Curious about the Colca Canyon hike outside Arequipa, Peru? Read on to learn about our experience, including tips on how to best prepare for this beautiful but difficult trek!
I didn’t know much about Colca Canyon when we arrived in Arequipa, Peru, after a long overnight bus ride from Nazca. To be honest, I didn’t even know much about Arequipa, except that my Lonely Planet said that it was Peru’s second-largest city and was surrounded by gorgeous, otherworldly landscapes. It sounded like as good a spot as any for a stopover on the long journey between the coast and Cusco.
Overnight buses don’t give you much opportunity to appreciate scenery, but it didn’t take long once we arrived to appreciate how beautiful Arequipa is. Called “the white city” because so many of its graceful colonial buildings are constructed of a white volcanic stone, Arequipa is full of dazzling architecture, including the impressive cathedral on the Plaza de Armas and the gorgeous Santa Catalina monastery.
Another thing Arequipa has going for it is that it is surrounded by the volcanoes and high mountains of the Andes. Tourists flock here for all kinds of trekking, mountaineering, and river rafting, but one of the most popular things to do in Arequipa is visit Colca Canyon.
Roughly twice as deep as the more famous Grand Canyon in the USA, Colca Canyon (or Cañón del Colca) is the second-deepest in the world: over 11,000 feet at its deepest point. It’s known for its beautiful views, opportunities to see majestic Andean condors, isolated villages, and its multi-day trekking adventures.
Soon after arriving in Arequipa, my traveling companions, Kyle and Curtis, and I decided to take on the two-day Colca Canyon hike. We would trek down into the canyon on the first day, stay overnight in an “oasis” at the bottom, and then ascend back to the top the next morning. It sounded like a great way to experience the natural wonder, and the two-day option would keep us on track timing-wise to continue our South America backpacking adventure. If we had known then what we know now, we might have sprung for the three-day option, which is a bit less strenuous. Hindsight is 20-20, however, and we went to bed on our first night in Arequipa excited about the adventure to come.
Our morning started bright and early, as we had to be ready to meet our minibus at 3:00 AM. It was an uncomfortable three-hour ride to the town of Chivay at the entrance of the canyon area, but as we approached the sun began to rise and we could see the canyon filled with fog. The clouds lay in between the mountains like a blanket protecting the sleeping town until the day began, and all in all it was quite beautiful.
After a small breakfast buffet in Chivay, we made our way to a lookout point called Mirador Cruz del Condor.
Named for the huge Andean condors that soar through and over the canyon, the viewing platforms of the mirador cling to the rim of the canyon and provided sweeping views of the mountains. It is here that the canyon narrows but reaches its maximum depth, making for a pretty spectacular vista.
We spotted a couple of juvenile condors, which were still impressive despite not being fully grown. The Andean condor is the largest flying bird in the world, with a wingspan that can be well over ten feet.
After spending some time admiring the view, we returned to our little bus and made our way to the trailhead for our hike down into the canyon. Our group was comprised of our guide, Sandro, two German girls, three guys from Belgium, and the three of us. The walk from our bus to the canyon’s edge was short, and soon enough we were beginning our descent down into the chasm.
Early in the hike, we caught a glimpse of the little oasis on the canyon floor that would be our home for the night. At the time, it seemed incredibly far away.
For hours, we wound our way along the sides of the canyon, traveling single file along the rocky terrain. It was steep and slippery in some places, which gave one of the Germans, in particular, some trouble.
Thinking we were being very smart, Kyle and Curtis and I had decided to consolidate everything we would need for the next two days into one backpack and leave the rest of our belongings in storage at our hostel. We figured we would split the responsibility for carrying the backpack among the three of us, meaning that each of us would be relatively unencumbered for two-thirds of the hike. It was glorious when you weren’t carrying the backpack, as you could focus on your feet and occasionally look up to admire the scenery, but the heavy pack was a bit of a liability during the steeper parts. Unfortunately, we had no idea how much more difficult our brilliant plan would make the next morning’s ascent.
