Exploring Colca Canyon: A Challenging But Rewarding Trek
In southern Perú, about 100 miles northwest of Arequipa, is the challenging Colca Canyon. Over 13,000 feet deep, it is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, making it one of the deepest canyons in the world (trailing its neighbor, Cotahuasi, by a few hundred feet).
You can experience Colca, Peru, on your own or on a one, two, or three-day guided tour with a local agency or one that specializes in Peru treks. The benefit of a tour is the camaraderie you build with your group and the in-depth knowledge your guide has of the area. But be sure to do your research as a growing number of non-reputable agencies with inexperienced guides have begun offering this trip.
The first day at Colca Canyon trek
For the one-day, you are mostly confined to a van, admiring the canyon from the top. It is a completely different experience to hike down. The three-day is completed at a much slower pace, while the two-day is recommended with less lulls. But fair warning, the hike is intense – much more than the treks to Machu Picchu considering the descent and ascent are less gradual.
In preparation, grab supplies at Yanque because the cost of items purchased within the canyon will be unquestionably more. Depending on your level of fitness, the added weight of supplies might be more burdensome than the cost, so it may be wiser to just buy as you go.
Colca is home to the Andean condor. So naturally, a stop at Cruz del Cóndor in the early morning (7-8am) or late afternoon (3-4pm) is the best time to catch these birds soaring through the canyon as they leave their nests in search of food. If you have binoculars, bring them for a better view of these majestic creatures. From the vantage point at the rim of the canyon here, you can see the breathtaking magnitude of the depth of the canyon before descending.
The first day is seven hours of up and down. It can be very easy to get lost as there are no marked signs and pay close attention as the path can be treacherous with loose gravel and stones jutting out every which way. The descent is tough on the ankles and knees, so use walking sticks if you can.
The trail snaking down into the valley appears interminable and villages surrounded by agricultural terraces dot the canyon wall as you get closer and closer to the bottom. You wonder how these communities have lived in isolation for so long. Then you understand when you are forced to hug the mountainside to allow donkeys to pass the narrow trail as they carry heavy loads of supplies, with their owners, who have made this trek time and again, following closely behind.
Along the way, you may stop at San Juan de Chuccho for lunch, where the specialty is alpaca, a leaner version of beef. Eventually, you arrive at Sangalle to spend the night. It is a rustic village known for its oasis, a place of reprieve after an intense day of hiking under the beating sun. There is running water, but no electricity, so you will need headlamps to get around after nightfall.
The second day at Colca Canyon trek
The next day, you wake up before sunrise in an attempt to elude the sun as its presence makes the ascent more difficult. Mist continually casts a thin veil over everything until you realize that you have been in the clouds. After four hours of what feels like the stair master, you emerge drenched in sweat, near Cabanaconde. Donkey services are offered, but what a feat to do it without the assistance!
Go during the beginning of the dry season (April-November) when there is a better chance of condor sightings and the valley is still green. The common tour itinerary is to and from Arequipa, but a transfer to Puno from Chivay for those wishing to continue on to Lake Titicaca or Bolivia can be arranged. Just be sure to note the whereabouts of your pack before leaving Cabanaconde or you’ll end up in a goose chase.
Finally in Maca, on the way to Chivay, you can try a refreshing Colca Sour to celebrate. It is the area’s version of the famous Pisco Sour, where cactus fruit is used instead of lemons, and it’s every bit as good a reward after a hard workout.
By Jaclyn Lee