Everyone has a list of favorite places in favorite countries. One of mine is Colca Canyon in southern Peru, site of the world’s second deepest canyon—twice as deep as our Grand Canyon—that slices through the high Andes for about 60 miles. With its plunging canyon and soaring condors, the whole Colca Valley is a magical place. In pre-Inca days, it was inhabited by two linguistically different groups, the Cabanas and the Collaguas, and their descendants can still be distinguished by their traditional hats.
The name Colca, by the way, refers to small holes in the cliffs of the valley and canyon. These holes were used in Inca and pre-Inca times to store food; they also did duty as tombs for important people.
Clients coming overland from stays in Cusco or Puno on Lake Titicaca will acclimate easily to the high altitudes in Colca Valley where, the main town of Chivay, for instance, sits at nearly 11,800 ft. Most travelers will be more comfortable flying to elegant Arequipa (at 7,600 ft.) to acclimate a bit—and to see the fabulous 16th century Convent of Santa Catalina and elegant historic mansions, stay at some choice hotels, and dine on traditional regional specialties in restaurants with commanding views of surrounding volcanoes. The 4-hour drive from here to the Colca Valley is an adventure in itself, following a route that makes a half-circle around Arequipa’s sentinel volcanoes, El Misti and Chachani, before crossing the high plains of the vast and barren Aguada Blanca National Reserve, home to herds of rare vicuña, as well as llama and alpaca.
One’s first glimpse of Colca may be the manmade terraced fields stacked up like gigantic staircases on the steep canyon slopes; many of the terraces date back to Inca or Aymara times and are still used to cultivate potatoes, barley, beans and quinoa.
Scattered across the valley are 14 colonial-era villages, which date back to the 16th century and are distinguished primarily for their small, but often richly decorated churches. From the area’s largest town of Chivay, enjoying a beautiful natural setting on the south bank of the Colca River canyon, the next village is Yanque where each morning couples in traditional dress dance the watiti in the main square in front of the baroque Inmaculada Concepcion church. The next village is Maca, with its restored, brilliant-white Santa Ana church with a gilded interior. Across the Colca River from Chivay on the less-visited north bank is Corporaque, a sleepy village with the oldest church in the valley, Templo de Corporaque built in 1569, and beyond is the Mirador de Ocolle, a stunning amphitheater formed by agricultural terraces of varying shades of green. Add to the must-see list of churches, the one in the sleepy village of Lari, the Templo de la Purisima Concepcion. Recently restored, the outside is white with red trim, an orange and green portal and double bell towers, while the interior is full of colorful murals and paintings, particularly those adorning the brilliant altar.
The superstar attraction for most visitors is the Cruz del Condor, a lookout point on one side of the canyon, the place to be in the morning to witness the arrival of the condors, the largest birds in the world with a 12-ft. wing span. They begin circling in the gorge below, and gradually ride the air currents to soar overhead. The largest numbers take flight during the dry season, June through September.
The Colca Valley, of course, has been discovered and upgraded with luxury lodges such as Las Casitas del Colca, and Colca Lodge Spa & Hot Springs across the river from Yanque.
The newcomer in the valley, debuting this past April, is Aranwa Colca Resort & Spa, located on the banks of the Colca River on grounds landscaped with gardens that draw myriads of hummingbirds. The new property joins other hotels in the Lima-based Aranwa Group, now in Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and coming in November, Aranwa Paracas Resort & Spa.
Built on an investment of more than $3.5 million, the Colca resort is designed to complement the natural beauty of its surroundings. Each of the 41 guest accommodations—32 rooms, three suites, six chalets—offers majestic views of the Andes Mountains and features solar-powered heat and hot water. Double room rates with breakfast start at $218.
Hotel facilities include a restaurant and bar overlooking the Colca River, and a spa with four massage rooms and a massage suite for couples, indoor and outdoor pools, dry and humid sauna and Vichy shower. On the property are two cascading waterfalls, one guests enjoy as an alfresco shower, as well as a lake stocked with trout. Additionally, a small organic farm provides the kitchen with fresh produce such as quinoa, beans and corn. And as a nod to its plantation past, a water-powered grain mill has been restored and is used to grind grain and make flour for the hotel kitchen.
The Aranwa Colca Resort invites guests to explore the region, visiting the Cruz del Condor nearby or participating in adventure sports such as mountain biking, mountain climbing, horseback riding and white-water rafting (for the accomplished rafter) in Colca Canyon.
Excursions from the valley’s small hotels and resorts include the Calera Hot Springs by the Colca River, the place to recline in a simple alfresco pool watching none-too-silent zipliners slide across the canyon overhead; the zipline stretches some 2,000 ft. from canyon wall to wall. From my hot springs point of view, I remember the older, perhaps less comfortable days when showtime in the skies above Colca starred only the Andean Condors.
For more information, visit aranwahotels.com.