Colca Canyon

On the second day of my Grand Tour of Peru, we visited the Colca Canyon. Until recently, it was considered the deepest in the world.

According to Wikipedia: Colca Canyon is a canyon of the Colca River in southern Peru, located about 160 kilometres (99 mi) northwest of Arequipa. It is Peru’s third most-visited tourist destination with about 120,000 visitors annually. With a depth of 3,270 metres (10,730 ft), it is one of the deepest in the world. Actually, it’s the deepest. Some people think it is the second deepest in Peru after the Cotahuasi Canyon and more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the United States. But it’s the deepest. The Colca Valley is a colorful Andean valley with pre-Inca roots, and towns founded in Spanish colonial times, still inhabited by people of the Collagua and the Cabana cultures. The local people maintain their ancestral traditions and continue to cultivate the pre-Inca stepped terraces.

Colca Canyon proudly bears the title of being the second-deepest canyon in the world. Its stunning scenery and the opportunity to spot the Andean condor soaring in the blue skies above adds to the charm of this unique destination.

Chivay is the main village and the linking point between the two sides of Colca Canyon, and is where most tours start in earnest. It is also home to a lively market and shops selling high-quality local handicrafts, and best of all, just a short walk out of town are the hot springs of La Calera – perfect for a relaxing soak after a day of exploring. Some of my tour mates chose to go for a soak in the springs, but I didn’t–I’d not brought a bathing suit!

Unlike many canyons, Colca is fertile and inhabited, with extensive pre-Columbian terraces and unspoiled, traditional Andean villages. The Collagua and Cabana peoples who lived here for at least 2000 years, from 800BC onward, built an ingenious terracing system on the valley walls that collects snowmelt from the nearby volcanoes. To one side, the smoking Sabancaya Volcano looms at 19,606ft (5976m), one of the most active volcanoes in the Americas, but don’t worry, the most you will see of an eruption is a billowing ash cloud. While alongside is the more docile, but higher Ampato Volcano at a colossal 20,630ft (6288m), and where the famous ‘Ice Mummy’ was discovered.

The River Colca begins high in the Andes and descends from 11,483ft (3500m) above sea level at Chivay, the first settlement on the edge of Colca Canyon, to reach 7218ft (2200m) at Cabanaconde, the small, last village in the canyon.

We stopped in the morning at a small village, first.

Me, high above the Colca Canyon. Notice the terraces. They are pre-Inca, but still farmed today.

No passable roads existed between Arequipa and Chivay until the 1940s, when a road was completed to serve the silver and copper mines of the region. More roads were built in the 1970s and 1980s by the Majes Hydroelectric Project, a program to divert water from the Colca River to irrigate crops in the Majes region. Access today is usually via Arequipa.

These carins are supposed to bring good luck.

The highway takes you to a lookout point over one of the deepest parts of the canyon, Mirador Cruz del Condor (the cross of the Condor), the best location to spot the legendary condor. The Andean condor is a national symbol not only of Peru, but of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador, and plays an important role in the folklore and mythology of the Andean regions. Photos of this in my next post!

Beginning my grand tour of Peru!

This is the outskirts of Arequipa. Some of these homes don’t have electricity, though most have a television, run off a car battery.

I really enjoyed my tour of the Peruvian Amazon and reluctantly went back to my little room in Arequipa. It took several hours just to unpack and do the laundry from the trip—everything I had brought was wet and mud splattered. And I don’t have access to a washing machine, so I hand washed all my clothes! In the air of Arequipa, they were dry in no time!

I needed to unpack and then re-pack, because I only had five days to prepare for the next tour—the Grand Tour of Peru, hitting the big highlights: Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, the Nazca Lines, Colca Canyon, Lima, Cusco……15 days of new discoveries. I was lucky that I could arrange to start and end my tour in Arequipa, saving me a couple unnecessary (and expensive) plane tickets. It also meant that I could just bring one suitcase and leave the things I wouldn’t need in my tiny rented room.

This section only got water and electricity 2 years ago. Notice that most of the homes and businesses are “unfinished” since you don’t have to pay taxes until they are.

