If you are in decent shape this is a trek well worth taking. You can choose from a variety of options ranging from 1 to 2 to 3+ days. The actual canyon is about 4-5 hours from Arequipa. A one day option is really rushing this trip as you will only have minimal time for hiking and you have to leave very early in the morning.
A two day trek will cost you about $25-$30 US dollars and everything will be arranged for you from the taxi ride to the bus station from your hotel, the guide, and food and lodging during the day & night of your actual trek into the canyon. Most of the local people 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.
In order to get a early morning start on the trek, you will probably leave Arequipa by bus
in the wee hours of the morning like 1:30am – 4am. The bus ride reaches a maximum elevation of 16,000 feet At this elevation there is not alot of visible vegetation and the landscape near the road is somewhat barren. Be sure to look for the pretty 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 the town you hike a short distance up to the San Miguel Lookout. The trail drops over the side of the canyon and has many switchbacks. Bring and use suntan as most of the trek on the first day is in the sunshine. Moving at a good pace will get you to the bottom of the canyon in about 3 hours. At the bottom you will find a bridge which allows you to cross to the other side of the canyon. At the foot of this bridge you most likely will see vendors selling 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 next to this very rugged river, but a little splashing will help cool you immediately. The drop into the canyon is about 4,000 feet, less than half of what it is at the deepest part of this canyon! You hike through dry high altitude vegetation at the top of the canyon, dropping by basaltic columnar cliffs, similar in composition to Devil’s Postpile in central California.
The bottom of the canyon has an almost Mediterranean feel. There are fig trees, cactus, lush green grass, corn and other fruits and vegetables. There is certainly a good supply of water at the bottom of this canyon both 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 your hike. At lunch be sure to ask for the mild tasting fruit pods called Pacai. Once you reach the bottom, you will hike for another 2-3 hours on the other side of the canyon. You will hike through semi abandoned mud brick villages – several good photos await you here. Your final destination this day is a welcoming small settlement called the “Oasis” which sits very close to the river. Here there is actually a swimming pool fed by the nearby hot springs, a small store and round grass huts for sleeping. Showers consist of cold water running from one of the streams through pipes.
You will spend the night at the Oasis, which is a great place to relax. There is no electricity here and at night if clear you can see a billion stars, so close they seem, you can almost touch them. There are no streetlights or other lights to disturb your view. It is spectacular! If you are doing 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 you will become separated from the mules. Be sure to have a headlight for this climb as you will be climbing in the dark for several hours.
One of the highlights of the early morning is viewing the Condors at the Condor lookout about 20 minutes from Cabanaconde the small town from which you started this trek. Unfortunately the cost of viewing these birds is a rather steep $6 US. The best viewing time is in the early morning as that’s when these birds are the most active. These condors have some of the largest wing spans in the world and they are quite a site to see them up close. Many women vendors sell gifts, trinkets and clothing here.
The exact trek described above is listed here – I used this agency for this particular trek.