At 3,270 metres (10,730 ft), the Colca Canyon or Cañon de Colca is the second deepest canyon in the world. But somehow, not many people have heard of it. It lives in the shadows of another famous grand canyon in Arizona that is actually only the 4th deepest one in the world!
If you’re a keen hiker, Colca Canyon should be on your Peruvian bucket list. It’s a tough hike but one that is totally worth it and one that you will be talking about for years to come.
Where is Colca Canyon?
Colca Canyon is 160 kilometres northwest of Arequipa, Peru’s second-largest city. It takes about three and a half hours to get there from Arequipa and you can choose to catch a local bus or like us, take an organised tour.
Should you take a tour or hike it alone?
Once we saw the price of the organised treks, we didn’t even consider hiking Colca Canyon alone. At around US$50 per person for a three-day trek including accommodation, food and a guide, it wasn’t worth spending hours researching how to do it by ourselves.
That’s what happens when you travel full time, research becomes a burden and you sometimes jump at the opportunity to avoid doing it. We also enjoyed hiking with a group and meeting new travellers. After being on the road together for 11 months, it’s always nice to speak to someone else!
Of course, if you do it alone you will probably end up paying less and you will have more control over where you stay. However, you might also get lost! We met a couple of French girls who got lost for two hours before finding their way back.
There are multiple tracks inside the canyon, so if you’re hiking alone, do your research and make sure you bring a map with you (download the maps.me app and the offline map for the region which shows all the trails). Still, I don’t believe you will save that much over a tour so it’s not worth the hassle unless you really dislike organised tours.
What are your options if you choose a Colca Canyon tour?
A one-day sightseeing tour: Don’t even bother! Colca Canyon is quite far from Arequipa. If you take a one day tour you will spend 7 or more hours on a bus and only have a very small amount of time admiring the canyon from above and observing the Condors. If you only have a couple of days in Arequipa, spend the time enjoying the town instead and save the money for another full day tour elsewhere where you won’t be paying to sit in a bus all day.
A two-day sightseeing tour: This is your best option if you are not a hiker but still want to enjoy the canyon. Not everyone feels the need to hike into and out of the canyon. Most don’t! This way, you will have a lot more time for sightseeing. You’ll spend a night in Chivay and do some more sightseeing the following day before another long bus ride back to Arequipa.
A two-day hiking tour: If you are a keen hiker, very fit and short on time, this is the option for you. You will hike for seven-plus hours on day one, down and across the canyon floor. You will sleep in Sangalle and wake up early again on day two to hike up out of the canyon. It’s the most strenuous of all the four options and we only recommend it if you are very fit (or if you have already decided that you will be taking a mule).
A three-day hiking tour: This is the one we chose and we were glad we did. You have three days to cover the same distance as the two-day hike. That gives you more time to enjoy the views, take photos and it’s a lot less stressful on your body!
You can book any of those tours online at findlocaltrips.com or one of the many tour agencies in Arequipa. Many hostels will also book your tour for you. If you book your tour in person, you may pay a little less than booking online.
Our Three-Day trek to the Colca Canyon
Be ready for a very early start. You will get picked up between 3 am and 3.30 am from your accommodation in Arequipa. That’s right, you read correctly, it’s super early. You will need to put your alarm on for around 2.30 am! Let’s just say that our bus was very quiet for the first couple of hours. Barely a word was said all the way to Chivay and our breakfast stop.
The Andean Condors
After our very basic breakfast, we had our first stop at one of the most popular places in the canyon, the Mirador Cruz del Condor. There, we spent about 40 minutes watching those majestic birds fly above our heads. We saw about 5 or 6 Condors.
We begin our descent
After another fifteen minutes on the bus, we were dropped off at the start of the trailhead. It was time to begin our descent into the Colca Canyon. I must say, we were rather excited. The views were incredible from the very beginning. Before starting, our tour guide Peter pointed out the places that we would walk to that day and on the following day. Then, off we went.
We trekked downhill, starting from 3300 meters above sea level. The hike down to the river took us approximately 3 hours, with many photo stops along the way. It was nice to be able to take our time going down, enjoying the scenery.
The path down is also quite tricky, with lots of slippery gravel bits. If you go too fast, you risk falling and hurting yourself. We took our time but still managed to fall on our bums once or twice. But fortunately, there were no injuries.
We took a 30-minute break by the Colca River and then carried on a bit further to the Colibri Lodge, where we stopped for our overnight stay in San Juan de Chuccho village.
Our very basic stay at the Colibri lodge
Once at the lodge, we ate lunch and had the whole afternoon to relax. You could either go for a walk to explore a bit further down the river or, in my case, take a nap (I was exhausted!).
The accommodation at Colibri Lodge was much more basic than we’d expected. The doors of our room didn’t close properly, there were gaps in the windows and the floors were made of dirt. We even had an abandoned birds nest in the wall, complete with a mouldy egg! The bed was old and very rustic but we were too exhausted to care that much.
Trekking to Sangalle
After a 7.30 am wake up (a bit more civil) and a lovely breakfast of fresh pancakes and bananas, we left Colibri Lodge and started walking towards the Sangalle Oasis. There are two ways to get to Sangalle and our guide asked us which we wanted to do. It was either two hours up and down via the villages of Cosñirhua and Malata or three hours up and down via the terraces. He suggested taking the terraces because it offered the nicest views and we all agreed.
