At three-and-a-half kilometres, Peru’s Colca Canyon is double the depth of its more famous counterpart, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, US. Only China’s Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon is deeper. We embarked on an adventure into its depths; this is the story of our Colca Canyon trek.
The landscapes throughout the canyon were some of the most impressive we saw anywhere in the world. Our experience wasn’t all positive, though; we met some challenges along the trail that we just weren’t prepared for. The problems began before we even arrived.
Booking our Colca Canyon trek
After hiking all over the world on our travels, one thing I have come to be wary of is the difficulty ratings assigned to different trails. Whether a particular route is defined as easy, medium or difficult rarely has any science applied to it. The judgement is made all-too-often on an arbitrary basis, with little appreciation of the fitness and experience profiles of the average traveller.
A stark example of this, and the problems created by false information, was our experience with the Colca Canyon. The mismatch between the pre-tour advice and the reality of the trek was almost farcical.
The departure hub for our Colca Canyon trek was Arequipa, Peru’s second-largest city. As the region’s major attraction, there are no shortage of options for canyon day tours and guided treks available to book in the city. For convenience’s sake, we decided to book through the hostel we were staying in.
In an email exchange with the hostel, they advised me of the different options for two- or three-day treks. With time limited, we opted for two days, and the hostel sent further details. At the top of their email, in bold, were the words: ‘Trekking Difficulty: Easy’.
That was a relief. As we had only just completed the Inca Trail, we didn’t want to take on anything too strenuous. Further into the email, the lengths of time assigned to each leg of the trek indeed gave the impression that the pace would be gentle.
As you will read in the remainder of this article, this trek was anything but easy. Writing at the end of a year’s travel in which we did a huge amount of trekking, this was the most challenging one of all. And thanks to this misinformation, we simply weren’t ready for it.
How much we paid for our Colca Canyon trek
Our two-day trekking package cost 130 Peruvian soles each, which included an English-speaking guide, transport, accommodation and four meals (two breakfasts, one lunch and one dinner).
There were some additional costs. We had to pay an entrance fee of 70 soles each for the national park (unless you are Peruvian, in which case it’s only 10 soles). There was also a further 15 soles entrance fee for the Chivay hot springs, and 25 soles for our lunch on the second day.
Flight of the condors
As the Colca Canyon is some three hours’ drive from Arequipa, we had an early start on the first day. We were collected from our hostel at 3am in a minivan. After some hold-ups we arrived for breakfast at Chivay town around 7am.
The first stop of the tour was at Cruz Del Condor viewing point to see the world’s largest flying birds in action. The giant winged beasts only come out to play in the morning, and so time was not on our side. Further road delays after breakfast threatened to result in us missing out, but as we pulled up at 8:30am we could see the dark shapes gliding around in the sky, and crowds of people clamouring to catch a glimpse.
With just half an hour’s grace to indulge in some condor-spotting, we hastened to the viewing area. After just a few seconds, people gasped as one swooped low above us, wings outstretched. It was amazing to see it so close! A condor’s wingspan can reach over ten feet, and this one can’t have been far off that.
There was a majestic foreboding about the way the condors circled together, soaring gracefully and occasionally plunging down for a break. On a protruding rock not far below us, three of them gathered to survey the landscape below. One craned its neck around 180 degrees and seemed to make direct eye contact with me; it sent a shiver right down my spine!
Colca canyon trek: the stifling descent begins
With the accumulation of the morning’s delays we arrived at Mirador de San Miguel –the trek’s starting point – at 10:30am, about an hour behind schedule. The most troubling consequence of our tardiness was high above us. The sun beamed down from a cloudless sky, with the day’s forecasts predicting temperatures exceeding 35 degrees celsius. Combined with the thin air at 3,300m altitude, these were testing conditions.
The three hours it took us to hike from here down to San Juan de Chucchu village were a real test of endurance. It eclipsed anything we had experienced on the Inca Trail a few days earlier. The path that snaked down the 1,200m descent was a gauntlet of treacherous loose gravel, with the soaring temperature doing nothing to help.
The one thing that kept us going, aside from each other’s encouragement, was the truly spectacular scenery. Every time we stopped for breath – which was very often – we were able to escape from our exhaustion into the dreamland of chartreuse vegetation, prickly cacti and gaping rocky faces all around us.
After lunch in the village, we set off again. It took another three hours to reach the oasis village of Sangalle, our resting place for the night. Now at 1,900m altitude, we had descended a net distance of 1,400m over the day, with plenty of up and down along the way.
The value of a good trekking guide
Here’s the thing: all of this would have been manageable if we’d had a supportive and understanding guide. Ours was not. Lisa wrote in some detail about the effect this had on her experience in particular. Every now and again I re-read this, and it fills me with pride in how she overcame the negative treatment she received.