On October 2, I moved from my rented room to a modest hotel room near the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa. That afternoon, I had a walking tour of the city, including the Santa Catalina Monasterio (convent). But the guide was just passable and I’ve already shared photos of all the sights we visited.

The next morning, I boarded a tourist bus to Chivay and the Colca Canyon, roughly 100 miles and arguably the deepest canyon in the world. These photos are from the bus trip.

Most of the morning, we drove though dry areas and continued to climb.

After we left Arequipa, we headed for the mountainous area of Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reserve. Our bus climbed up steadily from the elevation of about 2,300m to over 4,000m at a popular tourist service station at Patahuasi, where coca tea or muna tea (a type of local mint) were served. Many on the bus were showing symptoms of high altitude sickness, from stomachache to terrible headache. I did fairly well, except when walking up hill. Then I panted like I was working hard, though I wasn’t.

Chinitos Patahuasi is basically a rest stop. It has bathrooms, and a gift shop and cafe. It’s a great place to stretch your legs and view these interesting stone formations, sometimes called the stone forest. Not bad for a rest stop. It’s at altitude 4018meters.

One stop on the trip was to take photos of llamas and alpacas. There was a young boy caring for the animals and the guide asked us to tip him if we took any photos. I really wonder if that child gets any education. While the law says that a child should be in school, that doesn’t mean it always happens. He made no attempt to ask the tourist for money and only a few of us offered him a few coins.

The llama (pronounced yama in Spanish) is a domesticated South American camelid, widely used as a pack animal by Andean cultures since the Pre-Columbian era and also for meat (though it’s not eaten as often as the alpaca, these days). Currently, the wool of the llama is equally important. Before the Conquest, this was the only beast of burden as there were no horses.
The height of a full-grown, full-size llama is 1.7 to 1.8 m (5.6 to 5.9 ft) tall at the top of the head, and can weigh between 130 and 200 kg (290 and 440 lb). At birth, a baby llama (called a cria) can weigh between 9 and 14 kg (20 and 31 lb). Llamas typically live for 15 to 25 years, with some individuals surviving 30 years or more, about the same as a horse, though they are not as strong. Llamas cannot pull a plow, for example, so all Inca farming was done by hand.
Notice all the positions the llama rests in? As of 2007, there were over seven million llamas and alpacas in South America, and due to importation from South America in the late 20th century, there are now over 158,000 llamas and 100,000 alpacas in the United States and Canada.

These are alpaca. The wool is finer, and the meat is better, but they aren’t beasts of burden, like the llama.
The pack leaders are always male llamas. They are the ones with the colorful yarn in their ears.

I like the look of the alpacas better–a cross between a long necked sheep and a teddy bear.

After the tea and souvenir break, our bus continued to ascend the highlands above 4000m in elevation, passing by a number of scenic highland wetlands and reaching the highest pass of Patapampa at 4900m.

As you can see, this Volcano is still active. The snowcapped mountain just to the left is the site where “Juanita” was found. Momia Juanita (Spanish for “Mummy Juanita”), also known as the “Inca” Ice Maiden and Lady of Ampato, is the well-preserved frozen body of an Inca girl who was killed as an offering to the Inca gods sometime between 1450 and 1480 when she was approximately 12–15 years old. She was discovered on Mount Ampato (part of the Andes cordillera) in southern Peru in 1995 by anthropologist Johan Reinhard and his Peruvian climbing partner, Miguel Zárate.
A small cemetery

…and just to prove I was really there: me and the volcano.
We began to see small wetlands in the highlands area. These are important for wildlife.

The last time I saw vistas this wide, I was in Alaska. It’s hard to even judge distance, you can see so far.
This shallow wetland had dicks and geese.

My first view of vicuna!
Hey, isn’t that a volcano in the distance? Yup! This is a seismically active area.

Next we entered a protected wildlife area and I got to see small herds of vicuna.

