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Travel Guide to Arequipa & Colca Canyon in Southern Peru

Arequipa, also known as The White City, lies in the Andes at 2,335 meters (7,650 feet) above sea level. Famous for being surrounded by volcanoes, offering a mild climate, and having one of Peru’s most beautiful central squares, it is a destination not to be missed.

This picturesque city is simply a joy to explore on foot. As you journey around the historical center (awarded UNESCO World Heritage status), you will regularly catch sight of the impressive range of Arequipa’s surrounding mountains.

Experience Arequipa’s cultural treasures…

We recommend the Monastery of Santa Catalina de Siena and the Museum of Andean Sanctuaries (Museo Santuarios Andinos) of the city’s many cultural treasures. The Monastery of Santa Catalina de Siena was built in 1579 and has been a functioning convent ever since. 

Architecturally, the monastery is fascinating and provides a rare window into the lives of the community of nuns who walked away from the wider world to pursue holy orders here. 

The highlight of the Museo Santuarios Andinos is undoubtedly Momia Juanita (‘Mummy Juanita’). Also known as the Ice Maiden or Lady of Ampato, Juanita is the well-preserved, mummified body of a young Incan girl who was sacrificed to the gods sometime in the 15th century. 

It is, though, worth noting that Juanita’s body was naturally preserved in freezing conditions, rather than going through an artificial mummification process as used in ancient Egypt.  

Voted by Time Magazine as one of the world’s top ten great discoveries, Juanita’s body gives us an insight into the mysterious Incan practice of Capacocha (or Qhapaq hucha). 

Arequipa is the perfect place to get acclimatized to the higher altitudes of this region. After at least two days of acclimatization in Arequipa, you will make your way to the Colca Canyon. This spectacular canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world and offers breathtaking views.

Especially noteworthy are the Incan terraces and the Cruz del Condor, the place to go condor spotting. The altitude is approx. 3,580 meters (11,750 feet) above sea level, so it’s advisable to take it easy here. Because distances between the Colca Canyon and the following destinations are pretty long, we always suggest staying two nights in the Colca Canyon.

In both destinations, we offer a wide range of activities, the most popular being community-based tourism in the Colca Canyon. Visit our partner communities of Coporaque and Sibayo, and spend time with local host families who will show you around their town and share their stories and lives with you. 

Like to be more active? In that case, you can go horseback riding with Peruvian Paso horses, mountain biking, or hike the area (both multi-day treks and beautiful shorter hikes are available). 

Do you prefer a comfortable stay in any of the area’s delightful hotels with natural hot springs, spas, and other relaxing activities? Then, please get in touch with us via our Peru Trip Planner & Custom Itineraries page. When you use our custom itineraries option, our team of experienced travel designers will craft the perfect trip just for you.

Finally, please remember that acclimatization to the altitude is of utmost importance when planning your journey into the Andes. Some travelers tend to underestimate that, and it can cause altitude sickness. 
To learn more about maintaining your physical fitness when in Peru, read our dedicated blog, How to Stay Safe and Healthy When Traveling In Peru.

View on the main square of Arequipa from a hotel terrace, with the volcanoes on the background. - RESPONSible Travel Peru
View on the main square of Arequipa from a hotel terrace, with the volcanoes in the background.

Recommendations for traveling in Arequipa

As we’ve said, Arequipa is the ideal city for exploring on foot: snapping pictures of the magnificent views, soaking up the atmosphere in the historic center, and visiting cultural attractions. 

Immerse yourself in the local gastronomy and visit a picantería (traditional lunchtime restaurant) for delicious local cuisine before exploring the city’s historic streets.

Book lovers in Arequipa won’t want to miss a visit to the childhood home of Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian Nobel Prize-winning novelist.

Leaving Arequipa

Just outside Arequipa, you can tour the Sillar Route and learn all about the white, volcanic stone, out of which practically the entire city of Arequipa is built and which gives it its nickname, the white city

For day activities in the surrounding area, you could think of mountain biking, horseback riding, or rafting. The Sabandia and Yumina areas are wonderful parts of the countryside around Arequipa. 

Or, you could consider a trip out to the Aguada Blanca National Reserve, an area of stunning natural beauty and one of the only places where you can see all four types of South American camelids.

In this region, shepherds have farmed camelids for generations, turning world-renowned alpaca and vicuña wool into fabrics. 

If you get the opportunity when in Arequipa, try food cooked in a huatia. This style of cooking stretches back to Incan times and done in an earthen oven. Food cooked in the huatia is left to roast slowly for many hours, taking on the unique flavors of the surrounding earth.

Rent a car in Arequipa

When renting a car for a self-drive trip through Peru, Arequipa is the best place to start your road trip. 
Have a look at this fantastic example itinerary to get an understanding of why we recommend Arequipa as the best place from which to start your journey by car: A Different Kind of Road Trip through Southern Peru.

Spectacular views of the terraces of the Colca Canyon during an offroad route on our Road Trip - RESPONSible Travel Peru
Spectacular views of the terraces of the Colca Canyon during an offroad route on our Road Trip

Our recommendations for traveling in Colca Canyon

When continuing to the Colca Canyon, there are several activities we’d like to emphasize. 