This was the precise opposite to the experience we had on the Inca Trail, where our trekking guides were exemplary. Nobody was ever left behind, and had a great team environment of positivity and encouragement.
From constantly telling Lisa she was going too slow, to saying the trek was for ‘able-bodied people’, to constantly pressuring us to take a mule ride instead of continuing on foot, our Colca Canyon trek guide was the epitome of everything a guide shouldn’t be. In the face of this, however, we both made it through to the end.
In hindsight, I wish we had spent more time exploring different tour companies rather than taking the default option of going straight through our hostel. Did they advertise the trek as ‘easy’ just to get more custom? Quite possibly. If so, it was a borderline scam.
After further research, I’ve seen that most tours operators are transparent about the difficulty. I would advise anyone considering the Colca Canyon trek to shop around, read reviews, and ask tour companies about their guide’s approach.
Colca canyon trek: the big climb
The biggest challenge of the trek was still to come. On the morning of the second day, we were faced with hiking an elevation gain of 1,300 metres from Sangalle to Cabanaconde, for which we were allotted just three hours.
We arose at 4am for a 4:30am start. At least the sun wasn’t a factor this time, but the relentless ascent was gruelling. Like the previous day’s descent, the path was stony and slippery, with no break from the steep gradient.
About two thirds of the way up, the sun began to peek over the horizon, bathing the crest of the canyon in wonderful orange light. Once again the scenery became our crutch.
We emerged at the top on the stroke of seven-thirty, red-faced and exhausted. With a paper-cup coffee from a little stall that was on hand, we enjoyed our reward: the view across the canyon in full morning daylight. We had made it.
Agricultural terraces at Achoma
The day’s activity wasn’t finished yet, but thankfully there was little walking left to do. After a nourishing breakfast of eggs and crepes in Cabanaconde, we set off in the minivan for some sightseeing.
A meandering drive through the Colca Valley and some wild-west-style desert scenery took us to the viewing point at Achoma. The lookout was perched upon an Incan ceremonial site, marked by stone circle relics.
From here, the overlapping steps of agricultural terraces stretched out to the horizon in every direction. It was like some rural theatre, and we were looking out from the stage.
Chivay hot springs
After another stop for an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch, we moved on for a relaxing break at some thermal springs near Chivay. With our calves still burning from the morning’s exertion, nothing could have been more welcome.
A few days earlier we’d had tattoos done in Cusco, which needed to be kept out of water for a couple of weeks. Most awkwardly, mine was on my lower leg, but I wasn’t going to miss a dip in the inviting hot water. I did my best to wrap the tattoo up in plastic bags, and hopped in.
There were three different pools to choose from, each with different levels of heat. We picked the hottest and ordered some ice-cold beers.
Our next stop was at Patapampa, which at nearly 5,000m above sea level was the highest altitude either of us had ever experienced.
You might expect to see snow at this height; there was not a single flake. Instead, we saw a desolate desert horizon dominated by smoking volcanos. As we were about to leave, one of the summits spouted fumes into the air in an explosive belch.
We drove on through La Reserva de Llamas y Vicuňas, making a final brief stop to spot the animals frolicking in the wilderness. Done for the day, we strapped up for the long drive back to Arequipa.
Back in Arequipa: things to do in the city
Arequipa itself is a fascinating and highly photogenic city. The Spanish influence was even greater here than other Peruvian cities, and it became renowned for its loyalty to the colonial masters. The historic centre is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the imposing white architecture dominating its streets look magnificent against the volcanic and mountainous backdrop.
At the heart of Arequipa is the Plaza de Armas, one of the most distinctive city squares in the country. Of the white buildings around its perimeter, the Basilica Cathedral is the most striking. Adjacent to the cathedral is a row of arched buildings with rooftop restaurants, which are great for breakfast with a view.
Three blocks north of the Plaza de Armas is the city’s showpiece, the Monastery of Santa Catalina. Set within high walls, the 20,000-square-metre is like a miniature city within the city. Two nights a week it is also open to explore by candlelight. While this place is quite the spectacle to behold, it is expensive by Peruvian standards – 40 soles for entry, and 20 soles more if you want a guide.
A short walk away from the city centre to the west will take you to a bridge over the Chili river, from where you can see Misti Volcano in all its glory. At 5,822m high it is one of the icons of the Arequipa region, towering menacingly over the city.
We found a great way to explore the highlights of the city was to take a free walking tour, which depart from near the monastery at 10am and 3pm daily.
On our last night in Arequipa, at the reverse side of the cathedral, we found a great little restaurant called Mirador Misti. With a romantic balcony area it was a great spot to treat ourselves after completing the Colca Canyon trek. We had definitely earned it.
Have you done the Colca Canyon trek and have a story to tell about it? Share your experiences in the comments below.
Are you taking on the Inca Trail in Peru? Check out my complete guide for first-timers.