The Colca Canyon located near Arequipa is a great hiking adventure, with the best tour to be done over 2 days and 1 night. The length of the hike itself allows for this amount of time to make for a challenging, sometimes exhausting, but very rewarding hike that in our opinion could not be achieved by spreading it out further or attempting to squeeze it all into one day.
The hike itself can of course be done by yourself and without a tour, which would involve either organising transport through the many travel agencies in town, or taking local transport which is cheaper and also readily available. However, you will find yourself only saving around $10-15US by doing the hike without a tour, whilst attempting to carry more (food for example) to cover what the tour provides for you.
Arriving in Arequipa, I set out to visit the many tour agencies in town and see what pricing they could offer for the tour. This was a good idea as the prices varied wildly for what was essentially the same thing, ranging from 90 soles to 160 soles. In the end I booked my tour with ‘Agencia de Viajes Mundo Andino’ located on Calle Santa Catalina no. 203. This was a few blocks from the main Plaza de Armas and they shared an entrance with another travel agency that offered me the tour for 130 soles (turn left after entering for the cheaper rate!). The tour itself was explained to me, with the following being promised as being included in the tour.
What is Included?
For the 90 soles that I paid, the following was included:
- Breakfast each day (including on the first day that you are picked up)
- Lunch on the first day
- Dinner (there is essentially only one dinner after your first day of hiking, which is included)
- Accommodation in the canyon
- A guide for the hike
- Transport to and from the Colca Canyon
What is Not Included?
There are of course some things that were not included, especially with the price being so low. These included:
- Entrance into the Colca Canyon area (known as the ‘BCT’, it is essentially a tax) costing 70 soles for foreigners, 40 soles for Latinos, 20 soles for Peruvian nationals, and 5 soles for Peruvian students
Entrance to the hot springs that they take you to on the final day for 15 soles (not mandatory)
- Lunch on the final day on the way back to Arequipa; this is a buffet lunch at a restaurant costing 30 soles, though do not fret as there are many cheaper food options in the town that they stop in or you can bring your own
- Snacks and/or water; you must bring your own or buy them on the many small shops along the hike
With this information supplied as well as a rudimentary understanding of what the tour entailed, I set off to bed for what would be an early start. Here is what occurred during the tour so that you can have some idea of how the tour operates and what you will see along the way:
After being told that I would be picked up between 3am and 3:30am from my hostel, I set out to have an early night and try and get a few extra hours for what I knew would be a long day.
I think I got around 4 hours of interrupted sleep, though was ready to go and waiting in my hostel reception area at 3am. I was collected at 3:20am and eventually left the Arequipa area after filling up our van with around 18 other people set to either do our tour or do it on their own. As the journey towards the canyon actually takes more than a few hours, me and everyone else on the bus settled in for a few extra hours sleep whilst we wound our way through the mountain roads.
Awoken for Taxes
At around 6:30-7am we were awoken by our tour guide so that he could collect the BCT money (70 soles for me as a foreigner) from all and pay the local authority. As a result of this all were given a shiny ticket that we had to hold onto as we would be checked a few times along the hike to ensure we had paid our way.
This stop was around 10 minutes before entering the town of Chivay for our breakfast stop.
Stopping at a small restaurant in Chivay, we were ushered in to tables set up with jam, bread, papaya juice, watermelon, and tea and coffee. Slightly disappointed the rest of the group starting chatting, socialising and trying to make the most of the meagre breakfast we had been supplied!
It seemed like this place was used by many tour groups with a lot of tables set up for groups like ours. What was more disappointing was that no extras (including milk for coffee) were supplied, with the restaurant owner set on charging anybody for such small luxuries.
We set out from here for our next stop, visiting a view point to see if we could find any condors.
Cruz del Condor
The viewpoint, known as the Cruz del Condor, is set above a small section of a canyon and gives the condors a great space to ride the wind and thermals and float in and out of the canyon.
It also gives tourists a great spot to watch them as they float up and down, and I could see as many as 10 at one time floating lazily about. We spent 40 minutes here which seemed like too much but was actually good to explore the large mirador and get a good view of the birds.
