The Colca Canyon is THE site to visit at Arequipa. Allegedly.
It's the deepest canyon in the world and has a placed viewpoint (Cruz del Condor) at the deepest section, where you can see huge condors majestically soaring on the early morning thermals.
But I must admit that the experience left me rather cold. Initially, this was entirely due to the freezing conditions at 7am at 4,000m. But then, as the day warmed up, the action didn't.
It's difficult to make sense of the depth of the canyon. It's certainly very deep (3,191m), but that isn't so exciting. The impact only hits when you realise that you could lose Ben Nevis (or Mount Washington for those in the US) in there and still have room.
Actually, the deepest canyon in the whole world is Cotahuasi Canyon, metaphorically just round the corner from Colca. But the difference is only 163m, which isn't much over 3km vertically.
So the condors. The big attraction. And big is the word. With wingspans of over 3m (about the size of a Mini), you can see them coming from a distance, which is just as well, as there aren't that many of them.
I'm there from 7am until 10am, and we see only seven birds out of the population of about 40. And we see all but two of those between 9 and 9:30am. Apparently, at 12kg, condors are the heaviest bird that can fly, and if they eat a bit too much, they can't take off. I can only assume they were out for a feast last night.
But the lesson is there. The birds are likely to be around from 9am. Most tourists are there from about 8am to get a good spot. Don't do what I did and get there at 7am. It's just cold.
Many agencies in Arequipa will offer you a 1-day tour. Don't take this, as you can't avoid the 10 hours of travelling.
Go for 2 days. You can go with the agencies for approximately US$20, which is all very easy.
I tried it the hard (stupid?) way and did it myself. Day 1, afternoon bus to Chivay. Day 2, get 5am bus from Chivay to the Cruz del Condor, see the Condors, then bus back to Arequipa. So was it worth it?
I did it for about US$14, which is a reasonable saving. There's an extra US$7 for the park ticket, but that's not in the agency prices either. And I was about half a day quicker (on Day 1), but then I didn't stop at so many places. But I avoided the tourist-trap lunch and the hellish folklore show.
I was disappointed by the Colca Canyon, as it was a lot of travelling for not so much. If you are tight on time, I would suggest that this is one attraction that could be missed.