Along our journey so far, we’ve clocked up quite a few treks including the beautiful Valle del Cocora in Columbia and the outstanding Quilotoa Loop in Ecuador. With the Inca Trail on the horizon, by the time we arrived in Arequipa, we were keen to try another trek to help us get up to condition and acclimatised to the altitude. Despite our previous experience, nothing could have prepared us for the Colca Canyon! Novice trekkers beware … this was one long hard slog!!!
Trekking the Canyon
The Colca Canyon is one of the world’s deepest canyons and it is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, reaching up to 3,270m from floor to rim in places. Arequipa is the closest city and there are numerous tour providers offering two or three day treks, inclusive of guide, transportation, accommodation and meals. The route for the two and three day options are exactly the same, it is only the daily distance that changes. We chose the three day option so that we could experience the incredible landscape at a more leisurely pace.
It is also possible to trek independently in the canyon, however the path is not well signposted and we met travellers who had issues with return transportation from the end point, even though they had previously arranged transfers with a tour operator.
Cruising with the Condors
On the morning of day one we had to set the alarm for stupid o'clock, as the minivan transfer collected us at 3:00am for the 3 hour drive across the high Andes altiplano. After breakfast in the village of Chivay we boarded the bus again and followed the winding road along the canyon rim past incredible views of ancient Inca terracing throughout the valley.
Our first stop was at 'Cruz del Condor’, a popular viewpoint for tourists to watch the endangered condor birds. We arrived around 9:00am, just in time to see a squadron of condors ascend from the canyon depths, catching a ride on the thermal currents.
The condors circled around the sky before several lined up for a flyby of the viewing platforms, where dozens of tourists were waiting eagerly with their cameras in hand. We watched in awe as these majestic creatures of the sky soared past silently, catching the breeze on their enormous wings.
It is best to arrive early to see the condors, as it is the prime time for thermal current activity. We were told by our guide that some days you only get to see one or two condors from the viewpoint, so we felt very lucky to have witnessed at least a dozen of them in the sky. Watch the condors in action here:
A Steep Descent
After travelling along a bit further, we reached the starting point for the trek. It didn’t appear to matter which company you had booked through, as all minibuses arrived around the same time and everyone was sorted into two or three day groups of 10 people and assigned a guide.
Our guide was Frank and he had grown up in one of the local villages. Frank spoke English well and began by giving us the lowdown for the next three days before we set off. For our first day we were aiming to descend 1,000m into the canyon to reach the small village of San Juan de Chuccho on the other side of the river. Too easy we both thought … but how wrong we were!
The first 30 minutes were relatively easygoing following a dusty trail with a steady gradient just under the canyon edge.
But this soon turned into a very steep descent down a gravel path interspersed with deep rocky steps. Each footstep needed to be placed carefully on the loose gravel as one wrong move could see you slip and end up down the bottom of the canyon! Wearing only running shoes, we both took a few slides but thankfully neither of us were hurt.
By the time we got to the Colca River at the base of the canyon both our knees were aching from the constant stress on them over the past 3½ hrs. Looking back to where we had come from, we couldn’t believe how treacherously steep the descent had been ... and we thought going downhill was going to be easy! We began to worry about how we were going to fare on the climb back out of the canyon.
Our park entrance tickets were checked at the river crossing and we continued uphill for a short time until we reached San Juan de Chuccho at around 2:00pm. Upon arrival we were served a hearty meal of soup followed by Lomo Saltado (a traditional Peruvian stew of meat, onion and tomato), rice and potato chips. The saltado was made with local alpaca meat and we were both surprised by how delicious it tasted.
After lunch we were shown to our simple rooms and given the rest of the afternoon off to rest our legs. Our room was a small adobe brick hut with one tiny window, no electricity and a cobbled floor made from large smooth river rocks. The stone floor was a little cold and hard on the weary feet without shoes, but the room was warm, a testament to the thermal insulation of the adobe bricks. We had access to shared bathroom facilities, however we regretted using the shower when the temperature varied somewhere between cold and freezing!
The plan for day two was much less strenuous and involved a 5 hour trek through the canyon to the oasis of Sangalle. Frank liked to refer to this terrain as ‘Peruvian Flat’, which while certainly much easier on the knees, was not what we would call entirely flat!
After a leisurely breakfast, we set off on a path following a stream through the village orchard. The trek then continued mostly in the open sun and was fairly flat with the odd hill thrown in for good measure.
