If you plan a trip to Peru and are have time to go hiking, one of the best choices is the Colca Canyon. Most people who undertake this hike use the city of Arequipa as a starting and ending point. The extra benefit of this is that Arequipa is a beautiful colonial city in Southern Peru, surrounded by majestic volcanoes, well worth a stay of two or three days.
If you are comfortable hiking on your own, the easier hikes in the canyon are simple enough to coordinate yourself. On the other hand, if you think you prefer to use a guide service, there are literally dozens of travel agencies lining the streets close to the city center of Arequipa. They offer 1, 2, and 3 day trips to the Colca Canyon.
I am an experienced hiker and have done many hikes on my own into the Grand Canyon in Arizona. I am also close to 65 years old. Much to my surprise, I found the easier of the hikes in the Colca to be a lot less strenuous than what I had done in the Grand Canyon.
Getting there. It’s easy enough to get to the Colca Canyon on public transportation. To arrive at a decent hour, it is a good idea to get to the bus terminal (terminal terrestre) in Arequipa very early in the morning. I arrived before 6:00am. All buses heading to Colca Canyon leave from here. I choose the Renya bus but there are many others leaving at different times.
By leaving early, you will arrive at Chivay in three hours and can break up your trip by staying there overnight or you can continue on three more hours to Cabanaconde where the hikes start.
Note: There are two terminals at the bus station in Arequipa. The old one serves all the bus lines whereas the new one just serves the long distance buses such as Cruz del Sur, Use the old terminal for a bus to the Colca Canyon.
I chose to stay overnight in Chivay because I wanted to visit the hot springs there. I stayed at the Hostal Anita right on the plaza, one recommend by Lonely Planet Peru (Travel Guide). It was the right decision! . To sample the local cuisine, try their breakfast of alpaca steak and eggs.
The hot springs are very nice and exceptionally well taken care off. They were so nice I ended up spending two days in Chivay so that I could enjoy them a bit longer. I suggest that you plan on that, although it may even be a better idea to stop on the way out to soak our sore muscles.
To get from Chivay to the start of the hike in Cabanaconde, simply show up early at the bus terminal and catch the local bus.
Staying in Cabanaconde. In Cabanaconde, I stayed at Pachamama Backpacker Hostal, which was comfortable with all the basics. They had exceptionally good food, which I took advantage of since restaurants are rare in that town.
I hung out for a day in Cabanaconde, gathering information on the hikes into the canyon. Pachamama Hostal personnel gave me a map showing the canyon’s major trails, very helpful for planning my hike. I chose to do a three-day loop hike, leaving from Cabanaconde and retuning back there.
I spent time that day getting my pack ready for the hike and deciding what to leave behind at the hostal. I took my tent and sleeping bag and other camping items but really did not use them because there are plenty of places to stay in the canyon. The only reason I took my camping gear was because I thought that, on my first time hiking in this area, it would be safer to have everything I need to survive a night or two. Now that I am familiar with the area and have stayed at great hostels, I would leave all camping equipment behind, making the load a lot lighter.
The hike into the Canyon. Start the three-day hike by walking east of town towards Cruz del Condor. When you get to the big bend in the road, on your left you will see Mirador San Miguel. This is the start of the hike, where the trail drops into the canyon.
It is about 3 to 31/2 hrs to the bottom of the canyon, where the bridge crosses the Colca River. Once across the bridge, it’s only a short distance to San Juan de Chucho where you can find lodging at a number of different places. I opted to stay at the first place I came to, called Posada Roy, located just before the village itself. I had decided to stop early so that I could explore and just relax.
The room I rented at Posada Roy was really pleasant and the grounds were nicely landscaped. My room had a comfortable bed and a really hot shower, plus the owners cooked me dinner and breakfast. Total cost was around 30 soles.
In the Colca Canyon, there are a myriad of trails, all unmarked, known well by the locals. To be sure you are on the right one, just ask! Before I even thought about asking, the woman who owned the lodge pointed me in the right direction, always reassuring.
Even being careful, I ran into two minor problems. One was that the main trail looked like it was fading out or had turned into a secondary trail. I thought about turning back but that did not seen right either!. By looking down and studying the trail where I was, I could see footprints of other hikers who used hi-tech hiking shoes, not what I would expect the locals to wear. Lucky for me, I had belonged to the Bay Area Mountain Rescue group for quite a few years and had tracking experience! Otherwise, I might have wasted time retracing my steps.
Moving on. From the map I had picked up at Pachamama Hostel, I knew I had to cross a bridge eventually and start climbing up the hill to the next two villages (Cosnirhua and Malata). Once you cross the bridge, the climb gets moderately steep. When I got to the top, there was a woman selling water, soft drinks, and fruits. I bought a couple of bananas.
When you arrive at the top of the little climb, go on for a short distance and make sure to take a sharp right turn when you reach some buildings. This gets you on the right trail towards the next two villages where there are places to stay. Do not go down the hill on another obvious trail. Once you get on the trail through the villages, it is easy going to get to Sangalle (also called the oasis).
The Oasis. From Malata, the last village, it does not take long to get to Sangalle. Once you get a good view of Sangalle and the swimming pool, you may just think about a cool swim and cold beer because it does get quite warm in the canyon during the day.
I arrived in Sangalle before noon and got a room at for 30 soles (around 10 dollars) a night; food was economical while beer and water seemed expensive, probably because they have to bring it in by mule.
The rooms consist of a simple bamboo hut (bungalow) with a dirt floor, a bed and a table. Camping is also available for 5 soles. There is a shower for washing off, really just a pipe with cold water.
I decided to have lunch there — soup, meat, and rice and very satisfying. After lunch, I went back to my bungalow and got ready for a swim and a beer. Dinner was good but simple, pretty much the same as lunch.
There were people from all over the world staying at the hostal. Everyone ate at one table so it was easy to carry on a conversation with someone and learn about their home country, experiences in Peru, and plans for the Colca hike.
Hiking back to the top.The next day I got up fairly early as to make it back to the top before it warmed in the afternoon. The hike out is straightforward, straight up out of the canyon. For those who prefer not to walk back out, there are mules for hire that take them up the trail in the morning. It took me about three hours to get to the top were the trail levels out. From there it was a short distance back to Cabanaconde.
When I arrived back in town, there was a celebration taking place: the Patronal Feast of the Chapi Virgin. It provided an excellent end to a great hike. I made two YouTube movies about that celebration you can watch in our video gallery.
Slide images of my hike in Colca Canyon
Major hiking trails in the Colca Canyon
Click on maps for larger image