The shortest way into Colca  is a four-hour journey on bumpy, dusty roads from Arequipa . After the first hour of smooth pavement outside Arequipa, the route veers into a lunar landscape, decorated only with rocks, ichu grass, and the blob-like yareta plant.
The fluorescent green yareta appears to be a moss-covered boulder but is actually a plant that lives for centuries but only grows to about one meter. It requires a very specific climate: the dry, desolate tundra over 4,200 meters. The plant survives because of its hundreds of tightly bunched waxy leaves, which trap moisture inside and allow the plant to withstand temperatures down to -50°C.
This whole area is part of the Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca, which is devoid of humans but teems with animals: flamingos, geese, and black-faced Andean gulls congregate at salty lakes. Vicuñas graze the grasslands, and vizcachas—they look like rabbits but are actually a rodent—dart among the stony fields.
The road in climbs high, passing the Sumbay cave (petroglyphs) at 4,000 meters then rising to the lonely plain of Patapampa (4,900 meters), where the Collagua built hundreds of mysterious stone piles. Then the road drops to Chivay, the gateway to Colca Valley and Canyon , at 3,650 meters.
From Chivay , roads lead down both sides of the canyon, which gradually becomes deeper and more pronounced as it works its way from Chivay. The villages on the north side are less visited by tourists and have nice colonial churches. Starting from Chivay, a dirt road crosses the Río Colca and passes through Coporaque , Ichupampa, and Lari and dead-ends in Madrigal. Cars can return to the other side of the canyon via bridges near Ichupampa and Lari. The more often visited side of the canyon is the south side, leading to Cruz del Cóndor, where a 60-kilometer dirt road leads from Chivay to Yanque , Achoma, Maca, Pinchollo , and Cabanaconde .
Colca  is spread out, and churches keep odd hours, so travelers who want to see a lot of Colca should consider renting a car or doing a two-day agency tour. If your budget can handle the US$100 daily car rental fee, we strongly recommend this option. The best way to experience Colca is simply by stopping, at whim, en route to take pictures, explore the valley and the canyon, and feel the crisp air.
The agency deals, however, are usually cheaper. The standard two-day tour, offered by many agencies in Arequipa , varies in price US$45–80 depending on the hotel. Apart from lodging, the price usually includes transportation, guide, tourist ticket, and breakfast. The better agencies, such as Giardino (Jerusalén 604-A, tel. 054/22-1345, giardino [at] terra [dot] com [dot] pe, www.giardinotours.com ) and Colonial Tours (Santa Catalina 106, tel. 054/28-6868, colonialtours02 [at] hotmail [dot] com), have new buses and more informed guides. Groups are often just a few people.
Most two-day tours leave Arequipa and stop to see vicuñas and other archaeological remains in the Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca before exploring the Inca ruins and churches around Chivay . But the highlight is a starlit evening soak in thermal hot springs, either near Chivay or, better yet, at the Colca Lodge near Coporaque .
Groups rise early the next morning to drive an hour or two down the canyon to the Cruz del Cóndor . Afterwards, groups visit the churches in Yanque , Maca, or Pinchollo  and then head back to Arequipa.
Because of road conditions, few agencies take the longer Pulpera return route, which takes a few more hours but passes through the interesting villages of Callali, Sibayo, and Tuti and tours the petroglyphs at Mollepunko Cave. Until the road improves, this last route is only recommended for people with an extra day on their hands.
If you are traveling on your own, it is easy to take a bus to Chivay or Cabanaconde  and travel around on foot or by colectivo. AUTOCOLCA, the Colca Canyon managing authority, requires a US$12 tourist ticket to access Cruz del Cóndor  as well as the area’s churches. Proceeds supposedly maintain the valley and canyon’s historical sights.
Colca ’s skies are sunny and deep blue April–October, making a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen essential. Make sure, too, to bring plenty of warm clothing, as temperatures can get below freezing at nights. If you are not coming from Cusco , stay in Arequipa  for a few days to avoid soroche or altitude sickness. Chivay  itself is at 3,652 meters.