For those who are in decent shape, a trek in Colca Canyon is one of the highlights of visiting Arequipa. Choose from a variety of trekking itineraries ranging from 1 to 2 to 3+ days. The actual canyon is about 4-5 hours by bus from Arequipa (depending on which trailhead you use). We do not recommend doing this as a day trip – as the distances are to great, with very limited time at the canyon and extremely early departure and late arrival times. For a more leisurely experience we recommend 4-6 days. With that said, the two-day Colca Canyon trek is still the most popular with travelers.
Guided treks have significantly gone up in price over the years – everything will be arranged and included in the final price including the taxi ride to the bus station, a guide and food and lodging. Most of the locals will tell you that Colca Canyon is the second deepest in the world after the nearby Cotahuasi Canyon which is the world’s deepest canyon. However Cotahuasi is fairly remote and not often visited by tourists.
For those doing a day trek or who want to get an early start, buses from Arequipa leave Arequipa at intervals most of the night – most tour operators getting an early start for their clients use buses leaving between 1:30am – 4am. The journey reaches a maximum elevation of 16,000 feet (those susceptible to altitude sickness or those not yet acclimatized will have problems with this journey). At this elevation there is not a lot of visible vegetation and the landscape near the road is somewhat barren. Be sure to look for the captivating green large clumps of moss that grow at elevations of around 13,000 – 14,000 feet.
The actual 2-day trek starts at around 10,500 feet from a small town called Cabanaconde, located about 15-20 minutes by bus from the Condor viewing overlook. From this town one hikes a short distance up to the San Miguel Lookout. The trail drops over the side of the canyon and features numerous switchbacks. Bring and use suntan as most of the trek on the first day is in the sunshine. Hikers walk through dry high altitude vegetation at the top of the canyon before descending, passing by basaltic columnar cliffs, similar in composition to Devil’s Postpile in central California.
One will reach the bottom of the canyon in about 3 hours, moving at a brisk pace. A bridge is located near where the trail reaches the bottom and hikers will cross to the other side of the canyon. Conveniently, at the foot of this bridge vendors often sell cold drinks – not a bad thing after hiking for 3 hours in the bright sun! Even better, is the cold water. There isn’t much shade at the bottom of the canyon, but a little splashing around next to the side of the river will cool you down immediately. The elevation drop into the canyon is about 4,000 feet, less than half of what it is at the deepest part of this canyon.
The bottom of the canyon has an almost Mediterranean feel. Fig trees, cactus, lush green grass, corn and other fruits and vegetables are cultivated. The bottom of the canyon is well-supplied with water from the river and also from springs that seep out from the hillsides. Lunch is at one of the small villages about 4 hours into the hike. Lunch is a good time to ask for the mild tasting fruit pods called Pacai (otherwise known as ice cream bean). Some villagers grow this in the canyon.
After reaching the bottom, and crossing to the other side, one will hike for another 2-3 hours. You will hike through semi-abandoned mud brick villages – which make pretty backdrops for photographs. The final destination one day one is a welcoming small settlement called the “Oasis” located within a very short walk of the river. And there is even a swimming pool fed by the nearby hot springs. Also on site is a small store and round grass thatched huts – used for sleeping. Showers consist of cold water running from one of the streams through pipes.
Hikers will spend the night at the Oasis – after a full day of hiking this is a very relaxing place to rest tired muscles or catch up on some reading. The Oasis has no electricity – at night, if clear one can see a trillion stars, so close they seem, you can almost touch them. No streetlights or other urban lights will disturb your view.
If you chose the 2-day trek, you will wake up around 3am and begin your climb out of the canyon. Chances are the temperatures at the bottom of the canyon even in the middle of night will be reasonable, but as you climb you may have to put on extra layers as the temperature drops dramatically. The climb takes between 3 and 5 hours to the top depending on how fast you walk. It is possible to put your gear on mules so you don’t have to carry it to the top but you will want to pre-arrange this luxury with your guide before hand. If you do this, be sure to carry a small bag with your water and extra clothes as at times you will become separated from the mules. Be sure to wear a working headlight as you will be climbing in the dark for several hours.
One of the highlights of an early morning is visiting the Condors at the Condor lookout, located about 20 minutes from Cabanaconde. Unfortunately the cost of viewing these birds is a rather steep $10 USD. The best viewing time is in the early morning as that’s when the birds are the most active. Condors have some of the largest wing spans in the world – which is an impressive site to see them so close up.
Many women vendors sell a variety of touristy type gifts, trinkets and clothing at the lookout.
The exact trek described above is listed here – I used this agency for this particular trek.