For the time being, though, we trekked on and on, surrounded by rocks, cacti, and some hardy vegetation that could withstand the semiarid conditions. It was hot, and the sun blazed down on our heads and we wound our way deeper and deeper.
It took a few hours to reach the river at the bottom of the canyon, where we stopped to rest our shaky legs and aching knees by the little bridge that spanned the river.
After catching our breath, it was a short uphill climb to the tiny village where we would have our lunch. Despite the heat, the menu included soup and lomo saltado, a heavy steak stir fry with vegetables, French fries, and rice. Although I was starving, the heat and the thought of the three hours we had yet to walk kept my eating in check.
My turn with our backpack came during the hourlong, post-lunch uphill climb.
Although Sandro pointed out some fruit trees and explained a few things to us along the way, the trek was mostly silent as we focused on putting one foot in front of the other. By the time the oasis came back into sight, our group had spread out a bit and my feet were aching.
Highlights of the final stretch of our trek included almost getting run over by a runaway donkey, passing some lovely waterfalls springing out of the mountain, and crossing a swaying bridge over the river. The so-called “golden hour” before dusk was upon us as we approached the oasis, bathing everything in a beautiful light that helped energize us for the final push.
Finally, we reached the oasis and Sandro helped us find our huts. There were nicer parts of the rustic resort, but our backpacker budget had us staying in a simple bamboo hut with a thatched roof and dirt floor. There was no running water or electricity, but the three beds had clean, comfortable bedding and we were too exhausted to care about a lack of decor.
Our huts surrounded an open-air dining area, two sets of showers and outhouses without electricity, and a bright blue swimming pool whose one side was made up of a giant boulder. People were sitting on the rock enjoying the sunset and the views of the canyon rising above us. Palm trees were all around, and after the exertion and heat of the day the place really felt like a paradise.
Even though the temperature had dropped, the cold pool water felt amazing to our tired muscles. Likewise the rudimentary supper of soup, spaghetti, and coca tea, which would have been fairly unimpressive elsewhere, tasted fantastic after a full day of trekking. We ate with some new friends from another group before turning in early in anticipation of the next morning’s 4:30 AM wake-up call. As I walked back to my hut, I noticed a sky full of unobscured stars twinkling brightly above Colca Canyon. It was absolutely gorgeous.
Waking up at 4:30 in the morning after a full day of trekking is about as fun as you might expect, and it was still dark as we readied ourselves to climb out of the canyon. Our path the previous day had meandered its way down the canyon wall, across the river, and along the opposite side. This morning’s adventure, however, was much more daunting. Today, our path zig-zagged right up the canyon wall in a series of switchbacks, climbing up and up and up toward the rim. Not only was it a seemingly endless climb, but we would be doing it in high altitude, complicating matters significantly. Despite being at the bottom of Colca Canyon, the Sangalle oasis is still over 7,000 feet above sea level, and the town of Cabanaconde at the top of the canyon sits at just shy of 10,800 feet.
With breakfast awaiting us after the climb, rather than fueling us before, we set off into the darkness.
The sun rose as we trudged onward and upward, but any joy I might have felt at the view was dampened by the difficulty of the climb. Most of my concentration went toward putting one foot in front of the other, regulating my breathing, and trying not to think about how much farther there was to go.
It wasn’t long into our ascent that we realized the flaw in our grand plan of bringing only one backpack. While it wasn’t easy carrying the pack on the way down into Colca Canyon, it was much more of a burden to be the packhorse on the way back up. My sports-induced asthma was making the climb difficult, and Kyle was having trouble with his legs, so Curtis ended up bearing the load for most of our trek to the top of the canyon. Like an absolute champ, he carried that pack for hours without complaint.
Switchback after switchback fell away behind us and yet the top of the canyon still seemed terribly far out of reach. I kept expecting to see it appear above us as we turned each corner, but it remained elusive. Our only indication of upward progress was that we could see increasingly sweeping views of the mountains around us. The altitude made each breath more and more ragged; it felt impossible to breathe and my legs protested with every step.
