Savannah Grace

Arequipa and the Colca Canyon, Peru

Come join Ammon, Sasha. Bree and Dylan as the journey continues:

We arrived in Arequipa after a beautiful but delayed bus ride from Puno, too late to do anything but sleep and await the arrival of Bre and Dylan the following day. Arriving straight from Vancouver and with no previous travel experience we tried our best to not shock Dylan too much but it’s a very different world down here. They were planning to join us for just over 3 weeks and together make a 3 week circuit of the southern Peru “gringo route” (arguably the most touristy section of the entire continent). Comfort and western amenities are available but it just isn’t the same. In contrast we’d just hit the 6-month mark and were definitely comfortable in our travel groove. The food, traffic and weather all seemed pretty normal at this point. Arequipa is at 2400m, the lowest point we’d been in a month and we were running up and down the stairs while they gasped for breath.
Arequipa is the 2nd largest city in Peru and was founded by the Spanish almost 500 years ago. It was an important colonial city in the Spanish empire, inhabited mostly by Spaniards with strong loyalty to the crown. Consequently, it prospered, grew and contains some beautiful colonial architecture. The central Plaza de Armas is easily the most beautiful we’ve seen in South America to this point with the cathedral occupying one side of the square (as always) and the other 3 sides with beautiful 2-story colonnaded buildings that have mostly been transformed into restaurants and travel agencies. The central part of the plaza is large with the usual fountain, benches and greenery and somehow always still full with tourists and locals alike enjoying the ambiance day and night. Being one of the most popular areas in Peru for visitors there is some hassle but for the most part we found it to be quite enjoyable and relaxing. Wandering the blocks around the plaza we found many other ornate doorways and facades opening into pretty courtyards of former colonial homes, many of which have been converted into hotels or boutique shops.

Busy plaza de armas


Exploring the historic core
What a doorway. Knockers are a little high though


Facade of the Jesuit church
The main cathedral on plaza de armas


Collonaded buildings on the plaza

Arequipa has a unique architectural style. Having been destroyed a few times by earthquakes and surrounded by 3 volcanoes, buildings are built a little thicker and feel more solid than other places. They are also mostly built of local volcanic stone which is supposed to be more resistant to future quakes.
We also enjoyed a multi-hour visit to the Santa Catalina Monastery which is actually still a working convent and one of the first in the country. It remained a place of isolation for the nuns for nearly 400 years before finally opening to the public though there is still a small section still in use by the nuns that is off limits to visitors. The women that entered as nuns were mostly from very wealthy families providing large dowries and as such the monastery (which takes up an entire city block in the centre) comes across as what would have been a very beautiful place with large living quarters and a pleasant community with a comparatively high standard of living. Historically as many as 2/3 of the population were servants. Inside we could wander the grounds which consisted of multiple internal streets, 3 cloisters, orchards, communal washing and cooking areas and many different cells.

Santa Catalina Monastery


Each living area had its own kitchen


Beautiful streets within the monastery



Communal laundry area


Surrounded by city but still peaceful

Most visitors to Arequipa also visit the Colca Canyon. Every tour agency in Arequipa offers the same selection of cultural or hiking focused tours of 1,2 or 3 days. Colca Canyon claims to be the 2nd deepest in the world after the nearby but harder to reach Cotahuasi Canyon. It is most famous for being arguably the easiest place to consistently view the Andean condor and that is the central highlight of any tour to the area. Andean condors are amongst the largest flying birds in the world, long lived and with almost no natural predators. They are found throughout the Andes and a national symbol of every Andean country.
Wanting to visit the area, we briefly looked at the tours on offer but remembering our experience in Puno we wisely opted to go on our own. Once again I’m struck by how easy it was to visit the canyon on our own and how lazy backpackers have become. Yes, the tours are cheap and if you have never been anywhere or have limited time then by all means take them, that is what they are for. But what is the excuse for all the rest of these long-term independent “world backpackers”? More and more are simply becoming instagraming tour consumers than real adventurers and it is sad to see in a place as easy as Peru has been.
Case in point, we caught a bus from Arequipa to Cabanaconde, a small village on the edge of the canyon. The views were incredible but we arrived in the middle of a rainstorm. There are a few guesthouses and they weren’t busy. Any of these places can then give you advice or maps for the hikes into the canyon to other smaller villages. The trails are obvious and it actually looks like a very nice (but strenuous) experience, one we would pass on because of the season (too high a risk of rain) and altitude (at 3200m, too much effort for those still adjusting to the height). The following morning we caught the local bus at 7am for 1/2 hr to get to the main condor viewpoint. The condors are most active in the area in the early morning and tours from Arequipa will leave at 3am to get there in time for a brief viewing, lasting from 30-60 minutes. We, along with a few others on the bus, arrived well ahead of the tour groups, staked out a good viewpoint and enjoyed the moment in peace. We saw nearly a dozen condors at different times, sometimes active and sometimes we had to be patient for quite a while but we had as long as we wanted to wait.

Colca valley


Colca valley before the canyon


So much terracing


Cruz del condor lookout


Beautiful birds

The tour groups came, and came, and came. 35 tour vans and buses eventually pulled up spilling out hundreds of sleepy tourists all jostling for position for their first glimpse of condor. We retreated, catching another bus back to Cabanaconde though the long walk back would have been pretty too. Day trip and culture tours don’t reach Cabanaconde but within walking distance of town are at least 3 beautiful viewpoints into the canyon. Defying gravity and reminiscent of Asia, terraces climbed way up the walks of the canyons too. Full of corn and not rice, it was still a beautiful display of colour and human resourcefulness.
We were enjoying our first viewpoint when the first of many hiking tour groups started heading off down the trail. Where is the peace when you are in a small tour group of 10 stuck in the middle of 6 other small tour groups all walking together? Once they left we saw 4 other tourists like us the rest of the day. We visited the other viewpoints, walking along terraces, jumping flooded streams, watching little girl shepherds and mule drivers bringing teams loaded with supplies along the trails to the next villages.

Cabanaconde’s plaza


The canyon from one of the viewpoints
Fake trekkers


Sangalle village at the bottom of the canyon



Such a beautiful area to explore

We stayed 2 nights and under different circumstances would have spent more. I can understand how some people claim that the area is over-touristed now and frustrating but I disagree. It all comes down to how and when you visit.


1 reply »

  1. Oh wow, beautiful place. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. The Andean condor is firmly in the top 3 of my bucket list of birds so I can feel a trip coming on!

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