The Colca Canyon is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the United States, and a must-see for any visitor to Southern Peru. There isn’t a ton of detailed information in the guidebooks about how to get to the Colca Canyon or actually do the hike. Tours can be booked in Arequipa, which is 160 km southeast of the canyon, but if you’re a) On a budget, b) Don’t want to spend your whole tour waking up super early for a bus, or c) Want to do the hike without a guide, I have some tips for you!
Do: Begin your hike in Cabanaconde
Rather than beginning on your Colca Canyon tour in Arequipa, which is a fair distance away and requires waking up at 3 AM to get to the canyon, arrange your own transportation (usually a bus) to the village of Cabanaconde from Arequipa. This article explains better than I could the various bus options available – I visited Arequipa after the Colca Canyon, so I got there via tourist bus from Puno to Chivay, and then public bus from Chivay to Cabanaconde (one of the most terrifying bus rides of my life – be prepared for narrow roads and switchbacks!)
The biggest reason to begin your hike in Cabanaconde is it’s incredibly easy and quick (under 0 minutes) to walk to the edge of town and begin descending into the canyon. However, if you want to visit the “Cruz del Condor” viewpoint, you will probably have to arrange transportation to there separately, which can be done by your hostel (and again, be prepared to wake up super early). Note that there aren’t any ATMs in Cabanaconde, and you will have to make sure you get money in Arequipa or Chivay. The entry fee into the Colca Canyon is 70 soles, and you will need to carry your permit for the duration of your trek.
Do: Stay at the Pachamama Hostel
Though there isn’t any WiFi (I don’t think there’s any Wifi in Cabanaconde at all though), staying at the Pachamama Hostel in Cabanaconde was a great experience. The host, Ludwig, spoke perfect English and was very knowledgeable about hikes in the Colca Canyon. He sat down with my friends and I and went over our options for a 2 or 3 day hike, explaining the pros and cons of each option as well as marking out a great trekking map for us. He also helped us book rooms in Sangalle, the oasis at the bottom of the canyon where we’d sleep for the night while hiking. The food was good, the bartender was amazing, and they let us stow our big backpacks there while we took smaller bags into the canyon. Which brings me to my next point…
Don’t: Pack Everything & The Kitchen Sink
If you stay at a hostel in town the night before your hike, you can store your bags and extra belongings there. There are places to buy food and water along the trails, so you don’t have to bring food or snacks unless you want to.
I did the two day hike with one night in Sangalle, the oasis at the bottom of the canyon, which provides rooms and beds, so you don’t need to bring a tent or sleeping bag unless you’re doing one of the longer routes (Ludwig will be able to tell you if it’s necessary, and his hostel also rents equipment out). I brought my swimsuit (since there’s a pool at the bottom), a change of underwear and shirt, and one sweater, in addition to the shirt and hiking capris I wore down. A daypack should suffice for the hike, especially because of the heat, and if you do the two day version, the second day is just straight up hill and carrying extra weight would not be fun!
Do: Bring some water for the beginning!
It was very hot when I did the hike, and I ran out of water before I got to the first shop, with no streams or running water to even treat water before I drank it, so bringing plenty of water for those first two hours is helpful if it’s a hot day!
Do Bring Your Map and Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Directions
The trail isn’t always well-marked, especially as you get into some of the village-y areas and the pathways split. Interact with fellow hikers to see if they have a better idea (or better yet, see what a nearby tour group is doing, especially because they take more breaks than independent trekkers!) Worst comes to worst, ask one of the residents where you’re supposed to go – I spoke very minimal Spanish at the time, but simply pointing downwards and saying “Sangalle?” to a non-English resident got me back on the right track.
What’s the hike like?
I can only speak to the two day hike, which descends down the canyon to the oasis of Sangalle, and then back up to Cabanaconde on day 2. The descent wasn’t steep, but predominantly switchback trails down into the canyon. There were definitely areas where the trial was damaged by falling rocks, but it was easy enough to bypass without putting your life in danger. It was about 6-7 hours down to Sangalle, including a stop for lunch at one of the villages. We arrived just as the day was starting to cool down, so the cold pool in the oasis wasn’t as refreshing as I was imagining it would be when I was dying of thirst at 11:30 that morning!
Sangalle doesn’t have any power, so the food the oasis prepares for you is limited to cooking the old-fashioned way. And yep – this means your cerveza won’t be ice cold either! But, the lack of power and light sources in the evening makes for some amazing stargazing and night skies – I only regret that I wasn’t super proficient with night photography at the time, so I couldn’t capture that scene with my camera. It lives on in my brain as the most beautiful starry sky (with a complete view of the milky way) that I’ve ever seen!
Day 2 is hard. I wasn’t much of a hiker at the time, and though we left very early before it got super hot, I still found it difficult. You don’t go up the same way you came down (which winds around the canyon on switchbacks), but rather more of a straight up, steep ascent that takes 3-4 hours. We left Sangalle around 8 and were back in Cabanaconde by lunchtime. Some hikers that are in tour groups hire mules to help them with ascending to the top, and I was feeling pretty envious of everyone that I walked by who got to ride/carry their stuff on a mule! I also saw a condor fly by, and it was so huge I was almost hoping it could come and fly me to the top…
It’s also important to carry your entry permit for the Colca Canyon your whole hike, as it will be checked at entry and at departure.
So Should You Do It?
Absolutely! The Colca Canyon is beautiful, and is sheer proof of the variety of Andean landscapes. Definitely consider doing it without a guide or group – even if you’re a solo traveller, you can meet people at Pachamama Hostel and join a group that way (it’s never wise to hike alone!) All in, I spent around 120 soles ($45 CAD) on the hike, including the permit, food/water, the Sangalle accommodations, and my stay at Pachamama Hostel.
Have you been to the Colca Canyon? Which route did you take? Did you go with a tour or on your own? Let me know in the comments!