Take a tour to Colca Canyon
One of the highlight activities of my trip to Arequipa was taking a tour to Colca Canyon.
Colca Canyon itself is one of the deepest canyons in the world. It rests between two volcanos - Coropuna (6,425 m) and Amapato (6,310 m).
The canyon is 3,400m deep at its deepest point and is 100 kms long.
We booked our tour through our hostel in Arequipa. The tour was run by Colonial Tours who provided us with a guide (Albert) and a driver (Jose). The tour cost us $20 soles plus another 35 soles to enter the national park (located at the entrance to Chivay town) and our food and drink (each meal was approx 15 soles but breakfast was included in the tour price). The tour was two days in duration.
For an overview of the tour please take a look at my two travelogues on Colca Canyon:
- Hiking and Walking
Monasterio de Santa Catalina
One of the more interesting tourist attractions (especially if you like architecture) is a visit to the Santa Catalina Monastery. The monastery was built in 1580 to shelter the daughters of a wealthy family. The monastery was totally cloistered and housed up to 450 nuns and servants until 1970 when it opened its doors to the public. The site is huge, covering about 20,000 m2 and completely surrounded by high walls. The nuns now live in the northern part of the monastery.
Entry costs 25 Soles. The Monastery has an Information Office, Souvenir Shop and Cafe. It is possible to get a guided tour (recommended) which is a cost not included in the ticket price. You will just need to pay a tip to your guide at the end of your tour.
- Museum Visits
- Historical Travel
The Arequipa Cathedral is located on the Plaza de Armas in central Arequipa. The building is considered one of the first 17th Century religious monuments of Arequipa. Like many of the buildings in Arequipa it is made of the distinctive white volcanic stone called sillar.
Arequipa is prone to earthquakes so much of the original cathdral has been re-built. The last major earthquake in 2001 caused serious damage to the cathdral's towers.
The cathedral can be visited during Monday to Saturday 7:30 - 11:30 am or 4:30 - 7:30 pm or Sundays 7:00 am - 1:30pm or 5:00 - 7:00 pm
- Historical Travel
Siteseeing Bus Tour
Okay so usually I don't promote such a tourist thing to do, but a bus tour around Arequipa was time well spent. The two tiered bus was comfortable and allowed for great pictures. They take you to a beautiful viewing point, a alpaca factory, and orient you to many other points of the city in a 3 hour tour for 30 soles, or about 10 dollars. Great way to familiarize yourself with the area, find out some possible places you want to spend more time in and most of all go because they give you an awesome yellow hat!
Monasterio Santa Catalina
This convent was founded in 1580 by the rich widow Maria de Guzman. She was very particular about who she would admit into the nunnery. Only second daughters coming from rich families were admitted bringing with them a substantial dowry. The woman joined the nunnery to live in chaste poverty. However this convent was a little more privledged. Each women had between 1 and 4 servant or slaves, usually black. They were constantly inviting muscians and having parties and living it up in the style they were acustomed to. In 1871 the pope sent Sister Josefa Cadena to straighten them out. She dismissed the slaves and whipped them all into shape.
This convent occupies an entire city block and is a winding maze of small streets, alleys and piazza's. They best way to see the convent is to wander at your own pace.
Day trip to Colca Canyon
AFor years it was under debate whether this was the deepest canyon in the world. However, at 3191 m deep it is a clode second to the neighboring Canon Cotahuasi which is 163m deeper. It is still an impressive site to stand on the ledge and to look down into the abyss that is th canyon.
The ledges are a popular stop early in the morning when it is common to see the Condor flying overhead.
There are a number of small tour companies around the main square of Arequipa that sell trips to Colca Canyon. Most trips are 2-5 day trips. We arranged a day trip to the Canyon but we had to leave our hotel at 4am in order to be in time to see the Condors fly. It was a long day but well worth it. The day trip was about $50 per person for a guide and driver.
