The Colca Canyon trek

Reading time: 12 mins

The Colca Canyon is a canyon of the Colca River in southern Peru, 160 kilometres northwest of Arequipa. With a depth of 3,270 metres, it is the fourth deepest in the world.

Country: Peru
Province: Caylloma
Type: Canyon
Language: Spanish
Time: GMT – 6hrs
Currency: Peruvian Soles
Exchange rate: €1 = $3.71
Number of days: 3
Accommodation: Shed
Month: October
Average daily temperature: 24°C

The Colca Valley is an Andean valley with pre-Inca roots, and towns founded in Spanish colonial times, still inhabited by people of indigenous cultures. The local people maintain their ancestral traditions and continue to cultivate the pre-Inca stepped terraces.

There is a well trodden hiking trail which can be tackled over 2 or 3 days. We opted for the more leisurely 3 day trek based on the jam packed itinerary. 

The itinerary

Day 1
3.30am minivan pick up from Arequipa to Cabanaconde via Chivay for breakfast and Cruz del Condor for viewpoint.
Trek downhill from Cabanaconde town to San Juan de Chuccho (moderate).

Day 2
Trek from San Juan de Chuccho to Sangalle (easy).

Day 3
Trek uphill from Sangalle to Cabanaconde (hard).
9am coach from Cabanaconde to Arequipa via stops at volcano viewpoint, wild vicuna spotting, hot springs, buffet lunch.

Day 1

Our introduction to basic

When booking this trek, the tour operator repeated the term ‘basic’ several times in order to drive home the expectations. We aren’t exactly fussy, so it didn’t phase us at the time, but we were soon to find out where the corners had been cut.

We were collected in a mini bus at 3.30am from our hostel as expected. The people surrounding us were a mix of Spanish and English speakers. With no introductions made and everyone feeling extremely tired, it was an awkward start to the day. Our group didn’t look like hikers. We had many questions and no one to ask, but given that this is Peru, we just waited to see what would happen. 

We stopped in a small town and bundled out of the bus. Breakfast was served in a dark concrete room with a long table. Bread as thin as air, butter and jam, shared between a large group of very hungry and tired travellers.

After another two hour drive we arrived at Cruz del Condor. We stood looking at these amazing birds while wondering who the people in the bus were, why were we with them and where the hiking trail was.

Once we arrived at Cabanaconde, a small town at the top of the valley, we were told to leave this group, cross the field and look for our tour guide Edgar. Without a goodbye or further direction, we grabbed our bags and left. After approaching several large groups, we finally found Edgar. As always, someone knew what was going on, but it definitely was not us.

Adjusting to basic

We were definitely taken aback by how stunning the scenery was throughout the day. We started off by completing a moderately challenging descent down into the canyon and an easy enough stretch across the river, before we reached our accommodation for the night.  

Out of all the places we have stayed, and we’ve stayed in a large variety of places on this trip, this was the most basic. Our room had a dirt floor, a rickety old bed and a straw roof with a hole so big we thought the cat was going to fall in. 

Outside, the yard was filled with chickens, cats and a huge turkey. It felt like we were sleeping in the animal shed. The shower was a pipe with ice cold water, no light, the remnants of a few bars of soap and no drain. It was basic.

We made the most of the situation we were in, grabbed a cold beer and got to know our group.

Day 2

Now down in the canyon, day two’s elevation profile looked a lot more forgiving. The planned route allowed us to take plenty of time to soak up our surroundings and learn about the tenacious plants around us.

One of the more prevalent plants was the San Pedro cactus, native to the Andean slopes of Peru and Ecuador. The cactus contains the psychoactive alkaloid mescaline which is used to produce a hallucinogen and is widely available in Peru. San Pedro (called Wachuma in Quechua) has been used for centuries by Inca cultures in ceremonies to communicate with the gods. Only recently have these plants found their way to a broader audience and most people consume San Pedro as part of a collective ceremony, usually administered by a guide known as a shaman.

No less interesting and far less controversial was the prickly pear cactus which grows a parasite on its leaf. The parasite is white in appearance but when our guide crushed it in his hands, it produced a deep red colour. This is a very common and organic colourant used in the food and cosmetic industries, as well as being used as fake blood in films. 

With our war paint now on, we continued until we met a very fragrant citronella plant, which can be used as a highly effective mosquito repellent. 

Overall It was a relaxing hike and an enjoyable day. The sun was shining, we were able to ask questions, chat to each other and take our time while taking pictures.

Supporting the locals 

All along the route we met extremely friendly locals. Many women had set up little shops selling fruits, drinks and sweets, others were carrying fruit around in the hopes of offloading some to hungry hikers while most of the men were typically seen shepherding various animals up and down the steep rocky terrain.

Earning the right to relax

As we neared the end of the hike and the resting place grew nearer in sight, we were led passed waterfalls that appeared to come from nowhere gushing out of the mountainside and creating an almost artificial looking, beautiful green oasis in the valley.

The water flowed down to the resort style accommodation we were staying in and was used to fill fresh water swimming pools for us to enjoy for the afternoon. Thankfully this accommodation was a slight improvement on the night before.

Day 3

At 4.30am we set off for the final push, a 1124 metre direct climb up and out of the canyon. Half asleep and running on pure adrenaline (and coca) we marched up like ants with our heads down. We stopped to let mules carrying weary hikers past, note the rising sun and to take a speedy water breaks. We were on a strict 3 hour time limit in order to keep the rest of the itinerary on track. This made it particularly challenging and a bit stressful.

We made it to the top at 7.40am. We looked out over the canyon to see the trails we had covered over the last few days and let the endorphins take over.

After a few short minutes of celebration we realised we still had several kilometers to go until we reached the town of Cabanaconde, and more importantly our breakfast. 

Thankfully, it felt like a walk in the park as our guide played Johnny Cash songs from his phone. This seemed very appropriate for the setting and the victory march we were on.

The trek that kept on giving

After breakfast, we headed towards a scenic viewpoint to see 5 volcanic peaks and then stopped again to look for wild vicunas grazing. At this point we were exhausted.

The next stop was the one we had been dreaming of. A selection of thermal baths, set beside a beautiful river, to allow us to sit and stew over our latest accomplishment, sore muscles and newly formed friendships.

Once we were clean it was time to go for a buffet lunch. After 3 days of rations we had multiple plates piled high with food to make up for lost time. 

We tried to keep our eyes open long enough to take in the incredibly scenic drive back to Arequipa with Volcanic peaks in the distance and flat plains with wandering packs of wild Vicunas but the days caught up on us and the whole bus was fast asleep after ten minutes.

The wake up calls were early, the days were long and the stops were many but what we saw was exceptional and we were so glad they forced us to get up, get out and see it all.