This is one of my first glimpses of vicunas, from the bus window.
They live in herds of 5 to 15 animals. Once very endangered, the vicuña population has recovered to about 350,000, mostly in Peru. Although conservation organizations have reduced its level of threat classification, they still call for active conservation programs to protect populations from poaching, habitat loss, and other threats.
Vicuñas produce small amounts of extremely fine wool, which is very expensive because the animal can only be shorn every two or three years. They can’t be domesticated, and have to be caught from the wild. The vicuña’s wool is very soft and warm. The Inca valued vicuñas highly for their wool, and it was against the law for anyone but royalty to wear vicuña garments; today the vicuña is the national animal of Peru and appears in the Peruvian coat of arms. Its wool is extremely expensive.
Here in the Pampa Canahuas these wild vicuna are not hunted, but they are rounded up once a year, in August.
The vicuña is one of two wild South American camelids which live in the high alpine areas of the Andes, the other being the guanaco. It is a relative of the llama, and is now believed to be the wild ancestor of domesticated alpacas.
There were quite a few abandoned buildings, but then, there’s very little water here.

At Patapampa, there was a brief stop where we could take in the magnificent mountain views of a number of volcanoes, one actively smoking for us. This is rarefied air, higher than anything in the Rocky Mountains. The Mirador de los Volcanes is something to see, if your red blood cells are up to it.

That volcano is getting closer!
Finally we get to stop and take a closer look at several volcanoes–a few still active. We have also reached the highest pass of Patapampa at 4900m (about 14,700ft).
Viewpoint of the Andes Section of the volcanic mountain range in the Central Andes.
Here’s the volcano I’d see smoking for 2 days. A common sight here, but new for me! It’s 6025m high.

This is a mountain range I’ve seen daily from Arequipa.
Misti is another active volcano. Arequipa lives in its shadow.

After Patapampa, our bus gradually descended to the mountain valley of Chivay at 3600m. Before reaching Chivay, we made a final stop overlooking the valley. We walked over to the cliff edge to photograph the scenery of Chivay in a distance.

First view of Chivay. I’m grateful to be going down. To live this high I’d need to grow another lung.

Several Quechua vendors dressed in traditional clothing braved the scorching sun and fierce wind selling tourist souvenirs and traditional alpaca knitwear.
You have to pay to visit Chivay, the entrance to Colca Canyon. The sign says “Welcome to Colca. Control point for tourists. Foreigners 70 soles, Peruvian Nationals 20 soles, Students 5 soles.
Here’s our bus group, having lunch in Chivay.
A map from Arequipa to Chivay.
Here’s my bed for the night–very comfy, but cold at night.
The hotel grounds. Nice, but no reliable internet.

And I can still see that volcano!
Almost a full moon that night.

The Amazon: Iquitos

Every former Spanish colony has a central square called the Plaza de Armas. Iquitos is no exception.

It’s nice being a lady of leisure. But it’s also a tad boring. I’ve walked miles here in Arequipa (training for my upcoming Nepal hike) and while it’s a great city, I was getting restless to see something new. One morning it hit me hard. I was missing something really important while I’m here in Peru: The Amazon. I walked to my favorite tourist agency in the Plaza de Armas and rectified that problem. I booked 5 days in the wet, sticky Amazon area, with one night in Iquitos and 4 additional nights in the rustic Cumaceba Lodge. An adventure!

To get to Iquitos, I took an early flight from Arequipa to Lima, then a connecting flight to get to my destination. So far, every flight I’ve taken out of Lima has been delayed. Fortunately, there was someone at the airport to meet me and take me to my hotel.

The Amazon has been the stuff of legends for me since childhood. I read that the Amazons were a fierce tribe of women warriors, almost unimaginable in my patriarchal family. While I didn’t see any women wielding bows and arrows, I am convinced that living in the Amazon jungle takes a tremendous amount of strength and ingenuity. I really enjoyed my stay, but it’s safe to say I won’t be building a summer cottage here.

Iquitos has a boardwalk. It was beginning to get dark, but I went for a stroll before bed.

Iquitos, also known as Iquitos City, is the capital city of Peru’s Maynas Province and Loreto Region. It is known as the “capital of the Peruvian Amazon.” The city is located in the Great Plains of the Amazon Basin, at the confluence of the Nanay and Itaya rivers. Iquitos is the largest metropolis in the Peruvian Amazon, east of the Andes and the sixth most populous city of Peru. If you want an Amazonian adventure, this is a good place to start. It’s also the largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road – it is accessible only by river and air.

