If you ever find yourself in Peru, one city definitely worth visiting is Arequipa! Surrounded by three volcanoes, Arequipa uses this unique volcanic location in its buildings which are built from a stone valled sillar which is a white volcanic rock. Arequipa was one of my favorite places in Peru! But more on that another day, today we are going to talk about hiking Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world and almost two times as deep as the grand canyon!
I am not a big fan of tour groups and organized tour packages. I find part of the fun and adventure in any trip or activity is getting there and figuring things out on your own. This is especially true in foreign countries, Peru being one of them, where oftentimes organization and common sense seem to go out the door. As a result you need to figure out how things work here, how to get around and ultimately how to get done what you want to do. This usually results in some money savings too because you don’t need to pay a tour guide.
I had done A LOT of research before getting to Arequipa on how to get to and trek the Colca Canyon on my own. As it turns out, the path is VERY easy and the trek is VERY easy to figure out and do on your own. I should mention here and now that I didn’t really save any money doing this trek on my own but the real bonus here was that I could go at my own pace, stop and take as many pictures as I wanted (and I took A LOT!) and I didn’t have to wake up on the second day at around 4:30AM to start hiking back up the canyon by 5AM. I’ll outline below how much it cost me in total and how much others were paying for the same tour but with a guide.
Treks in to the world’s second deepest canyon range from 1 day quick excursions to several day hikes within the valley itself. Due to my time constraints and research I had done online I decided to do the most popular route, the 2 day one night trek to the oasis at the bottom of the valley. The absolutely best resource I found for information on this trek in order to do it yourself is Pachamama, a popular hostel in Cabanaconde where many hikers opt to stay. These gys are great and can help you organize anything you may need for your own trek.
Trekking the Colca Canyon begins in the small Peruvian village of Cabanaconde located at the top of the Colca Canyon, 5.5 hours from Arequipa. Most of the organized tour companies take what are known as the turistico busses to Cabanaconde. These busses often pick up their passengers at 3:00AM so as to get to Cabanaconde early enough in the morning so hikers can begin their trek that day. Even though I wasn’t going on one of the tours, I was still able to book a ticket on one of these buses myself. At my hostel in Arequipa they booked me a one-way ticket from Arequipa to Cabanaconde on these buses for only 40 SOL (about $16 USD).
I was to be picked up the next morning at 3:00AM. I got myself out of bed a little weary eyed and still needing more sleep at about 2:30 AM, packed my things and waited until the driver came to the hostel to pick me up. He was a little late but we were still on our way by 3:30. I got in to a van filled with nearly 20 other fellow trekkers. It was very cold at this time of morning, with temperatures in the single digits. The bus, like many places in Peru, didn’t have much in the way of heating but once it filled with passengers, it warmed up quite well from the body heat.
The 5.5 hour drive to Cabanaconde was rather uneventful. The tour guide on the bus gave some info along the way at a couple points but for the most part we just used this time to sleep after our early morning wake-up. Included with the bus fare, we had a stop at about 7:30 AM in the small village of Chivay for a breakfast of bread, jam, tea, coffee and juice. By shortly after 8:00, we were on our way again. In Chivay we also had to buy our Colca Canyon entrance ticket which is not included in the cost of the bus fare and often not included in the price of the tour either. It costs 70 SOL (about $28 USD) for your canyon ticket. You must keep this on you at all times during the trek as there are checkpoints along the way in the canyon where people check for these. If you lose yours or are otherwise without you will need to pay the 70 SOL again and possibly a fine too.
At around 9:00 AM we arrived at the Cruz del Condor viewpoint, a stop that was also included in the price of the bus ticket. Here we were given about 45 minutes to try to see the Condors. This is one of the best places in Peru and around the world to see this, the world’s largest bird. While the Condors are out more during the early morning hours around 6AM, there were still a few flying around at this time. After some pictures of the birds and our first glimpse in to the Colca Canyon, we were on our way again by about 9:45AM.
