Everything you need to know about a 3-day/2-night trek in the incredible Colca Canyon whilst in Peru – an experience you will never forget.
I have to be honest and admit that I had never heard of the Colca Canyon, until arriving in Peru.
As with many fantastic activities in a country, learned whilst on the road and via the travellers’ jungle wire, this is how we initially heard about the Colca. And, also one of the reasons we stayed in Arequipa for a while.
About the Colca
Spectacular Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world and twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Measured from the highest peak to the base at 3,270 metres (10,730ft), the Colca sits in the middle of two volcanos – Coropuna at 6,450 metres and Ampato at 6,380 metres.
Tip: This trek is classed as intermediate so you do need a level of fitness, as the last day is arduous.
Organising a trek
Arequipa is the best base to organise a trek to Colca and an abundant of agencies offer similar experiences. Just make sure you check every detail offered.
Decided on Peru Zuiza as the price is a little cheaper and promised a smaller-sized group of around six people, plus a guide.
This is a packed three-day/two-nights, which also takes in El Mirador de Condores – the lookout to see majestic Condors. I am beyond excited!
- For the fitter guys, you can squeeze this trek into two-days/one-night, but spending an extra day is kinder to your body and you also absorb more of your surrounds.
- You can trek the Colca independently starting from Cabanaconde. Just depends on whether you want to do a trek, or learn about the area whilst trekking.
What to expect – a memorable experience
With a minibus pick-up from the hostel at around 3 am, we then connect with another bus.
Looking as if I’ve just been dragged out of bed backwards, we find a seat on the bus amongst other bleary-eyes and sleeping bodies.
Not much sleep is possible on the bus once out of Arequipa. Peru is very mountainous, with many swerving bends, as we travel the three hours to Chivay for a breakfast of toast, jam, and lots of coffee.
Making our way to popular El Mirador de Condores – the lookout platform at the canyon’s 700-metre drop – as hoping for a spot of Condor watching.
It’s hit and miss whether any will show. We’re in luck.
Watching fixated, as these stunning and majestic creatures soar around us before drifting effortlessly in the thermal updrafts, navigating by feel. A serenity befalls the condors that can only be described as surreal and ethereal.
Incredibly, these birds can live for more than 100 years and remain monogamous for life. Tales of even committing suicide when a partner dies are rife – condors simply stop moving their wings and crash into the ground, but I can’t confirm this either way.
Dropped off to the trek’s starting point at Cabanaconde, tour groups are separated and six of us meet our local guide Yudy, to start the steep zigzag descent, down into the canyon.
Not long into our trek before Yudy points out a condor’s nesting area high up in the cliffs.
Again, we are in luck when one of these magnificent creatures swoops down whilst we stop dead in our tracks, awestruck. So close is the condor that a soft breeze and the sound of its wings spanning more than a metre across, touches my face. Obviously guarding a nest, he was letting us know of his presence.
On we continued after the condor left. The zigzag path you see to the base of the canyon is what haunts us for the last day’s trek.
Very dry and arid this time of year, the terrain is dusty and gravelly and prone to slipping.
My legs scream that the canyon is sucking us into its bowels, the deeper we descend – exaggerating? Perhaps a tad, but it’s not easy and the canyon’s profundity is thrilling.
Dramatic craggy mountain ranges surround our world whilst we wander through this moonscape, with vistas nothing short of staggering.
Passing indigenous plants, which locals still rely on for medicinal and other purposes, we learn that the canyon is not barren after all, during the wet season. And abounds in papaya, peaches, lúcuma, mango, figs, cactus fruit, squash, and Andean corn.
Finally reaching the Rio Colca at the base of where the canyon formed, we cross the suspension bridge until walking uphill for another half-hour to the village of San Juan de Chuccho – home for today.
Trust me when I say, that my legs are trembling and it’s now time for a rest, after a descent from 3,300 to only 2,100 metres.
Meals and accommodation are basic but adequate, and a reflection of the trek’s cost. There is only one toilet and shower, so cuing is common.
With a much more leisurely and civilised start to the day, today’s trek is to several local villages to learn more about the Andean culture, medicinal plants, and absorb more breathtaking scenery.
