Peru's valley of marvels

Skip Machu Picchu to discover one of the less-visited wonders of Peru at the Colca Canyon


It’s dawn at the Mirador Cruz del Cóndor, a lookout high above the Colca Canyon in the heart of the Andes in southern Peru, and I’m waiting with a handful of others for a flypast that happens every morning.

The canyon is more than 1,200m deep here and, as the rising sun heats up its rocky sides, the strong thermals make it the ideal playground for the Andean condor, the world’s largest flying bird. A protected species, around 50 live here, but sightings are never guaranteed. We wait expectantly.

Peru is an astonishingly diverse country, ranging from the arid plains on the Pacific coast through tropical Amazon rainforest to the peaks of the Andes mountains. It certainly requires more than one visit to do it justice.

For most first-time visitors, Lima, Cuzco and Machu Picchu understandably top the to-see list, but these aren’t the country’s only unmissable spots. The riches of the colonial city of Arequipa, tucked away below snow-capped volcanoes, and the Colca Canyon, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, are definitely must-sees too.

International flights land in Lima, so make the most of it by breaking your journey here to recover from jetlag and to explore. Upmarket suburb Miraflores is a good base, home to some of the city’s flashiest restaurants and shops.

Lima’s beaches, prime surfer hangouts, sit beneath its cliffs, and above is the new development of Larco Mar, a great place to watch the sunset. Next door is Parque Salazar, with a statue of Paddington Bear, a Peruvian loved throughout the world.

And rising out of the centre of flat Miraflores is a huge and incongruous mound; Huaca Pucllana, an ancient adobe and clay pyramid, dating from around 500CE. It consists of seven staggered platforms and was an important ceremonial and administrative centre for the Lima Culture long before the Incas.

Surrounded by a central square, it’s divided into two sections by a large wall — in one of these, offerings of fish have been found in deep pits, presumably to placate the gods.

The city is also home to the Museo Larco, housing the world’s largest collection of Peruvian artefacts. Split into three sections, the warehouse features shelves of more than 30,000 ceramics while the main museum displays textiles, ornaments, jewellery and more ceramics.

The third is the most intriguing, dedicated to the erotic art of pre-Inca civilizations; the Mochica culture provides some of the more explicit artefacts and presents an interesting perspective on ancient Peruvian sexuality.

The journey onwards from Lima to Arequipa takes just 90 minutes by air: direct internal flights leave daily. More than 2,000m above sea level, this is Peru’s second most populous city.

Founded in 1540, its large historical centre is packed with colonial churches and mansions, and has been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. On the skyline above the city are a series of volcanoes, the snow-capped Misti, still active, and the extinct Pichu and Chachani.

Close to the main square, the vast Monasterio de Santa Catalina was home to around 200 nuns and 300 servants from the late 16th century. Today only around 20 live here, and the enormous complex has opened some of its rooms, cloisters and plazas to the public. It can take a whole morning to explore, although you won’t see any of the inhabitants as the nuns are cloistered away in a new convent.

From Arequipa, it’s a four-hour car journey to Colca Canyon, passing herds of grazing alpacas, llamas and vicunas, as you climb gradually. The horizon is peppered with both extinct and active volcanoes, some belching smoke.

Getting ever steeper, a literally breathtaking winding road rises to the high Andean passes and tops out at almost 5,000m. There’s a small café here serving rejuvenating cups of coca leaf tea to head off altitude sickness.

It’s then downhill to the small town of Chivay, in the lower reaches of the canyon, still high, at 3,600m — Colca Canyon plunges 4,160m at its deepest point, nearly twice that of the Grand Canyon, and is around 75 miles long.

Its lower sides are carpeted in extensive rows of pre-Inca terracing, many of them still cultivated, while rugged cliffs tower above them and more snow-capped peaks dot the horizon.

Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa was so impressed when he came here that he designated it the “Valley of Marvels”.

Chivay makes a good base for exploring the valley and there’s an extensive local market here. More interesting is the village of Yanque, around four miles away, with one of the most impressive churches in the region and a bustling plaza. You can get here by bus, although it’s more authentic to do it on horseback.

A 30-minute downhill walk brings you to the Baños Termales de Chacapi, a cluster of bathing pools by the side of the river, fed by hot springs. The water comes out of the ground at 85C, but in the baths, it’s down to a reasonable 38C. If you’ve chosen to take one of the kayak trips on the river, this is also the perfect way to relax after a hard morning paddling.

Small villages are scattered throughout the valley, all with ornate colonial churches and surrounded by hillsides of terraces. In the squares, women sit with their llamas for photos and children put on displays of traditional dancing.

There are two distinct ethnic groups in the canyon, the Aymara-speaking Collaguas and the Quechua-speaking Cabanas. You can identify them by the women’s distinctive headgear, taller for the Collaguas and round, flat ones for the Cabanas.

They were the first inhabitants, settling here around 3,000 years ago, and terracing the sides of the canyon to grow their crops.

Around 1320, the Incas arrived, building roads and bridges and improving the terraces and irrigation channels. When the Spanish marched in, a couple of hundred years later, they introduced wheat, barley and cattle and built chapels and churches.

Over the years earthquakes have taken their toll, but many of these still survive.

The canyon itself remained relatively isolated from the rest of Peru for many years but in 1836, the Swiss explorer Johann Jakob von Tschudi brought the region to international attention.

An American aerial survey in 1931 provided photographic evidence but the area was almost forgotten until the 1970s. A road was pushed through, as part of a hydroelectric project, and the Peruvian government then took steps to develop the tourist infrastructure in the area.

There are many hiking trails around the canyon and tour companies provide guides and mules to carry your packs. The altitude can make it tough going, so it’s wise not to overestimate your fitness. If you’re not feeling up to going on foot, it’s also easy to rent horses and sit back and enjoy the scenery.

The highlight, though, is a sighting of those elusive Andean condors, with an impressive wingspan of over three metres and weighing up to 13kg. At 3,794m, the Cruz del Condor viewpoint is around an hour’s drive from Chivay, climbing high along narrow roads.

When I arrive just after dawn, a cluster of minibuses containing more expectant onlookers is already waiting.

Locals wearing giant condor suits pose for photographs but there’s every chance of seeing the real thing. As I trek along the canyon rim, there’s suddenly a flash of black and white just beneath me — the outspread wings of one of these huge birds, as it glides nonchalantly past.

It soars on the thermals, then circles the viewpoint, undeterred by the noisy crowds. The Incas considered them to be the sacred messengers of the gods and, staring into the skies, I can almost believe them.

Getting There

Flights from Heathrow to Lima via Madrid cost from around £770 with Latam. They also fly direct to Arequipa from Lima, with fares from around £60 return.

Rooms at luxury retreat Las Casitas near Yanque in Colca Canyon cost from around £360 per night.

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