Go to a Bull Fight
Every Wednesday the locals have some traditional bull fights. No need to worry as the animal is not killed. Two male bulls are simply put in the ring and a female bull (?) is paraded past them. The two males then fight for a bit until one runs off with it's tail between it's legs. The locals get really into it, standing up on the bleachers and cheering for their favorite bull. They really do rival American football fans. Kids even climb the surrounding trees to look over the stadiums walls.
We had out hostel arrange for a taxi to take us there and then pick us up at a pre-arranged time as the bull stadium is on the outskirts of town. It was about a 20-30 minute taxi ride from city center. Admission to the event was about $2 USD.
Juanita - The Ice Princess
The Museo "Santuarios Andinos" exhibits Peru's most famous mummy - Juanita.
In 1992 Miguel Zarate climbed Mt. Ampato, the regions highest peak at 6288m. At the summit he discovered remnants of a possible burial site. He returned in 1995 to find that recent seizmic eruptions had distirbed the site. The climbed back down the mountain and discovered a mummy of a 12-14 year old girl.
Juanita, as the mummy was to become known as was wrapped in finely woven blankets and was perfectly preserved due to the icy, sub-zero temperatures. It became clear from the care and cermony surrounding her death that this girl had been sacrificed to the Gods.
Her preservation was so great that it was determined that her death was caused by a blow to the head, but not before they fed her Coca leaves to drug her and serve as a partially anastesia. He stomach contents were still preserved.
She was given her own museum in 1998.
Mon - Sat: 9 am - 6 pm. Sun: 9 am - 3 pm
Colca Canyon and surrounding area
Colca Canyon and beyond
The area known as the Colca Canyon is amazing. If you come to Arequipa then it is worth the visit. There are many tour operating companies that offer inexpensive trips to the Colca Canyon. My advise to you, if you can spare a few days, is to take the trip that includes a hike down the oasis and through Cabanaconde. This is certainly the most unique experience, but it does involve some moderate hiking, so if this is not your cup of tea then the traditional tour will have to do.
The traditional tour involves being picked up early in the morning by the tour operator and morning travel to the town of Chivay, the first town in the area, where most likely you will spend one night. Along the way you will see many amazing sites and animals. You will also see how vast and empty some parts of the earth are. Have you reached the moon? you may wonder along the way. When you reach the highest part in the journey (they will let you know you are at the highest altitude), make sure you put one rock on top of another and then another and make wishes as the locals do.
Then you will start descending onto the town of Chivay which is where you will most likely spend the night. First you will be taken to your hotel and then somewhere for lunch in Chivay, then you will hit the hot springs in that town, which I highly, highly recommend, then will probably have the afternoon free to wonder around and be taken to a place for dinner where a band will play traditional music.
The following morning you will be taken to see the Condors in El Mirador del Condo, stopping along the way traditional towns. You will probably spend an hour or so at El mirador and turn around and get back to the city of Arequipa. This tour can run around $35-60 dollars.
If you can spare a few more days, take them and spend a an extra night in the area. You will never see anything else like it.
If you decide to go on your own, either via public transport or renting a pick up truck, I strongly suggest you make reservations in Chivay or any of the other towns. Chivay is the town with the most infrastructure (shops, entertainment, many more hotels, etc.).
Last year in August (2007) I made a reservation at what appeared to be a really nice hotel in Cabanaconde (Hotel Kuntur Wassi) and was very disappointed in what they gave me. For US $50 a room I expected a nice view as they had advertised on the internet but instead gave me a room in what appeared to be the basement with a view of a dirt wall. Cabanaconde is the very last town in the Colca Canyon area, so if you are going down to the Oasis this is the way you will most likely come up. If you decide to stay at Kuntur Wassi make sure they give you a room with a view and make sure you say you do not want any of the two rooms near the front desk, but rather the ones outside. They had given us these two rooms and were very ugly and unpleasant. We ended up leaving and not even staying the night. They had also misled us by saying the rate included breakfast and when we went it didn't. They seem to have fixed the misinformation they provide on their website and now make a distinction between the rooms. The place was pretty, we were just very disappointed with what they had give to us even though we had made reservations way in advance. We were lucky to be on our own so we ended up going back to Chivay that same day.