By 10:00 we arrived at our starting point just outside Cabanaconde. All off the two-day treks start from this point and head down to the canyon. It is a point known as the San Miguel viewpoint. Here I bought some snacks and water from a blind man selling from his booth on the side of the road and parted ways with the tour groups around me. I had saved the trek information from Pachamama on my phone so the hike itself was relatively straight forward.
From the San Miguel viewpoint there is a well defined trail to the right that leads down in to the valley. Follow this trail for about 2-3 hours to the bottom of the valley where you will come to a bridge crossing the river. There (may) also be a guard here checking for the Colca Canyon ticket you had purchased back in Chivay earlier that morning. It was about 5km to the bottom and I made it down in about 2.5 hours.
After a much needed rest at the bridge I continued across and on my way. Heading across the bridge you continue to follow the path, now heading uphill on the other side of the river to the first village of San Juan de Chuccho. This tiny village offers a restaurant for lunch, a small store to purchase some water and snacks for the hike and there is even a small hotel here with rooms for trekkers to spend the night. For the people who opt for the three-day hike, this is where they stop on the first day and spend the night here.
I decided to forgo lunch and keep on trekking. It was just after 1:00 PM so there was certainly no way I was going to spend the night here either. I kept going in hopes of getting ahead of all of the tour groups as well. The easiest way to continue on from San Juan de Chuccho is to ask one of the residents in the village which way to the oasis. They will point you in the direction. I found all of the Peruvians living in the canyon to be very nice and very helpful. You want to make sure when you leave San Juan that you don’t take the trail that goes down to the valley floor again or the path that goes to Tapay. You want to continue along the path towards the villages of Coshinirwa and Malata.
After about another half hour of walking you will come to a man-made concrete water canal starting on your left hand side and following along the trail eventually on the right hand side too. Keep on the trail past this for another 10 minutes or so and you will come to another small bridge. Crossing this bridge, you will have a very steep incline for about 15-20 minutes which will have you arrive in the next village of Coshinirwa. Some people also opt to spend the night here on their first day of trekking as opposed to San Juan. Either village looked about the same. A few small buildings, a little restaurant, a convenience store and a few huts/rooms for trekkers to sleep in.
It was now still only around 2:30 PM so I continued on again. Again, I asked a village resident for the path to the oasis and he pointed me on my way. The route from Coshinirwa to the next village of Malata was pretty flat, easy and straight forward with more spectacular views of the canyon throughout. it was about 2:30PM when I strolled in to Malata (an even smaller and less developed village than the previous two). It was fascinating and a little heartbreaking to see how people lived here in the valley. Many of their houses and buildings are constructed out of mud. I saw a couple of men building what appeared to be another house. They had a large square form, used to build the mud bricks. It was placed on the wall of the building they were making and filled with mud. One man would be standing inside the form packing down the mud with his feet while the other man continued to fill it with even more mud. It seems like such an archaic way to live and I really wonder about how well mud buildings would hold up in rainy season.
Continuing on past Malata, I followed the signs towards the Oasis. This was now the last leg of the 18km I would be hiking this first day with a steep descent to the bottom of the canyon again. Hiking down the canyon is very hard on the legs and the bottom never seemed to be getting much closer. Finally it was about 5PM when I made it in to the oasis. Unlike the people on the tour group who already had accommodation arranged for them here, I had to find my own. There were a couple of “hotels” down here with pools and some nice shared rooms. It was an oasis after all!
Luckily they had rooms available and it only cost a mere 15 SOL (~$6 USD) for the night. Dinner (which tour groups had included in their price) was also only 10 SOL (~$4 USD). I jumped in the pool and had a nice cool-down for a while before the sun started going down. Then the tour groups started to arrive after 6PM. I met up with the people who were on the turistico bus I had been on earlier that morning so we sat around the pool that evening and just chatted. I was even more glad now that I didn’t do this tour with a tour group. I stopped a lot that day taking pictures but one of the girls from the bus who was on a tour, told me she only had time to stop and take a couple of pictures because it was always just trying to keep up with the tour guide.
