the two-day tour and saved quite a bit of money by booking with a travel agent on the square (300 soles/$80 for the two of us versus the $150 online price I had planned on). 

The tour got off to a bit of a rocky start after being delayed by the guide Pepe not being able to find a fellow passenger’s accommodation, but finally we were off. Our group was made up of 8 Peruvians, a solo American we befriended, and us. 

The first stop is at a little store on the way out of town to buy altitude sickness remedies because we’d be spending most of our time on the tour between 3,600 and 4,000 meters (12,000-13,000 feet). Chad and I chose to buy both the leaves to chew and some pills. The leaves were interesting, but I preferred the pills and we didn’t experience any symptoms. 

We enjoyed the drive through Reserva Nacional de Salinas y Aguada Blanca, which included sightings of vicuñas, flamingos, and Andean rabbits. We also stopped in the park to drink some mate to help acclimate to the altitude. Mine (called Misti) was made with Arequipeno papaya and Chad’s (called Pichu Pichu) with passion fruit. Both were tasty and beautifully presented for just 10 soles each. 

After the reserve we arrived in Chivay for a late lunch. The tour wants you to buy the local buffet each day, but we brought a healthy picnic for our first lunch and found a pretty spot to enjoy it. Honestly, our picnic was one of the highlights of the trip. Following lunch we had a couple of hours at the Chacapi Thermal Baths, which were very nice and well worth the extra 15 soles per person.

Then we were dropped off at our hotel, which was included in the tour price. There was the option to have dinner with the group, including a song and dance show, but Chad and I chose to skip this and explore the town of Chivay instead.

This was definitely the right choice because Chivay is very charming. We bought a little popcorn from a street vendor and wandered the town square, down a street with statues representing various dances, and up to a beautiful trail and overlook. We got there just before dark and really enjoyed our time. Then we met up with our new friend Parker for a drink on the main square and then out to a very tasty Peruvian dinner. Chad and I got soup and split the trout with fine herbs and Parker chose an alpaca steak (which we ended up trying a single bite of the following day on the lunch buffet; it was fine but not something we’ll order again). We were too busy chatting to take our usual food photos.

The next day the hotel gave us an early 6 a.m. breakfast of local rolls (and some meat and cheese we skipped) and we were picked up for part 2 of the tour – the main canyon and the condor crossing. For better or worse, the morning was quite foggy, which made for some atmospheric photos but wasn’t ideal for canyon and condor viewing. But as we made our way back toward Chivay, we saw a place with lots of parked buses and people looking up and we were able to see one condor in flight high above us. It was hard to get a sense of how big it was (they can be four feet tall with a 10-foot wingspan) but I was glad to see it.

On the way to Chivay we also stopped in the town of Maca where Pepe introduced us to a drink called the Colca sour, which is like a pisco sour but instead of lime it is made with the fruit of the sancayo cactus. We also had the opportunity to try the sancayo fruit, which was like a sour kiwi. It was actually the cocktail Chad ordered the night before but it was fun to get more information about it and try it in this cute little town. Fortified by the Colca sour, we finally gave in and got a tourist photo of Chad holding a baby alpaca. He loved it.

After the buffet lunch in Chivay we drove back to Arequipa. We really enjoyed every part of the tour, especially the beautiful scenery of the Colca Canyon. All of our tour companions were pleasant to be with and we really learned a lot from Pepe (though we question some of his facts). I really think this tour, or another Colca excursion, is a must-do in Arequipa.

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