A trip to the Colca Canyon is a once in a lifetime experience. The second deepest canyon in the world at 11,488 feet deep (after the Yarlung Zangbo in Tibet, China) and more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the USA it is quite an impressive sight.
There are many organised trips you can take from Arequipa in the south of Peru to visit the canyon – everything from day trips to multi-day treks. I decided, along with a group of like-minded individuals, to give it a whirl on my own. Without a guide. And it was simple, and cheaper, and more fun I’m sure than the alternative. For another South American adventure without a guide check out my Torres del Paine post here.
First off you need to make your way to Cabanaconde – a town set at 3287m above sea level – which is the best point of entry to start a walk into the canyon. There are daily buses from Arequipa bus station and once you arrive you can find a hostel, have a pizza and prepare your bags for the next day. We camped as we had our own gear but there are hostels in the canyon and welcoming hosts so you don’t need a tent or food for the trip. Snacks though are a must.
On day 1 do not make the mistake that we did and start late. In fact, start early, very early, while it’s still dark. It is boiling hot during the day (or at least it was in August when we were there) with barely any shade for the over 1000m of zigzagging dusty and scree covered path to the floor of the canyon. I was really struggling by the time we reached the river because of the heat. If you start early you can avoid a lot of the sun on the way down which is hard on your knees and your lungs anyway because of the gradient and altitude. This, in my opinion is the worst part of the walk. But, the views were stunning – especially when you catch a glimpse of a condor soaring by.
You can walk further or for more days than we did, winding through other parts of the canyon and visiting such sites as natural hot springs but we settled on 3 days and 2 nights camping in a village called San Juan and another called Oasis (which shimmered with swimming pools seen from high above as you approach it). Aptly named if you ask me.
So, once we’d reached the river we had the luxury of a leisurely picnic and paddling and lounging around on big flat rocks to rest and sunbathe a bit. If we’d had a lengthier route we’d have had to crack on straight away but enjoying the canyon is worth taking time for.
After that it was only about half an hour more (steep uphill at first then flat) to the tiny village of San Juan. In this village there lives a lovely, energetic and very entrepreneurial lady named Gloria who has rooms and provides tasty food for the weary travellers. You’ll find her name and a bunch of arrows pointing you to her house. She kindly let us camp for free – an absolute champ!
The next day we decided to organise a horse ride over to Oasis – a couple of our group being horsey people (the others being the kind to ride in flipflops). We thought that traversing the canyon’s windy paths would be lovely and picturesque on horseback… Unfortunately when the horses arrived they were actually a motley bunch of mules with two young men to point them in the right direction. Never have I been more terrified whilst riding. We had no reins to direct the little mules and much as they might be used to that, we were not!
We went up and down hills at impossible angles with sheer drops off the cliffs right next to us. Being long-legged, my feet were bashing against trees and rocks everywhere and I was hanging on for dear life as the mule nimbly leapt over streams and up big steps in the rocks. It was a very interesting experience but I’ll never do it again! When I got off the mule my legs were stuck at the extreme right angle they’d been forced into by the seriously short stirrups and the extreme descent pushing my weight forwards whilst my legs fought to stop me sliding straight over the beast’s head and off the side of the canyon.
I was so traumatised by this adventure that I didn’t take a single photo until I reached Oasis and was no longer on a mule.
I’d recommend sticking to walking…
Luckily Oasis lived up to its name! An afternoon and early evening spent ironing out my legs and splashing around in the pool was just what the doctor ordered.
The next day we were up early – we learnt our lesson from the first day. We started the ascent in the dark knowing we had more than 1000m to climb all of which would be pretty exposed once the sun was fully up. This is a gruelling climb. There is no disguising it. It is a constant uphill for just about 3hrs (unless you’re crazy fast like my friend who walked up in flipflops in about an hour and a half). The switchbacks are relentless but most of the way we were out of the sun and in all honesty I thought the downhill was worse! The sense of achievement on reaching the top was pretty great too!
If you’ve got a bit more time you could walk a bit further and see more of the canyon but a 3 day trip was just right for us!
- Buy a tourist ticket (boleto turistico) for entry into the canyon in Cabanaconde or on your way up the hill to the start point – approx 70PEN. Some people may tell you that you can get away without paying this but please don’t be a cheapskate! National Park fees help preserve areas like this around the world so that people in years to come can enjoy them like we have!
- Bring lots of water.
- Bring some cash to buy snacks at the little shops in the villages.
- Pack light – just bring a day pack if you aren’t camping.
- Toilet paper is a must!