Tomorrow’s path still follows us around the canyon…
Protected by the mountainous range at the back of the canyon, visiting Cosñirhua and Malata villages (2,600 metres) is fun but also intriguing.
Pagan and Christian fusion…
A mock wedding between two of our trekkers in front of the church is pretty cool also…
Yudy takes us to her relative’s house where we savour freshly made juices from local exotic canyon fruit before berry hunting, then demonstrating how locals cultivate the earth still using ancient tools.
Continuing our walk through more gorgeous canyon vistas, we arrive to our second home and an oasis at the canyon’s base.
Free to spend the rest of the afternoon either swimming in the pool or resting the ‘ole legs, Yudy prepares our evening meal, so it’s only right that we help. Many tour groups are staying here, so there’s a hype of activity.
Hearing so much about today’s arduous climb and also seeing the path zigzag up the mountain for the last couple of days, we’re up at 4 am and without breakfast. This is mainly to beat the sun’s blaring heat, especially at this altitude.
Donning our head torches and in single-file, we start walking along the narrow dirt track in the dark, with only the chill of the canyon and the quiet voices of other trekkers as company.
We begin the ascent.
Depending on fitness level, this part of the trek can take from 2 to 4 hours. It’s straight up for 5 kilometres with extremely steep switchbacks. Trekking groups start at staggered hours on this well-worn route.
At times, the path becomes quite rocky and find myself scrambling across large rocks, which is difficult, especially if you’re not tall – I’m not. My partner takes to almost dragging me over the rocks, just to help me get further up the canyon.
Other fit trekkers sprint past effortlessly, followed only by dust in their trail, to remind us of how slow we are going.
I decide here and now that I am not going to be pressured into picking up the pace. I don’t want a pulled muscle, broken ankle, or worse. The only way off this mountain is by mule.
A mountain goat would feel comfortable on this path.
You can hire a mule to take you the whole way to the summit. Locals do climb up in the hope that a trekker will succumb to altitude sickness or fatigue. I don’t feel comfortable for this poor animal, so continue the self-challenge, sweating profusely until the top – what an incredible relief!
Crossing grassland at Cabanconde and finally collapsing in a chair for breakfast, the tour isn’t over yet. Piling back into the bus…
…we arrive to another lookout for the amazing and expansive pre-Inca terraces, Mantequilla.
Decided to pay the extra and soak the weary burning muscles in La Calera Hot Springs – an idyllic setting surveying canyon panoramas, whilst in the natural warm springs.
On this never-ending trek, we continue on to Chivay, then the very cold and windy Patapampa Reserve.
Expect to return to Arequipa between 6 to 7pm – exhausted, but incredibly humbled. The physical challenge and astounding natural beauty of the Colca, is truly memorable.
Next difficult but 5-day trek this time, is from Cusco to Mystical Machu Picchu – but acclimatising for a week or so first, in Cusco.
- Transport to/from Arequipa
- English-speaking guide (or your language)
- Two nights in basic accommodation
- Meals (2 breakfasts, 2 lunches, 2 dinners)
What to take
As this trek is difficult, I suggest you take a small light backpack and one that has good support straps:
- hiking boots – your feet and ankles will love you
- light layers of clothing (rain jacket, fleece, shorts, long pants, trekking socks, long sleeve shirt)
- swimming costumes, flip-flops, travel towel
- trekking pole/s
- sunscreen, wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses
- head or hand torch, batteries
- basic First Aid kit with Electrolyte salts, insect repellent, wet wipes, hand sanitiser, toilet paper
- high energy snacks (nuts, chocolate, dried fruit)
- camera (you can only charge equipment on the second night)
- extra cash as no ATMs (souvenirs, entrance fee to hot springs)
Our wonderful and amazingly fit guide Yudy, now works for her own company Peru Baby Lama. I can’t recommend Yudy highly enough to anyone thinking of doing this trek. As a local, Yudy introduces you to Andean culture and I reckon she knows the Colca like the back of her hand.
Much greener during the wet season, but this quick video by Yeti Adventure Films gives you a taste of the mind-blowing Colca, although the ascent on day 3 isn’t filmed.