Arequipa is toward the southern tip of Peru and can make a lovely antidote to the more frenetic pace of Lima. Positioned along a route from Lima to Lake Titicaca, Arequipa is also known as the ‘White City’ for its unique sillar buildings, sillar being the form of volcanic rock with a pearly white appearance that gives the city its pseudonym. Such is the architectural and historical importance of Peru’s 2nd largest city that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Santa Catalina Convent is without doubt the highlight, like a citadel in the city, it has 80 rooms and creates a sort of captivating mini-labyrinth. The colours of the building’s walls range from blues to reds to yellows, all with sun-filled courtyards and the Misti Volcano looming in the background, dusted with snow on its peak.
The journey from Arequipa to Colca passes a desolate landscape of volcano country, with llamas and vicunas grazing the stark terrain. Suddenly changing to greener pastures, the landscape becomes dotted with traditional villages which farm on the pre-Incan terraces. Here you start to enter the Colca Valley, a land where steep walls suddenly regress and drop around 3,500 metres. The world ‘Colca’ itself means ‘storage’ in Quechuan, and many small storage huts were formed from the rock face of the canyon by the indigenous people. Set 1,500 metres above the river at the canyon’s base, Cruz del Condor is the most popular spot to see the magnificent Andean condor. Best spotted early in the morning or late afternoon, they nest in the steep rock faces and glide on the thermals that rise from the canyon below.
The area is also one of the country’s most volcanically active areas, Sabancay Volcano in particular last erupted in the 1980s and both Sabancay and Ubas volcanoes can often be seen smoking. The deepest point of the canyon is beyond the village of Cabanaconde, close to the Valley of the Volcanoes. You can trek into the base of the canyon, where two basic resorts have swimming pool facilities that offer day use before you make your ascent.
The Colca Canyon itself extends some 100 kilometres in total and is said to be the deepest canyon in the world, although the Cotahuasi Canyon in the same Arequipa district is widely believed to be deeper.