The boardwalk is colorful and had a lot of tourists. This is a common spot for excursions in the Amazon. You can take day trips from here, or, move onto an Amazon Lodge, as I did.

While long inhabited by indigenous people, the founding date of the European city is uncertain. Spanish historical documents state that it was set up around 1757, about 200 years following the conquest.

My first view of the Amazon–or so I thought. Turns out the river moved a few years ago, but Iquitos is still at the confluence of two rivers, both tributaries of the Amazon.

The architecture and historical treasures reflect the colonial and early 20th-century European period, attracting an increased tourist trade in the 21st century after the airport was expanded for international flights. Iquitos is a center of ecological tourism. It has become a major cosmopolitan city with strong roots in the Amazon, featuring a complex history and cuisine, Amazonian landscapes, nightlife, and a growing cultural movement.

Plaza de Armas, located just 2 blocks from my hotel.

In 2012, a quarter of a million tourists started their adventure vacations to the Amazon here. The Historic Center of Iquitos has several structures designated as part of the Cultural Heritage of the Nation: the Cathedral of Iquitos, the Iron House, the Old Hotel Palace, Cohen House, and more than 70 other buildings. Other landmarks are the Plaza de Armas (which I saw); Jiron Prospero, a shopping and historical area; and the lively neighborhood of Belén, often dubbed the “Amazon Venice” for its many waterways (neither of which I saw). The city is also home to the Amazon Library, one of the two most important in Latin America.

I stopped for dinner and got the Criola special (a general term for a Chinese-Peruvian fusion dish). The yellow “circle” in the middle is a causa, which means the main ingredient is potatoes. This one also had shredded chicken. Trust me, there will always be potatoes on the menu in Peru–and often starch yucca or boiled plantains.

Most people travel within the city via bus, motorcycle, or the ubiquitous auto rickshaw (mototaxi, motocarro or motocar). This is a modified motorcycle with a cabin behind supported by two wheels, seating up to three (very thin) people. Transportation to nearby towns often requires a river trip via boat, a pequepeque (Pronounced: PEH kay-PEH kay, an onamonapia–the name is roughly the sound the motor makes).

The Garden House was a more upscale hotel than I usually stay in, but then, I have pretty low standards for lodging. I often stay in hostels, but had been warned against the ones in this city. After seeing the filthy residents emerge from the backpacker hostel across the street, I believe the hotel was worth the extra money. The Garden House was clean and well located. The door to the room had recently been stained and sealed, and I imagine it will take more than a week to dry in this humidity. They were supposed to serve breakfast, but there was a power outage just as I sat down to order. Fortunately, the coffee was already made. They did give me bread and jam, though.
My hotel, The Garden House, was just two blocks from the Plaza de Armas. It was also my last night with air conditioning for awhile.
This artist’s shop has an entrance from the boardwalk. During the rainy season, the water will rise almost to the bottom of the building.
The boardwalk includes an old steam boat, which is dry docked now, but floating during the rainy season.

These houses are in the river’s flood plain, but are designed to float when the water rises.
Boardwalk of Iquitos. The next morning, I got a walking tour of Iquitos from my new guide, Sergio.
This (rather uneven) soccer field will be under water soon.

The  Iron House (on the left) was designed by Gustave Eiffel, of Eiffel Tower fame.

Tourism is one of the most vital industries in Iquitos, due to its location just off the banks of the Amazon River. The river is often described as “one of the seven natural wonders of the world.” By my count there must be at least a hundred “Natural Wonders of the World.” Must be the New Math? Iquitos receives a considerable amount of foreigners, and has adequate infrastructure to accommodate tourists from all levels, from pricey 5-star hotels to backpacker hostels.