After re-boarding the bus, we rode for around another hour before finally arriving in Cabanaconde where our start point of the hike was.
The Start of the Colca Canyon Hike
Getting a quick rundown of the local area and their growth of both corn and potatoes, we began hiking down the steep path towards our first objective- a bridge that crossed the river that flows at the bottom of the canyon. Along the way our guide explained how the canyon was newly registered as the deepest in the world at around 4,000m in one particular spot, and also how the surrounding villages walked it most days to trade goods such as alpaca meat and other produce with people in Cabanaconde.
We wound our way down the switch backs on relatively slippery terrain with some stops along the way until we finally reached the suspension bridge crossing the river and a number of groups waiting to have their tickets checked for the first time.
At this point we were told we had hiked 6 kilometres, with a short 15 minute uphill hike to go before we had lunch at around 12:30pm.
After having hiked for around 2 hours 45 minutes, we sat down at a local restaurant and camping/accommodation (used for those doing the 3 day and 2 night trek) for our lunch.
Most of us were ravenous, and it was to great delight that we realised we would be getting both a soup and a main to help contain our hunger. Quinoa soup was first served which was absolutely delicious, and this was followed by pork fajitas (a mix of pork, onion, and red pepper similar to a stir fry) along with rice and some hot chips.
It was great to have such a filling lunch and it was followed by a short break where we all lay out in the sun on the very green grass to just relax and chat some more. Eventually we were roused by our guide to begin the second half of our hike towards our accommodation for the night.
The 2nd Part of the Hike
Having completed most of the downhill for the day, our guide told us we would be going up and down for the next 3 hours of so before reaching our lodging. What he should have said was that it was around 70% uphill and 30% down, with the majority not being too steep but a constant gradual incline or decline depending on the part of the hike.
We all stayed pretty close to avoid taking one of many smaller paths that come off of the main one, and followed our guide as he explained a bit more of how people make money in the area. The best option for people in the canyon, he explained, was to harvest a parasite that grows on a particular type of cactus within the canyon, which oozes a natural red liquid sold to makeup manufacturers who use it to colour lipsticks and other products alike. The parasite goes for around $100US a kilo, and was quite prominent on the surrounding cactus plants that we could see.
After this, we continued on the path for another 2 hours or so until reaching the final small shop on the trail. We were told to buy up products here as where we were staying, known as ‘The Oasis’, the food and water was sometimes double in price!
As we were finally looking like we finish for the day, we caught sight of the Oasis and our lodge for the night, a mere 40 minute mostly downhill hike away.
We could definitely see why they called the place the Oasis, with the river and waterfalls giving the area much more life than we had seen in the dusty canyon. We wound our way down once more and crossed our final bridge before ascending into the Oasis and towards our accommodation called the Paraiso Lodge.
Arriving at 4:30pm, we were split up into different rooms, with the largest being a 3-bed dorm, and told that we could relax until dinner at 7:30pm. This place of course was bent on charging for whatever they could as well, with a request for hot water for tea refused until our guide stepped in to fix the situation. Besides this it was a comfortable place for the night, with semi-warm showers and beds that were really warm and comfortable.
Dinner rolled around after a number of card games to pass the time, with the meal set up once more for soup followed by a main. This time the soup was a milk based one that seemed to have curdled, so wasn’t the best but in my hunger I lapped it up. What followed for the main was actually delicious- spaghetti bolognaise with a yummy puréed vegetable sauce. Our guide also brewed up some citronella tea for all, a great way to finish the meal off.
At the conclusion of dinner, our guide ran us through the following days itinerary, letting us know that we would be starting the final ascent at 4:30am, needing to arrive at the top of the canyon by 7:30am to make breakfast in the nearby town by around 8am. With this information at hand the majority of us went off to bed in an attempt to gain a few extra hours of sleep lost the night before.
The Final Ascent
We ended up leaving at 4:45am much to the annoyance of our guide, and worked as a group up the small path for 30 minutes towards the one main path that would take us to the top of the canyon.