About 4 hours into the trek we met an old man camped out under a shady tree, selling fruit and cold water and we enjoyed a short cool respite and juicy mandarin before pushing on. Just before the entrance to the oasis we crossed the Rio Colca again over a suspension bridge.
Sangalle oasis was formed after a canyon landslip uncovered a natural spring, supplying the area with a constant source of fresh water. The tiny pocket of lush green was a welcome sight from the barren canyon landscape. Numerous hostels have taken advantage of this unusual location and put in large spring fed swimming pools to entice weary trekkers.
The pool at our hostel was shaped around an enormous boulder which formed one side of it and was surrounded by lush gardens. It was such a stark contrast to the sheer coloured canyon walls that overlooked it on all sides. After a long hot walk we all made good use of the pool for the afternoon and got to know each other over a few cervezas.
Once again the rooms were very basic and dark, with no electricity and access to shared bathroom facilities. It was not luxury by any means but adequate for our needs and understandable considering the only method of transportation to the village is by mule or on foot.
Later that afternoon another group of two day trekkers arrived, exhausted from having completed our two days of trekking in a single day. As much as it is certainly achievable, we were happy to have chosen the more leisurely three day trek which allowed more time to rest and enjoy the surroundings.
The Only Way Is Up!
It was an early start on the last day, with us hitting the trail at 5:00am without any breakfast. The plan was to make our way out of the canyon before the trail was hit by strong sun and have breakfast in the village of Cabanaconde before being collected by our minivan transfer at 9:00am.
Even for the experienced trekker the path ahead looked daunting - a climb of 1,300m in 3.5km taking 3-4 hours. Like the descent, the path was dusty loose gravel with deep rock steps and endless switchbacks.
The first hour went well as we slowly inched our way up out of the canyon and we were soon taking off extra layers as the sun started to rise. Every so often you would have to step aside as a local with mules went past laden with goods or trekkers that were injured or had opted out of the climb. For the rest of us it was just one long hard slog!
Around half way up I had to leave Kim behind, as we learned from Frank that it is far better to go at your own pace and get ‘into the zone’ than to wait for someone else. The sun was getting higher and hotter and I started wishing for it to end.
I donned my headphones for some extra inspiration - anything to take my mind off the neverending switchbacks and my burning legs. When the last of the mules passed me by, I knew it was only my legs that would get me to the top. Here is a short movie of my progress ...
The climb out of the canyon took me about 3½ hours and I’ve never been so relieved / shattered / elated to reach the top! Watch the final moment I conquered the Colca Canyon here ...
At the start of the climb, I really had no idea what I was about to undertake and it was much harder than I had expected. It was also a mental marathon - around half way up I thought I had lost my mind, but then regained it, pushed through pain and became determined to see it through to the finish.
I feel proud to be able to say ‘I made it!’, as it was a massive effort to get to the top. Would I do it all again? … Hmmm, let me get back to you on that!
Return to Arequipa
After the last of our group made it to the top, we continued along another 'Peruvian flat' section for 30 minutes to reach the village of Cabanaconde, where we enjoyed a typical breakfast of scrambled eggs, dry bread, jam and instant coffee.
Our minibus arrived and we were driven back along the canyon rim to the Chivay hot springs. The complex consists of pools of varying temperature, some a little too hot for comfort! It was a great way to wash the dust away and relax our weary muscles in the thermal pools.
Continuing on to Chivay, we stopped at a local restaurant for lunch before the return trip to Arequipa. Along the way we spotted wild vicuna and herds of llama grazing on the bleak cold altiplano. We also made a quick stop at the highest point of elevation where we could see all the surrounding volcano peaks.
In retrospect, as occasional trekkers we were probably under prepared for such a strenuous hike. From our experience we would make the following recommendations:
- Rent trekking poles – We underestimated what the steep descent can do to your knees, so would highly recommend renting trekking poles to ease the stress on your joints and give you extra balance on the loose gravel.
- Wear hiking boots – Our running shoes weren’t quite up to the challenge.
- Pack light – Consider every item you put in your daypack as it really makes a difference, especially on the way back out. Rethink taking shower toiletries, you can make do with a dip in the pool and thermal springs.
- Don't forget your headphones – For extra inspiration when you need it the most!
- Take water and snacks - Stock up on water and snacks in Arequipa, as there is limited availability in the canyon and they are twice the price.
- Take Ibuprofen – For inflamed muscles and knee pain.