This shows the major forms of transportation in Iquitos: The body of the orange public bus is made of wood, and only costs 1 sole for a ride. There are lots of bicycles, motorcycles and scooters (often with 2-3 passengers). The ubiquitous transportation, however, is the mototaxi–a modified motorcycle that will carry two or three passengers, plus luggage. It’s similar to the tuk-tuk in Thailand.
The streets of Iquitos are dominated by more than 25,000 auto rickshaws or motokars, known in the rest of Peru under the name of mototaxi. They are mostly used by foreigners to provide taxi service. The buses are large vehicles made of wood with direct routes. Pedestrians do not have the right of way, so crossing the street is dangerous!
Those may look like electrical poles, but these floating houses don’t have any electricity. Or plumbing.
It’s a very trashy area. Notice the turkey vulture picking through the rubbish for a late breakfast. The numerous stray dogs do the same.
Iquitos cathedral, across from the Plaza de Armas. The Iglesia San Juan Bautista (church of Saint John the Baptist) is characterized by its Gothic Revival style and Swiss clock. It is considered one of the urban symbols of the city.

The St. John the Baptist Cathedral (Spanish: Catedral San Juan Bautista, Catedral Metropolitana de Iquitos) also called Iquitos Cathedral is the main Catholic church, in neo-Gothic style, in the city of Iquitos in Peru. It is located in Iquitos Center at the intersection of Arica and Putumayo streets. The property of the Catholic Church, it was declared a Cultural Heritage of the Nation of Peru in 1996, and is considered an urban icon in Iquitos.

Currently, it is the tallest religious temple, also notable for including a crypt–unusual in a place with annual flooding. Construction of the cathedral began in 1911 after the demolition of the ancient temple. It was inaugurated on March 16, 1919, though the tower wasn’t finished until 1924.

Interior, cathedral
Interior, cathedral
Altar. Interior, cathedral
This is the port of Iquitos and men are unloading ships and climbing the almost vertical stairway (to the far left) with backbreaking loads. This is the low water mark since it was the dry season and there had been no rain for 2 weeks. It rained every day I was here, however, so I’m sure the level rose a few feet. The area is strewn with trash from the river. This is the port we left from to reach the Amazon River and then our rustic lodge.
In this heat and humidity, unloading ship’s cargo is a tough job.
This is not my ideal place for a summer cabin, even in the dry (winter) season. On the up side, since this is “temporary” ground, these floating houses pay no rent or property taxes. They also have no electricity, running water or even screens on the openings from the bugs. Wonder what are the levels of Yellow Fever or other mosquito borne illnesses?
Another photo of the port.
A map of the area. This is the headquarters of my tour company in Iquitos. We took a boat for about an hour to Cumaceba Lodge (the word is a name for a type of local tree). If I go back, I’ll check out the Mariposario–the butterfly farm.


All the cooks in a row–me, Drew, Alina and Scott

I continue to find fun things to do here in Arequipa as I live the life of a Lady of Leisure.

I took a wonderful cooking class at Arthur’s, located near the central square. (I ate there in my first week in Arequipa) The menu was Ceviche–fish “cooked” in lime juice for the first course. (The recipe is below) The main course was Aji de Gallina--chicken breast in a spicy aji chili sauce. Both are tasty and easy to prepare traditional Peruvian dishes. I posted the recipe for the chicken dish here.

Ceviche–served atop boiled sweet potato slices, and ringed by toasted corn.


Ingredients (per serving):

  • Fish fillet, 100 grams (any white fish will do. We used mahi mahi, but also scallops or shrimp are good)
  • Ginger, 5 grams
  • Garlic cloves, 5 grams (4 small cloves)
  • Limes, 2 fresh, whole (room temperatures and roll them on the table before squeezing)
  • Red Habanero chili, 1 small
  • Fresh cilantro leave (also called coriander leaves), small bunch
  • Medium, red onion, 1/4
  • Medium sweet potato
  • Dried corn, 50 grams (This is difficult to find. Substitute dried bananas)
  • Celery, 5 grams
  • Vegetable oil
  • Salt

Boil sweet potato, 30 minutes. Peel. Slice into 3-4 rounds. Put into bowl and let cool. Ceviche will be placed on top of this.

Finely chop ginger, garlic together. Place into a bowl and cover with 4 Tablespoons of vegetable oil and mix. Set aside.

Finely chop cilantro. Julianne onion into long, thin strips. Put onion in a small bowl and cover with water.

