Anyone that loves the great outdoors, fancies a little trekking and is a bit of a glutton for punishment, then some time spent in Colca Canyon may be of interest.
Cañón Del Colca, if we can also use its local name, is up there as being one of Peru’s biggest attractions. At 3,270 m – 10,725 ft, it’s the second deepest canyon in the world after neighbouring Cotahausi (3,535 m – 11,595 ft), and if you thought the Grand Canyon looked deep, it barely makes a scratch.
The name comes from the small niches, or colca, in the rock cliffs. In Inca and pre-Inca times these were used as tombs for people of high status, as well as storing crops like potatoes.
Located approximately 160 km from Arequipa, the Colca Canyon experience – should you book through a tour operator – begins with a 3am hotel pick-up, then breakfast in the small town of Chivay several hours later. Ours was at the Rumi Wasi hotel and nothing to get too excited over – a couple of pieces of Peruvian flatbread, some jam, margarine and instant coffee or coca tea. Not the type of food that fuels your body before trekking, so bringing some fruit, nuts and granola bars is a good idea.
Prior to setting out on the trek there’s a mandatory stop at Cruz Del Cóndor (above pic), a viewpoint above the canyon where condors can be seen soaring on the rising thermals. No sign of the condors when we stopped by, but we did return on the way back to Arequipa.
Descending the canyon – Mosquito tree (pink peppercorn) and fig trees.
Posada Gloria, San Juan de Chucho
The trek commences near the town of Cabanaconde and begins its descent within a few minutes of walking. It’s a cruisy 1½-2 hour trek through the clouds to the bridge and Río Colca at the bottom, with many rocky switchbacks offering spectacular views up and down the canyon.
Once at the bottom, the trail ascends the other side of the canyon through old Incan agricultural terraces that are still used by local villagers today. It’s lush with vegetation such as figs trees, cactus laden with tuna (cactus fruit), and the “mosquito tree” where locals use the crushed leaves to repel mozzies. They’re actually pink peppercorn trees which are endemic to this part of South America.
Stone irrigation channels lead to the tiny hamlet of San Juan de Chucho where, at Posada Gloria, we spend our first night in the canyon.
The location is simply breathtaking with mountains towering overhead and the land surrounding the posada is filled with a bounty of trees ripe with avocados, peaches, lemons, peppers, figs and pomegranate. There’s even lemon verbena growing down there.
The accommodation at Posada Gloria is rustic, to say the least. Very basic adobo dwellings, riverstone floors, a window and no electricity. Showers and toilets are communal and a little more rustic than the rooms, if you get my drift.
Food-wise, lunch and dinner is provided on the day of arrival, and you can expect a simple rice & veg soup and lomo saltado for lunch and something similar for dinner. Beers and bottles of water can be purchased, as well, and come nighttime, fireflies come out to play.
Breakfast is served early – we got banana pancakes – with coca tea and instant coffee, before setting off on the trail and making a short but intense ascent to a conveniently placed farmhouse selling drinks, chocolate and other snacks. There’s even a restaurant there that serves cuy, or fried guinea pigs, that are in cages just metres away.
The trail continues through the hamlets of Cosñirhua and Malata (church pic above), before gradually descending past an old Incan amphitheatre, across Río Colca and to Oasis de Sangalle (below pic).
Arriving at the oasis is like a breath of fresh air. It’s full of banana trees, avocado, mango and apple, even flowering cotton shrubs which were grown in the oasis by settlers some time ago.
Our overnight stay was at Paraiso las Palmeras Lodge, another rustic set-up with slightly better rooms than Posada Gloria, plus a swimming pool fed by warm volcanic water.
Here you have the rest of the afternoon to lounge about, take a refreshing dip or shower and purchase a drink or two. Lunch and dinner are provided. You can see the vegetable soup below, which was nice, but the choclo, pumpkin and cheese stew was a little claggy for my liking.
There’s no staying up late on the final night in Colca Canyon as the following day begins at 4am to start the trek back up the mountain. It also didn’t help that we experienced two earthquakes during the night, and staying awake imagining huge boulders crashing down the mountain and wiping us out was playing on our minds a little.
It seems like an insane time to start the trek, but the temperature is cool before dawn and it becomes very warm as you slog it for 2½ to 3 hours to the top of the canyon. It’s non-stop uphill trekking over rocks, stone steps and the occasional flat area. It truly is a killer.
Once you arrive at the top you regain your composure, wait for any stragglers from your group, then walk a little further to the village of Cabanaconde. Here you’ll have breakfast then await your transport to take you back to Cruz Del Cóndor to try to catch sight of Andean condor.
We were in luck this time and spotted a few, whilst nibbling on juicy sangaya, a round variety of cactus fruit which is sold alongside tourist tat at the lookout. It’s very similar to kiwi fruit and can be either sweet or sour, depending on the altitude of the plant it came from.
There’s an optional buffet lunch stop back in Chivay for 30 soles, or you can wander off and find your own eatery and spend what you like. We did the all-you-can-eat buffet, which was really good; a much deserved treat after the hard slog we put in.
How to get to Colca Canyon from Arequipa.
The cheapest way to get to Colca Canyon is to do it independently with local transport, although the buses stop frequently, possibly take longer and it may be more hassle than it’s worth. Plus you have to do it over again to get back to Arequipa.
The pain-free version is to book with an agency in Arequipa. Yes they cost more, but they take care of return transport, they look after meals, accommodation and you get a guide. You’ll also be briefed on what to bring and what to wear.
We booked through American Tours, but you can find many other companies around Plaza de Armas in Arequipa. The cost for our 3-day-2-night trip was 125 soles per person. There’s also a mandatory 70 sole Boleto Turistico fee, which apparently “helps maintain the park and the roads”. The roads are nothing short of appalling, so lets just assume it goes into the park somewhere, or perhaps into a local politician’s pocket.