Sunscreen? Check. Coca tea? Check. Telephoto and wide-angle camera lens? Check. All right. We are ready to head off to Colca Canyon!
After two days of acclimatizing under the watchful eye of the El Misti volcano as we meandered through the colorful corridors of the Santa Catalina monastery, savored the cool sweet taste of queso helado, and took in the sunset each night from the rooftop terraza of our hotel in Arequipa we were ready for the day’s journey of ascending up through breathless passes as high 4,910 meters in order to reach our final oasis for the next two nights, the Colca Lodge, located in southern Peru’s famed river canyon, a windy four-hour drive north of Arequipa.
Before moving to Peru, I knew only about the country’s most famous world wonder of Machu Picchu. I’ve only recently come to learn that Peru’s rugged landscape also harbors other natural wonders that I had never heard of — and I venture to guess that it remains unknown to a number of others! — such as Colca Canyon, the third deepest canyon in the world. Twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Now, that’s impressive!
Dan and I have come to love the logistical ease of the hotel package tours that are seemingly popular out here and at just past 7 a.m., with the sun already promising a clear day with a sightline for miles, a white passenger van from Colonial Tours pulled up in front of our hotel and collected us for a tour of the region en route to Colca Lodge. Following a quick stop at a local bodega to stock up on drinks and various coca products to help combat the altitude after picking up the last passengers at the airport we started making our way out of the city proper, passing by scenes of daily life: open-air mercados teeming with vendors hawking everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to brooms to socks, uniformed schoolchildren shuffling their way to school, roadside stands with fresh-squeezed juice and sizzling anticuchos, the patrons all crowded around card tables sitting on upturned plastic buckets with baby llamas and dogs resting at their feet, the incessant indignant honks of horns, and big billows of dust.
After just under an hour of being on the road, our first pull-over spot was the Salinas y Aguada Blanca National Reserve just north of Arequipa to watch the playful antics of a dozen or so vicuñas in the open plateau below El Misti’s imposing presence.
We hit our high point of the day up at 4,910 meters at the Mirador de los Andes for an impressive view of the area’s stretch of active volcanoes, with Sabancaya occasionally putting on a captivating although alarming show of throwing up a column of smoke and ash into the clear blue sky, a reminder that volcanic activity does not slumber here.
Each stop included local women in traditional Peruvian dress hawking a variety of alpaca knit scarves and blankets, little trinkets, lukewarm Inka Colas and chocolate bars slowly softening under the growing warmth of the day. A few stops also had little refreshment stands with mugs of steaming hot coca tea on order to continue the fight against the effects of the rising altitude. Freely roaming llamas casually strolling by were never too far off.
After reaching our highest point, we then proceeded to descend down past hundreds of pre-Inca agricultural terraces toward the pueblo of Chivay, where we got to tap our feet along to traditional music and dance in the town square while sipping on tart Colca sours, the area’s riff on the pisco sour, made with local Sancayo cactus fruit.
After finding our rhythm in Chivay, we then continued further on a bit past Yanque to our final destination for the day, Colca Lodge Spa & Hot Springs, an oasis at first sight nestled against the banks of the Colca River and our home for the next two nights. I can already picture gazing up at the twinkling expanse of sky above while the water of the thermal baths laps at my shoulders.