Once reaching this point we were allowed to go at our own pace, with another guy and I making our way to the front and going at a quicker pace to finish the hike as fast as we could. The hike itself is gruelling, even more so when you have not woken up yet and have not had breakfast, with the only advantage being the lack of heat.
We worked our way up at a methodical pace, with little to no downhill or even flat areas for respite. After many false peaks and around 1 hour 30 minutes of hiking, we finally caught glimpse of some eucalyptus tees and a cross that marked the top of the canyon and our rest point to wait for the rest of the group. In just under 2 hours we had made the top, and each of purchased a celebratory coffee and tucked into some snacks we each had to stave off our hunger.
TIP: Make sure you bring snacks, if only for this second day. You will be hiking for 2-3 hours and then another 30-40 minutes into town before breakfast, and you will be hungry!
We waited for around an hour for the rest of the group to arrive, putting on our warmest clothes as the wind picked up and the sun began to peak out. Once we had all made the tough ascent we began walking towards town and our breakfast!
Breakfast in Cabanaconde
All of our hopes came true at breakfast when we were asked what type of eggs we would like (luxury!). We all chose our favourite and tucked into a much better breakfast than on day 1.
And now that we were refreshed, we all had a lot more energy for the upcoming day which promised view points and hot springs to rest our weary and sore legs. We got quite a bit of extra time here to just relax after breakfast and joke around about what we had all just been through.
Back on the Bus
We all piled back on the bus at around 9am and we drove towards our first stop- a viewpoint over the canyon and some farms that provided one of the best views that we had seen (and we had seen many!).
We were, however, happy to move on as the hot springs were next and the majority of us wanted to soak our muscles! We eventually arrived here after another hour or so, and each of us paid the extra 15 soles for entry and crossed a bridge over the flowing river next to the springs.
I think we were all glad to have paid the entry as we sat in the hot waters and relaxed for the hour we were allowed here. The pools vary in temperature from warm to blazing hot, with the river also acting as a cold pool if you so desired.
The Final Views and Returning to Arequipa
We left the pools feeling refreshed and ready to return to town, with a promise of arriving back to Arequipa at around 5pm. We still had a few points of interest to visit however, including the highest point of our journey (at 4,900m), and a final stop to see some llama and alpaca in their natural habitat. These views however were short lived with the majority of us tired and ready for a return to the comforts of a bed in Arequipa.
We all took a few photos, before wishing the traffic away upon returning to Arequipa. After sharing a few swigs of rum taken along for the journey and a few hours more on the road, we finally arrived back in the centre of the city. Unfortunately we were not dropped off back at our hostels but close to the main square, which was close for all but not what we had expected.
All in all we had a great group and promised to keep in touch and maybe grab a drink to where most of us were heading next – Cusco. Exchanging our goodbyes we all headed off back to our hostels for a well deserved sleep.
What Else to Bring?
Of course with a tour a lot of things are included for you, so you do not need to think too hard about what you are doing. However with any hike you need to ensure you take certain items and this one was no different.
For me, I took the following with me in a daypack:
- Water: I took 2.5L for the first day and then used my steripen to treat 2L for the second day. This was enough for me and you can also buy water along the way at plenty of little huts
- Snacks: I did not find there to be enough food supplied to satisfy me, especially with breakfast being after the hike on the second day.
Warm clothes: whilst it was hot during the day, once the sun goes down it gets quite cold. I had with me a thermal top and pants for the night, a jumper, and a beanie. This was enough for me
- Hiking clothes: I had a pair of pants that zipped off into shorts for both days, with 2 shirts (1 for each day). I also had spare underwear and socks, and a pair of thongs to wear at the accommodation to save me wearing my hiking shoes
- Headlamp: this came in very handy for the start of hiking on the second day
- Extras: I had a small first aid kit, pen knife, rum (why not!), toothbrush and toothpaste, and soap
This is pretty much all that you need, you do not want your bag to be too heavy now!
Overall I would highly recommend doing the Colca Canyon whilst you are in Arequipa, it is such a rewarding experience whether you do it in a tour like me or choose to do it by yourself. Either way you will remember it that’s for sure!