We had a pretty basic pasta dinner that evening with some tea and a few other fixings. For $4 you can’t expect a gourmet meal, especially at the bottom of a canyon. We were all pretty exhausted from hiking 18km that day so we headed to bed pretty early that night. There are showers (cold water only) and some electricity for a few hours in the oasis so if you need to charge your camera or anything make sure to do it while the power is turned on.
The next morning I got up around 5:30AM to get ready and head up out of the canyon before it got too hot. The people on the tours had to get up around 4:30 to depart by 5 to start climbing out. I was happy to have a little extra time to sleep. The path out of the valley is pretty easy to find and straight forward as well. if you are lost on where to get on the path, just ask one of the residents at the oasis.
The 5KM climb to the top takes around 3 hours and honestly I found it much more difficult than the 18km I had hiked the day before. I remember I kept looking up wondering where the “F” the top was! Then i would see people way up ahead and much higher up and would think to myself “F***I still have to get all the way up there!!!”. It was a brutal and VERY tiring climb! For the less inclined, there is an option to ride a donkey from the oasis to the top but that does cost extra money and I don’t find it fulfilling like making it on your own.
Just a little aside, you can also use Google Maps on your phone for this trek as well since it does have the exact trail marked out on the map. Just make sure you download an offline map of the Cabanaconde region before leaving Arequipa since signal/internet access is very limited in these parts of Peru. In addition to the instructions I found from Pachamama, I used Google Maps on my phone to help me and make sure I was always on the right path. it made it all that much easier.
Finally after 3.5 hours I finally made it (I made quite a few stops along the way for pictures hence the longer time)! The view from the top of the canyon was incredible and the feeling of making it to the top was amazing! After a much needed break, I continued walking about another 15 minutes in to the village of Cabanaconde. I found a place to have breakfast and then purchased my bus ticket back to Arequipa. I was too late to go on one of the Turistico buses but that was fine with me. I wanted to experience the local bus here anyways so for a mere 17 SOL (under $7 USD) I was able to get a ticket for the 6 hour bus ride back to Arequipa.
I went with the Milagros bus company and the bus was pretty standard and the same as the others I saw from other companies at the bus stop. It was definitely nothing special and rather run down/dirty inside. There was no AC so the only source of cooling in the hot afternoon sun was from opening the windows on the bus. The local bus system in Peru was quite an experience. The buses stop randomly on the sides of the road to let passengers on/off between villages as they need. This can be a little unsettling for some because you never know who is getting on when the bus pulls over in the middle of nowhere. It also filled very full with people crowded, standing in the aisle once all the seats filled. it was a hot and stuffy 6 hours and I was quite happy to get back to Arequipa that evening.
The total cost breakdown for my Colca Canyon trek is as follows:
- Turistico bus from Arequipa to Cabanaconde – 40 SOL
- Colca Canyon Entrance Ticket – 70 SOL
- Room at Oasis – 15 SOL
- Dinner at Oasis – 10 SOL
- Local bus from Cabanaconde to Arequipa – 17 SOL
- TOTAL: 152 SOL
So my entire trek cost 152 SOL (~$47 USD). Some of the people I talked to on the Turistico bus and at the oasis were able to negotiate the price of their 2-day trek down to 100 SOL + the 70 SOL entrance fee so I saved about 20 SOL which is only about $6 USD. Not a big savings but like I said earlier, I was able to go at my own pace and do what I wanted to do which is really what I enjoy rather than being tied down to a tour group.
I definitely recommend a Colca Canyon hike to anyone in Peru but be warned, it is a difficult hike and definitely not for the faint of heart. Also i’d advise you to be in a good physical shape and have a good adventurous spirit if you are going to do this AMAZING 23km hike in to the world’s second deepest canyon!