Though often overshadowed by Cusco and the Sacred Valley, the south of Peru has some of the most dynamic, jaw-dropping geography and exciting cultural attractions anywhere in the country.
Arequipa, Peru’s second-largest city, is a Spanish-colonial maze, with volcanic white sillar buildings, well-groomed plazas, and wonderful food, museums, and designer alpaca products. Arequipa is close to Colca Canyon, where many travelers head to see the famed gorge for its stunning beauty, depth, and Andean condors. Several hours farther out is the very remote Cotahuasi Canyon, the world’s deepest gorge.
Second in tourism to Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca is home to the floating islands. The Uros Islands are nearly 40 man-made islands—constructed from the lake’s tortora reeds—and are literally floating. The natives are the Quechua and Aymará peoples, who still speak their respective languages.
Puno, an agricultural city on the shores of Titicaca, is the jumping-off point for exploring the lake, and is Peru’s folkloric capital. A dusty-brown city most of the time, Puno is a colorful whirlwind during festivals. The region’s many fiestas feature elaborate costumes, story-telling dances, music, and lots of merrymaking. Each November and February Puno puts on two spectacular shows for local holidays.
POINTS OF INTEREST
COTAHUASI VILLAGE AND VICINITY
Cotahuasi is the largest town in canyon country and the first you’ll stumble upon. In the hills at 8,620 feet, whitewashed colonial-style homes line slim, straight lanes before a backdrop of Cerro Hiunao. Most visitors kick off their stay in this Quechua-speaking community of 3,500 residents, where there are a few basic hostels, restaurants, a small tienda (grocery store), a bell tower, and the Plaza de Armas. It’s also where most hiking trails begin or end. Many families rent burros (mules) to tourists to help carry their load, especially kayakers who walk eight hours down to the gorge with their boats.
Three hours farther south along a thin track against the canyon wall—which climbs to 1,312 feet above the river—you’ll reach Chaupo, a settlement surrounded by groves of fruit trees. You can camp here and hike through Velinga to ruins at Huña before reaching Quechualla, where you can see the ancient farming terraces of Maucullachta, an old Wari city across the gorge.
In Cotahuasi Village the route forks, leading northeast along the Río Cotahuasi or due north. Either way is possible by 4×4, colectivo, or on foot. Heading northeast, about 10 km out of town, you’ll discover the village of Tomepampa. After that is the small town of Alca, near the hot springs of Luicho. Even farther east is Puica, at 8,440 feet) Traveling northwest from Cotahuasi Village will lead you to Pampamarca, a town known for weaving exquisite rugs. Two hours by car, Pampamarca is three hours from the hot springs of Josla and Uskuni.
The largest town in the Colca Canyon region is Chivay, a small, battered-looking village with a population of 3,000. Most tourist facilities are here, which are not many but include restaurants, hotels, a medical clinic, and a tourist information center. As you approach Chivay, you’ll pass through a stone archway signifying the town entrance, where AUTOCOLCA, the government authority over Colca Canyon, stops cars to ask if they are headed to see the condors. If you’re headed to Cruz del Condor or any of the churches in the 14 villages you must purchase an S/35 entry ticket, which will be asked for again at the entrance of the Mirador. Nearly all agency tours do not include this entry fee in their all price.
Chivay marks the eastern end of the canyon’s rim; the other end is Cabanaconde, a developing village where most multiday hikes into the canyon begin and end. As you come into Chivay the road splits off into two: one, less traveled because of its rocky rutted surface, goes along the canyon’s northern edge to the villages of Coporaque, Ichupampa, and Lari; the other follows the southern rim, and although it’s a bumpy dirt road, it’s better for travel and leads to Cruz del Condor and the small towns of Yanque, Maca, and Cabanaconde.
Cradled by three steep, gargantuan, snow-covered volcanoes, the jaw-dropping white-stoned Arequipa, one of the most visually stunning cities in Peru, shines under the striking sun at 7,709 feet. This settlement of 1 million residents grew from a collection of Spanish-colonial churches and homes constructed from white sillar (volcanic stone) gathered from the surrounding terrain. The result is nothing less than a work of art—short, gleaming white buildings contrast with the charcoal-color mountain backdrop of El Misti, a perfectly shaped cone volcano.
The town was a gathering of Aymará Indians and Inca when Garci Manuel de Carbajal and nearly 100 more Spaniards founded the city on August 15, 1540. After the Spanish arrived, the town grew into the region’s most profitable center for farming and cattle-raising—businesses still important to Arequipa’s economy. The settlement was also on the silver route linking the coast to the Bolivian mines. By the 1800s Arequipa had more Spanish settlers than any town in the south.
Arequipeños call their home Cuidad Blanca, “White City,” and the “Independent Republic of Arequipa”—they have made several attempts to secede from Peru and even designed the city’s own passport and flag. Today the town is abuzz with adventure outfitters leading tours in the surrounding canyons, bars, and cafés in 500-year-old sillar buildings, and the finest alpaca threads anywhere in the country.
Puno doesn’t win any beauty pageants—brown unfinished cement homes, old paved roads, and a dusty desert have dominated the landscape for years. It’s a sharp contrast to Puno’s immediate neighbor, Lake Titicaca. Some people arrive in town and scram to find a trip on the lake. Don’t let the dreary look of Puno stop you from exploring its shores; it’s considered Peru’s folklore capital.
Puno retains traits of the Aymará, Quechua, and Spanish cultures that settled on the northwestern shores of the lake. Their influence is in the art, music, dance, and dress of today’s inhabitants, who call themselves “Children of the Sacred Lake.” Much of the city’s character comes from the continuation of ancient traditions—at least once a month a parade or a festival celebrates some recent or historic event.
Stunning, unpredictable, and enormous, Lake Titicaca is a world of unique flora, fauna, cultures, and geology. Lago Titicaca, which means lake of the gray (titi) puma (caca) in Quechua, borders Peru and Bolivia, with Peru’s largest portion to the northwest. While Peru boasts the largest port in Puno (57% of the lake is in Peru), Bolivia’s side has Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna, two beautiful islands with great views and Inca ruins. The lake itself is larger than Puerto Rico, with an average depth of 25 feet and a minimum temperature of 38˚F. Lake Titicaca gains 5 feet of water in summer (rainy season) and loses 5 feet in winter (dry season).
The Bahía de Puno, separated from the lake proper by the two jutting peninsulas of Capaschica and Chucuito, is home to the descendants of the Uro people, who are now mixed with the Aymará and Quechua. The lakeshores are lush with totora reeds—valuable as building material, cattle fodder, and, in times of famine, food for humans.
Although it’s generally cold, the beaming sun keeps you warm and, if you don’t watch it, burned.