Above all, it is the perfect place to enjoy Community-Based Tourism with one of our partner communities for an in-depth and authentic local experience off the beaten path. 

We recommend you to look further than the capital of Chivay and stay in less touristy parts of the Canyon.

Off the beaten path in Colca Canyon

Firstly, there is Coporaque: one of the most beautiful communities among the dozens we work with in Peru and one of the best organized. Staying with a host family here means getting a very clear understanding of what daily life is about in this area. 

We offer two tours here. Our Experience the Colca Canyon with homestay in Coporaque and Quick Colca Canyon visit with homestay in Coporaque, which is ideal for those traveling on a tighter schedule. 

You don’t have to worry about sharing everything with your hosts, you will be offered a private room with a private bathroom. 

Coporaque is located relatively close to the capital, Chivay, so it could be combined with exploring the Colca Valley with its lovely little towns, impressive Incan terraces, and the Cruz del Condor viewpoint. 

In Coporaque, your host family is more than happy to show you around, but you could also opt for a beautiful horseback riding route of about three hours. One of the host families owns comfortable (and obedient) Peruvian Paso horses! This activity has been a highlight of the trip for many travelers already!

When back from the ride or after a tour into the Valley, you deserve a relaxing moment in Coporaque’s thermal baths. It’s impressive how many stars you get to see in the sky. Hardly any tourists come here, so your day couldn’t be more complete!

Secondly, Sibayo offers you a very similar authentic experience. Sibayo is a village that doesn’t seem to have changed in hundreds of years, and proof of this is its original houses, streets, and walls made of stone. 

Consequently, Sibayo is known as Rumillaqta: “the stone town.” Not only will you enjoy the authentic village itself, but you also get a chance to discover a bit more about its surroundings and daily life. 

Activities are decided depending on what is needed to be done on that given day, such as working on the land, fishing, gathering firewood, and learning how to weave.

As with Coporaque, your private room has an ensuite bathroom.

From Sibayo, you can walk the wonderful Collagua Route back to the Colca Valley. Starting in Canocota, a local guide will lead you the way on this (approx.) 3-hour hike, following pre-Incan paths that residents are still using as they ply their wares in the valley. 

The route is relatively flat, which is perfect for your first days at this altitude. The Huaynalima Canyon is formed by vertical walls eroded by the Colca River. You’ll enjoy beautiful views, will hardly meet anyone, and can enjoy the revitalizing tranquility of nature.

Mountain Biking in Colca Canyon

If you are a real mountain bike geek or just very interested in new ways of exploring off the beaten paths, check out our blog about Visiting Colca In Peru On Bikes

Get to know small villages and ruins no one else goes to — all while passing through spectacular landscapes. Are you ready to join us on these downhill adventures?

Travelers enjoying a typical meal in Coporaque, Colca Canyon. Community-based tourism in Peru with RESPONSible Travel Peru.
Enjoying a typical meal in Coporaque

How Arequipa & the Colca Canyon connect to other destinations

Arequipa is well connected, especially with the southern coast of Peru (Sur Chico), the Colca Canyon, and Lake Titicaca. Travel times vary from 4 hours (Arequipa to Colca) to 12 hours by bus (Paracas to Arequipa).

When you’re on a tight schedule, you could come straight from the capital, Lima or Cusco, by plane, but please consider the environmental impact of such a domestic flight.

When having more time, we recommend arriving by a comfortable (night) bus from Paracas or Nasca, which makes the most sense in a general itinerary through Southern Peru.

Traveling into the Colca Canyon (or from the Colca Canyon to Arequipa) is mainly done by shared tourist buses, where an English-speaking guide and stops on the way are included.

Besides being easily accessible from Arequipa, the Colca Canyon is well connected to Puno and Lake Titicaca. Similar shared tourist buses, as mentioned before, are used on this route, an efficient way to travel between these destinations. 

Both Arequipa and the Colca Canyon connect with Cusco as well: 

  • Arequipa – Cusco by night bus or domestic flight;
  • Colca Canyon – Cusco by shared tourist buses, but only three times a week!

From Arequipa to Chile

Finally, you could travel from Arequipa to Chile by taking a 5-hour bus ride to Tacna and then a private taxi (30 to 40 minutes) to the border crossing of Arica, Chile. 

From the border, it’s just a short taxi ride to Arica. In total, your travel time from Arequipa to Arica is around six hours, excluding time for the border crossing formalities.

Travel done the easy way…

If you prefer to leave the planning of your itinerary to the experts, consider taking a look at our custom itineraries section

We have more than a decade of experience crafting tailor-made, unique travel experiences throughout this beautiful country. 

Our travel designers take all the work out of your hands, leaving you to focus on what’s most important – getting excited about your dream trip!

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ABOUT RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL PERU

RESPONS’ mission is to improve living conditions in Peru through developing and promoting sustainable tourism. We’ve implemented a business model in which all areas of human relations are respected, and - equally important - respect for the planet is incorporated.

Following this business model, we practice fair trade, foster cultural identity, promote equal opportunities, and we preserve the environment that surrounds us and other species.

Together with you we improve, day by day, on the always-demanding path towards sustainability.

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