Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, sits on a high Andean plateau in the southern part of the country. When I visited the aptly-named “White City” in February 2011, I couldn’t help but find it a bit dull, in spite of its Spanish colonial heritage and associated architecture.
Whether or not you end up enjoying Arequipa proper, you owe yourself a trip to the nearby Colca Canyon, a geological formation nearly twice as deep as the Grand Canyon — 10,725 feet, to be specific.
Finding a Tour in Arequipa
Within a couple hours of my arrival in Arequipa, I had begun to tire of the city, both in terms of its drab, white aesthetic, as well as the grey skies and chilly breezes that characterized its weather. After a couple strolls around the city, including to its admittedly spectacular central plaza, I was eager to learn more about the nearby canyon a fellow traveler I met the previous week in Lima had mentioned, one purportedly twice as deep as the Grand Canyon.
Although nearly every travel agency in Arequipa offers tours to the Colca Canyon — and there are dozens and dozens of them — the most convenient way to go about booking a tour is simply to inquire at your hotel or hostel. Even if they book you on a third party tour, as mine did, booking through your hotel or hostel eliminates the hassle of having to bargain with agencies pushing tours that are basically identical to one another when all is said and done. It also provides you an outlet for resource in the event that your tour is less than spectacular.
Several different tour options exist. The one- and two-day Colca Valley Tours, which were priced at S/.60 and S/.90, respectively, when I visited, are without a doubt the most popular.
Yanque and the Entrance to the Colca Valley
As a result of my personal time constraints, I chose the one-day tour option. Since the Colca Valley begins about four hours from the town center of Arequipa, you can expect tours to begin early — my van picked me up at 3:30 a.m. Do your best to get a good night’s sleep before you depart, because the sun rising as you drive over some of the highest peaks in the Andes is one of the most stunning sights you’ll ever see. Pay particular attention to the snow that covers almost everything — it will be long since melted when you’re driving back to Arequipa this or the next afternoon.
After purchasing your ticket to the Colca Valley, which costs S/.35 for foreign adults, you’ll enjoy a quick breakfast at a local restaurant before making your way to the town of Yanque, the first in the 60-mile long Colca Valley. Yanque’s character, while charming, is very touristy. The town’s central plaza is dominated by local women (in indigenous garb, of course) standing with alpacas and condors. For a small tip — one sole usually does the job — you can have your photo taken with the women and/or their animals.
If you embarked on a one-day tour like I did, your van will drive you along the north side of the Colca Valley, stopping periodically for the opportunity to visit with more indigenous people, as well as to enjoy absolutely breathtaking views of the valley and river below. In so many ways, the Colca Valley feels like a trip back in time, from the lack of modern roads, homes and clothing to to how pristine and untouched the sky, water and ground looks.
Following a visit with some local girls and their baby alpacas, I stepped over to the edge of the canyon and had a seat. I had to remind myself that what appeared to be a tiny stream flowing at the bottom of the valley was actually an angry, wide river. Within seconds of remembering that fact, I had to excuse myself — the grandeur of the Colca Valley is almost discomforting at times, particular when all that separates you from falling into it are the pebbles holding your ass in place.
Regardless of which tour option you pick, your guide will take you to the end of the valley, an area famous for its large population of Andean condors. The massive birds are plentiful and easy to spot — the chances of you spending even a half-day in the canyon and not seeing a single one are slim to none. Still, if you don’t have a camera with sophisticated zoom capabilities, you shouldn’t expect to get a clear photograph of one, although it is certainly possible.
The most important factor that affects how many condors you’re able to see — and in what detail — is visibility. The far end of the Colca Valley, where condors most often appear, is prone to heavy fog, even on otherwise sunny days. If seeing condors is extremely important to you, booking a two-day tour gives you a second chance to see them if conditions aren’t clean enough the first day of your tour.
Altitude and Coca Leaves
At an altitude of just about two miles above sea level, the Andean peaks that rise above the Colca Valley were literally the highest place I’d ever been at that point in my life. I’d previously heard about altitude sickness, but didn’t think much about it until we began ascending into the mountains surrounding Arequipa. It took me the better part of an hour to be able to keep my head up without feeling nauseous.
The good news is that altitude sickness doesn’t affect everyone. The bad news is that whether or not it affects you has little to do with your physical fitness or your level of physical activity at high altitudes.
Indigenous people who live in the Andes have long used coca leaves (yes, the same ones that eventually end processed and sold as cocaine) as a means of relieving altitude sickness.I highly recommend you take advantage of this local remedy if you feel sick when you ascend to high altitudes.
Altitude sickness isn’t something that goes away on its own, so it’s necessary to take measures to keep yourself feeling good. To use raw coca leaves, chew them for a few minutes and then allow the pulpy residue to remain in your cheek, sucking to release more juice whenever you begin to feel sick.
Contrary to popular rumors, ingesting coca leaves isn’t the same as doing cocaine and won’t cause you to fail a drug test. Rather, the leaves act as a mild stimulant which replenishes some of the energy high altitude can zap from you, eliminating lightheadedness and nausea for the majority of people.
If the taste of raw coca isn’t to your liking, , drink coca tea or eat cookies or other good baked using coca leaves. Doing so results in a milder flavor, but the same benefits of chewing raw coca.
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who’s been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as “CNNGo” and “Shanghaiist” along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.