With plunging gorges, smoking volcanoes, lush green hills and dramatic desert slopes, it’s no surprise novelist Mario Vargas Llosa named Colca the “Valley of Marvels.” Stay at Belmond Las Casitas and discover its wonders for yourself.
The 100-mile route to the valley from Arequipa traverses the Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reserve. This sweeping plateau, 4,000m high, is dotted with lagoons and wild wetlands. It’s home to exotic birds, animals and plants, including the famed Andean condor. There’s something breathtaking at every twist and turn.
The Colca valley itself begins near picturesque Chivay, the area’s main town, and continues northwest past charming stone villages. It eventually reaches the Condor Cross, near Cabanaconde, where flocks of the giant vultures swoop and dive. From there, it narrows into the vertiginous Colca Canyon—one of the deepest gorges in the world.
CHILDREN OF THE VOLCANO
In pre-Inca times, the valley was inhabited by the Collaguas and Cabanas. Their descendants still live there today, preserving the ancient customs, sporting distinctive traditional dress and speaking their unique language.
Legend says the Collaguas sprung from the Collaguata volcano’s interior. “They came out of the volcano with their weapons, outfits and headdresses and climbed down to the foothills, conquering the region,” the story goes. Allegedly, they had a characteristic feature: cone-like heads that mirrored the shape of the volcano. They revered it as their mountain deity—their apu.
Today’s inhabitants sport attractive straw hats with colourful ribbons, while the neighbouring Cabanas favour vibrantly embroidered headgear. Like all Peruvians, they enjoy lively festivals all year round.
The historic Andean terraces will never fail to steal your breath away. They combine the beauty of the natural landscape with the genius of geometry, architecture and hydraulic engineering. The valley’s 14 hamlets are equally fascinating. Each boasts its own distinctive features, while all radiate a gentle, unhurried atmosphere. Dating from the earliest days of Spanish rule, they have remained largely unchanged for centuries.
With its dramatic geography and extraordinary beauty, the valley is a bucket list destination for adventure lovers. Whether hiking, mountain climbing or river rafting, it’s hard to imagine a more stunning setting. Wander out from the hotel through beautiful fields to view the colcas, or granaries, that gave this region its name. Cut into the side of cliffs, these impressive landmarks served as natural refrigerators for the produce of this fertile land.
BACK TO NATURE
Señor de los Andes is the charming name given to the condor, boasting a staggering 3m wingspan. Witnessing this majestic bird is sure to be a highlight of your visit. Set out early in the morning and head towards the lofty Condor Cross, set on a steep side of the canyon. On your journey you’ll pass through the pretty colonial villages of Yanque, Maca and Pinchollo. Admire the exceptional flora and fauna en-route. Finally you’ll be mesmerized by the flight of the condors as they glide on thermals, sometimes swooping to take a closer look at their admirers.
The colonial churches in small towns and villages such as Achoma, Maca, Pinchollo and Lari are not to be missed. Mostly built from volcanic stone, many boast stunning baroque and rococo architecture. Inside you’ll discover colourful Andean murals or rich religious paintings.
Explore the Church of St John the Baptist, in Ichupampa. It’s home to a complete preserved set of paintings of the Cusco School. Continue to Our Lady of the Assumption, in Chivay, with its twin bell towers and simple charm. Finally finish in the beautiful Church of the Immaculate Conception, Yanque, where the Order of Mercy was established in the 16th century.