At long last, after what felt like forever but really was only about two and a half hours, we reached the top of Colca Canyon. I was so happy and relieved that I could have cried right then and there. Even stronger was my sense of pride in having conquered the ascent. Now, with the long trek behind me, I could look out over the mountains and truly appreciate the beauty and grandeur of this unique part of the world. I bought a banana and a Gatorade from an indigenous woman selling snacks; it was the best banana of my life.
We sat along the rim of the canyon watching others finishing their ascent. Our German tour mates showed up on the backs of mules, which they had elected to pay to ride after one of them had such a tough time the day before. The Belgians weren’t far behind, and soon enough we were walking into the town of Cabanaconde for our long-awaited breakfast of eggs and bread. It couldn’t have been much later than 8:30, but it felt like noon thanks to our early wake-up.
While the three of us could have easily collapsed into the nearest bed and slept for the rest of the day, we actually didn’t get back to Arequipa until late in the afternoon. There were numerous sightseeing stops on the return trip, including a viewpoint out over a valley filled with agricultural terraces, the town square of a little village, and the hot springs at Chivay.
At long last, however, we made it back to Arequipa hungry, exhausted, and in serious need of a shower. We certainly hadn’t known what we were in for when we signed up to visit Colca Canyon, but we were incredibly glad we’d taken the trip and proud of ourselves for having accomplished such a difficult trek. Even now, years later, I can still confidently say that that morning ascent from Sangalle to the rim of the canyon is the most challenging hiking I’ve ever done.
Colca Canyon is gorgeous and unlike any place I’ve ever hiked. I don’t know that I would willingly put myself through that climb again, but I’m sure glad I did it once. From the opportunity to see Andean condors to crossing the second-deepest canyon in the world off my travel list, it was worth every penny.
Just make sure you have a Curtis to carry your pack when it gets too heavy 🙂
Book Your Own Colca Canyon Trek!
Tips for Hiking Colca Canyon
- There are three common options for visiting Colca Canyon: a full-day tour and a two- or three-day trek. The day tour takes you to Chivay, Cruz del Condor, and some other sights, but you likely won’t be doing much hiking. The two- and three-day treks cover the same distance but at different speeds, making the three-day option better for those who want to take things a little easier. Both involve the same grueling ascent on the final day, however.
- Although we had a good experience doing the trek in February, most people recommend undertaking the hike during the dry season from May to October. This is also the high tourist season in Peru, however, so be prepared for larger crowds.
- Make sure to spend some time in Arequipa or another high-altitude region to acclimatize before attempting the Colca Canyon hike.
- The quality of guide companies can vary, so don’t hesitate to shop around. Some hostel/hotel owners get a kickback for recommending specific tour operators, so don’t be afraid to consult online reviews or get a second opinion.
- Pack as lightly as possible, as you’ll be wearing your pack for multiple hours and a heavy burden makes the morning ascent even more difficult.
- Although most trekking tours include at least some meals, you’ll want to take your own snacks and water with you. Having something to eat before our ascent would have made a world of difference for us.
- The sun is strong at that altitude and there is little shade, so bring sun protection, including sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses.
- Dress in layers, as the days can be hot but the nights can get downright cold. A rain jacket would not be out of place during the wet season (January to March).
- Bring a swimsuit, as there are pools in the Sangalle oasis and many tours stop at the La Calera hot springs in Chivay.
- Sturdy shoes are an absolute must. Parts of the trail are slippery, and almost all of it is either up or downhill.
- You won’t have easy access to an ATM, so make sure to bring plenty of cash for purchases along the way (snacks, etc.), tips for your guide, the park entrance fee (if not included in your tour price), and other incidentals.
- Mules and donkeys are available for hire if, like our Germans, you have a rough time and need some help.
- For more information, this post from Along Dusty Roads is one of the best and most comprehensive I’ve seen about planning your Colca Canyon trek.
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