COLCA CANYON HIKE III
After lunch, it is a straight path through the 2 rather sad and deserted villages you saw from opposite just now - Coshiñihua and Malata. Then, another major hike down. Yes, you can see the gleaming swimming pool at the oasis!! From here, it is another 30 to 45 minutes.
Finally finally finally, after crossing another bridge at the foot of the canyon, welcome to the green grassy patch of the oasis!! Get into the damn pool. You deserve it!!!
As for me, I did not care if I froze to death later, I changed and plunged right in. The water stung my blisters badly though. But gosh, it was really refreshing and indeed, a paradise here as I looked up at the breathtaking canyon all around me.
At night, it will get very cold, so pile on everything. You will be sleeping in wooden and straw shacks called 'bungalows' in their tourist brochures.
The next morning, at 2+am, you will have to wake up and get ready for the, what I call, blind hike. At 3am, in the absolute darkness, we started climbing up a path. As you can't see what's down below, you can't fear. As you can't see what's up ahead, you can't feel discouraged.
But I was knackered after 15 minutes! How could I complete this upward hike in 3 hours?? Well, I give up wondering, I just concentrated on surviving to the next half hour each time. Some other groups go by 'taxis' - horses, that is.
Slowly, the canyon started to wake up as well. Gosh, it was surreal and incredibly beautiful to see the colours change. I mean, this was the other 'face' of the canyon… first, a skyful of stars in pitch black darkness and then, some grey shades discerning the distant layers of mountains and finally… we got orange. Yep, we got orange!
You should finally reach the top by around 6am. What an amazing sense of satisfaction you will have! But no, this is not the end… there is still another 30 minutes' walk through the terraced farmlands to the village of Cabanaconde for a hurried breakfast before dashing to take the 7am bus to Arequipa.
COLCA CANYON HIKE II
Around 6am, you will be driven towards Cruz del Condor. Along the way, you may stop at several towns like Yanque and Maca for tourists to take photos of the traditionally-dressed ladies with their cute alpacas and children dancing traditional dances (and give them a tip naturally).
Meanwhile, do not forget to crane your neck to your right to partake of the drop-dead gorgeous view of the Colca Canyon!! The other side of the canyon had numerous little towns, with terraced farmlands. Many of these terraces are pre-Incas or Incas. Amazing that they are still in used now.
At Cruz del Condor, there are some lookout spots for us to observe the condors. If you have bought the little condor finger puppet, take it out and wiggle it around to attract a mate for it.
By 9am, although I only saw 2 mere dots of the condors, I could not stay as I was doing the hike and was hastened away to a public bus that would take us to the starting point of the hike.
From the edge of the canyon, you can see the small towns of Malata and Coshiñihua opposite. You can even see the oasis - the only patch of green in this very dry canyon - where you will be spending your night. All look impossibly tiny now!
There are no roads for vehicles at all. Everything had to be brought in by mules, donkeys, horses or on foot. It is hot and dry, with many types of cacti hanging over on the edges of the canyon.
You need about 3 hours for the first part of the hike, through zig-zagging rocky paths to reach a bridge at the bottom of the canyon. Sign in at a guestbook to show the world you had survived the hike so far.
It is another 1/2 hour to San Juan where you can finally rest and have lunch. Right opposite are the incredible vertical lines of volcanic rocks, which, in many countries, they call them 'organ pipes'. Just thoroughly AWESOME view.
COLCA CANYON HIKE I
There are many tours being sold as just a 2-day-1-night bus tour, or 2-day-1-night or 3-day-2-night Colca Canyon trek. The tour I took was a combination of the bus tour and a 2-day-1-night trek.
Leaving Arequipa, you can admire the various impressive volcanoes - Pichu Pichu, El Misti and Chachani. You should stop in the middle of a desert plateau to have a cup of mate de coca, to help with acclimatization.
The next part of the journey is through very high and dry lands, with not a tree in sight, just cacti and licho, the high-plain grass. You might spot some pretty, golden-furred vicuñas as there is a reserve where the authorities are trying to rear them back from near-extinction.
