The Colca Canyon lies
northeast of Peru's second city, Arequipa. After the Cotahuasi Canyon, Colca
is thought to be the deepest in the world. If you stretched
a tape from the tip of the highest nearby volcano all
the way to the river at the canyon's deepest point,
it would measure over four kilometres. Even from the
canyon's cliff edge, it's still over a kilometre (three-quarters
of a mile) deep. Remarkably, and contrary to what one
might think, the Colca Canyon wasn't gouged out by the
eroding river. It is in fact a rift between two mighty
The canyon was cultivated
and inhabited well before the Incas expanded their empire.
Along the wider sections of the Colca River, the ancient
terracing is so intense the valley becomes a giant amphitheatre.
Colca's largest town
is Chivay. Travelling west from there, the valley shrinks
remorselessly, its walls growing higher and higher,
the river running deeper and deeper.
The valley is beautiful,
particularly in March towards the end of the rainy season
when I first visited. Wild flowers burst into colour everywhere
one looked, the fields were tinged with yellows, purples,
lilacs and every hue of green.
Possibly the greatest
attraction of the canyon are the condors. It's become
world-famous as one of the best spots to observe these
huge, but nevertheless monstrous-looking birds. They
boast the largest wing-span of any flying bird. From
tip to tip, they can span over three metres (nearly
ten feet). Here in the canyon, one spot is renowned for
providing the best viewing opportunities.
In the early morning,
the condors rise up from their nests below, wheeling
and coiling upwards on the thermals until at last they
break free of the canyon's grasp and glide off in search
of food (which local tour operators make sure is available...).
It's a wondrous sight, and an amazing opportunity to
be within touching distance of these monsters of the
air. On the day I visited, a concert of eight condors
rewarded our hour's bumpy bus ride from Chivay, the jumping-off town for tours to the canyon.