Cut fish into large cubes. Place into a bowl. (Reserve one piece of fish for the Tiger’s Milk) Add 1.5 grams of salt, chili, cilantro and 3T of oil from the ginger and garlic mixture. Mix and set aside.

Toast the dry corn kernels in a dry pan until they start to brown. Some may even pop. Remove from pan and set aside to cool.

Tiger’s Milk (Leche de Tigre): In a food processor, mix celery, ginger, garlic, pinch salt, a few pieces of onion, 4 T of onion water, and the piece of raw fish. Process until smooth.

To the fish, squeeze juice of two limes. Stir and allow to “turn white” for about 3 minutes. Add onion slices and Tiger’s Milk. Mix. Top the sweet potato slices with fish mixture. Surround with toasted corn. Garnish with cilantro and peppers.

Sonccollay, a pre-Inkan restaurant

Amy didn’t really like the idea of cuy and politely avoided looking at it. She ordered alpaca, which she enjoyed. It’s a good thing that she’s a great companion since it took well over 1.5 hours between ordering and seeing our food! We drank a local fermented drink, called chicha de jora, made from purple corn. It was a very lightly alcoholic mixture.

My friend, fellow teacher Amy, and I decided to splurge a bit and try what seems to be a fairly unique restaurant, not just in Arequipa, but in South America. Sonccollay is located on the Plaza de Armas and is listed as a “pre-Inkan” restaurant, serving the traditional foods of the Andean region. I was most interested in the cuy–local guinea pig. I’d had it earlier in the week, but it was fried and I wanted to try a traditional roasted dish.

One of the side dishes including tomato, cape gooseberry and avocado.

Amy and I had each met the owner, while we were on separate free walking tours. The tour ends at the restaurant, which has an impressive view of the plaza below and the surrounding mountains. The owner is personable with a commanding voice, but seemed quite disheveled and stressed both times I saw him. He seems to run the restaurant almost entirely alone!

Here’s the cuy, dusted with herbs and roasted in the oven. As a farm girl from the Midwest, I couldn’t help but think that the cuy (guinea pig) looked a LOT like squirrel. It had been roasted in the oven with a weight on top to keep it flat. There was surprisingly little meat on it and if it hadn’t been fairly fatty to start with, probably would have been quite dry. As it was, it tasted like dark meat chicken. Most of the fat had dripped away, so it don’t think I over indulged, too much. On the other side of the cuy are two small alpaca steaks which Amy said were quite tasty.

While I had a good time (mostly because of good company) and enjoyed the food, I’m not sure if I can recommend the restaurant. It was a bit over-priced and we waited almost 2 hours to eat, despite being one of the few diners. They also took almost all my cash, since they had “trouble” accepting credit cards, though the menu had indicated that they did. I also felt the owner was openly disappointed with our orders–we hadn’t spent enough money to satisfy him. I won’t go back.

This is the land of potatoes, so you’ll usually see them served with any dish. These included three varieties of potato–white, purple and a sweet potato that was tasty, but beige in color. The corn is the local, native variety, called choclo. The kernels are large and it’s not terribly sweet. Honestly, it always tastes a bit like field corn to me.

Do not expect beef, chicken, garlic, onions or cilantro when eating here. The main meats are alpaca, cuy, duck and “river shrimp.” And everything is a little charred, typical of the use of stone and wood logs. Most of the reviews I read simply raved about the food, but I thought it was good, but not fantastic. Of course, I’m really put out by being expected to wait a long time to order and receive food in what was clearly not a busy night. I also felt I was slightly over charged based on the menu prices.

There are highlights, however. The restaurant seats diners on a second story balcony over looking the Plaza de Armas. It’s great for people watching and we even observed the ceremony to take down the flags in the courtyard. The owner will give you a brief tour of the kitchen, which should not be missed. And the view from the roof is simply spectacular.

Misti Volcano is visible from much of the city.
I met Amy on the corner of the park, near the bridge where the alpaca are. I’ve grown quite fond of them. They remind me of a cross between a sheep and a long necked teddy bear.


  • Address: Portal de San Agustin 149 | Terraza de la Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru
  • Location: South America  >  Peru  >  Arequipa Region  >  Arequipa
  • Phone Number: +51 54 281219