At the highest pass of this trip - 4,800m, the bus will stop briefly for photo-taking. There is frankly not much of a view, as the surrounding area is very high as well, so we could not really 'look down' at rest of the Andes mountains. Interesting to observe are the small rocks stacked on top of one another all over this area by previous tourists.
Lunch is at a touristy and expensive restaurant (15 soles at least). But after that, we were driven merely a couple more blocks and told to get off at our hostel. Damn, we had already arrived in Chivay and there were some restaurants selling lunch for more or less 5 soles. Rats! I hate organised tours who bring us to exorbitantly-priced restaurants.
I had imagined Chivay to be an isolated little innocent town. But this is Peru, which attracts possibly the largest number of foreign tourists in South America, and they know they had to milk every possible soles out from the tourists’ pocket. So, Chivay has been transformed to have numerous hotels as well as pizza restaurants which accept credit cards.
Rest of the afternoon is spent here in Chivay. You might be brought to La Calera, a thermal pool, an hour’s walk away.
For dinner, you will be brought to a restaurant with folkloric dances. Another tourist trap. But, this must be the restaurant with the most HILARIOUS menu. Check it out!
Colca Canyon is an amazing canyon of the Colca River in southern Peru, about 160 km off Arequipa. It is supposedly more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the United States. But, as the canyon's walls are not as vertical as those of the Grand Canyon, and the marketing department of Peru's Tourism is busy with promoting all the other stupendously incredible sights of Peru, Colca Canyon is perhaps thus not as famous as the Grand Canyon. Only those interested in Peru get to hear of it and those interested in adventure travel get to hike part of it.
I have spent, in total, more than 14 months in South America visiting many amazing natural sights and it is hard to say (and probably unfair) which is more amazing than another, but Colca Canyon definitely ranks way up high in my list.
The Colca Valley is studded with colourful little Andean towns where the local people still wear interesting traditional costumes, maintain ancestral traditions and continue to cultivate the terraced mountains that were from pre-Inca times.
I must add the traditional dresses here around Chivay, a town in the valley, are the most interesting I had seen so far! Their tops are embroidered elaborately around the collars and sleeves, and the ladies wear another overly embroidered vests. Their skirts are long, all the way to the ankles, and also embroidered crazily at the hemline. Meanwhile, their hats… gosh, every inch is embroidered as well!! There are two types of hats… one for the indigenous group around Chivay and another, around Cabanaconde.
PLAZA DE ARMAS AND CATHEDRAL
Peru's Plaza de Armas are always gorgeous and Arequipa's one is definitely one of the most stunning, if not, the most elegant around, especially since most of the city is painted in white and the city is overlooked by snow-capped mountains and volcanoes.
The plaza is faced on three sides by lovely arcaded buildings and on the fourth side by the huge Cathedral.
There are many cafes, ice-cream parlours, restaurants situated around the plaza, some of them are located on the 2nd storey with overlooking balconies.
When you first arrive, especially if you have just travelled up from the coast, you might find yourself a little breathless due to the altitude. Take it easy and seat yourself in one of these restaurants / cafes on the second storey at the balcony, if you can, and enjoy your coca tea and the pleasant view of the Cathedral, plaza and surrounding buildings.
The plaza, as usual, is the centre of activities and a great place to people-watch. Quite interesting to come by for the atmosphere in the evening especially if there is some sort of festivals going on.
Behind the Cathedral, there is a small alleyway (and surrounding areas) with handicraft shops selling 'alpaca' everything.
MONASTERIO DE SANTA CATALINA
The Santa Catalina Monastery is the most interesting sight in Arequipa. It is a walled colonial miniature town of over 20,000 sq-m. For over 400 years, the complex is totally forbidden to outsiders and the over 400 nuns live in absolute seclusion, tended by some women servants.
It was built in 1580 and was enlarged in the 17th century. It is of predominantly Mudejar style, with many colourfully and vividly painted walls (think cobalt blue, deep orange). At this time, there are only about 20 nuns left and they live in one section of the convent. Visitors now can wander around and enjoy the maze of cobbled streets, flower gardens and plazas, cloisters and buttressed houses.