The walk was a little easier than the day before. There were a lot of up and down sections with some flat parts to help us recover. Once again, the scenery along the way made it all worthwhile. We stopped a few times for breaks and pictures and eventually reached the Sangalle Village which is located at 1900 metres above sea level. We arrived at 11.30 am, just in time for a refreshing dip in the pool before lunch!
Our afternoon in Sangalle
After lunch in Sangalle, we spent time relaxing by the pool and walked down to the river to take some photos. Along the way down to the river, Simon managed to slip and fall on a cactus and spent several minutes pulling tiny little thorns out of his hand! Sangalle is a very quiet village with not much to do but it was nice to simply have time to relax.
After dinner and a few drinks with our group, we went to bed early. We had another tough wake up call at 4 am the next day!
The tough hike out of the canyon
At 4.40 am we all met by the pool to begin the dreaded hike out of the canyon. There was no breakfast at the lodge so we would have to wait until we reached the top. As Peter said, the breakfast was our incentive for completing the hike!
It was pitch black outside and initially, we needed a flashlight to see as we began walking. For the first part of our hike, Peter led the way and stopped every 500 metres for a short break. It wasn’t easy but not as hard as we’d expected. The cool morning air definitely helped our energy levels.
Once the first light appeared, Peter told us to make our way forward at our own pace. We would all meet at the top. As soon as the sun appeared, the trail quickly warmed up and we were glad that we had started early enough to already cover a fair bit of distance.
It was hard and we saw a few people giving up and taking mules. But we persevered, stopped for a few photo breaks and took our time. Two hours and fifty minutes after starting, we arrived at the top. We were so relieved, we’d made it! It was such a rewarding feeling. Everyone on our group managed to finish on foot and after a group photo, we made our way to Cabanaconde for our well-deserved breakfast.
A funny story: One of the dogs that lived at our lodge in Sangalle decided to come with us to the top of the canyon for his morning walk. But towards the end of the hike, we couldn’t see him anymore and we assumed that he’d given up and headed back down to Sangalle.
But as we were eating breakfast at one of the many restaurants in town, someone popped his head on my lap halfway through our meal. It was him. He gave me the sad dog eyes and the sucker that I am, I gave him my last few coconut cookies and a bit of bread. He deserved it just as well as we did!
I was glad to see that the restaurant staff also gave him water. He probably does that hike out of the canyon and back down again every morning for his morning meal – clever dog! There are always going to be a few dog lovers that will give in to his sad dog eyes.
The hot springs
After breakfast, we were taken to the nearby hot springs for a well-deserved soak. It felt so good! The cost to enter the springs was S.15 per person and was not included in the tour.
Heading back to Arequipa
After the hot springs, the bus stopped at a restaurant for a buffet lunch but Simon and I were not feeling that hungry. Instead, we walked to the local shop and bought a few snacks for the road.
On the way back to Arequipa, we ascended to 4830 meters above sea level and then back down to 2325 meters. Along the way, we passed through some incredible Andean scenery. We saw many Llamas, Alpacas and even Vicuñas. This time we were wide awake and it was a fabulous way to end the trip.
Needless to say, we were both exhausted by the time we arrived in Arequipa and we were glad to return to our nice bed and a hot shower at the Hostal El Remanso.
Sadly for us, we had another early start the next day, as we were moving on to Cusco with Peru Hop and our pick up time was 5.15 am. So many early starts on this leg of our trip!
Important tips for your trek to the Colca Canyon
- Think about it long and hard before signing up for this trek; it’s no walk in the park. If you are not a keen hiker or relatively fit, take the sightseeing tour instead.
- Like most places in Peru, Colca Canyon is at altitude. So it’s not a bad idea to spend a couple of days in Arequipa before starting the trek to acclimatise unless you’re coming from Puno or Cusco which are a lot higher up. Besides, Arequipa is a really beautiful city; we spent five days there and wanted more!
- Consider hiring some walking poles. We don’t normally use them but they would have been quite handy. We regretted not getting them, especially on the slippery walk down into the canyon.
What to bring for the Colca Canyon trek?
A 30-litre backpack: This is not like the Salkantay or Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. You will need to carry everything you need on your back. There are no mules here to carry it for you. You need a 30-litre backpack to hold your clothes for the next couple of days as well as toiletries and water.
Water: Make sure to bring sufficient water for the first day, at least 2 litres. It’s very expensive to buy water down in the canyon but unless you want to lug around 5 litres of water, you will need to spend the money.
Money: You will need some to buy extra snacks, water or drinks in the canyon. Also, take some extra money in case you get injured (or too exhausted) and need to pay for a mule ride out of the canyon.
A battery pack and your phone/camera charger: You may or may not need to charge your phone. Most accommodation in the canyon is very basic and will not provide charging points. So, a battery pack is always a good idea.
Sunscreen and insect repellent: There is barely any shade in the canyon so, to avoid getting sunburnt, you will need to use 50+ sunscreen and re-apply often, especially if you sweat a lot. There are also a few mosquitoes in Sangalle, so bring some insect repellent.
A quick-drying towel: The lodges down the bottom will charge you to rent a towel. They don’t provide them free of charge. At the Colibri Lodge, they charged S.8 for one! We brought a towel with us but some people in our group didn’t and had to pay extra both nights. You will also need your towel for the pool and the hot springs.
Warm clothes for the evening and night: As hot as it gets during the day, it can get very chilly at night down in the canyon. Bring a few extra layers with you because you may need them to get a good night of sleep. The rooms aren’t heated and as I mentioned earlier, some rooms had doors that didn’t close or broken windows!
A first aid kit: Make sure to bring basic medication and band-aids etc just in case. In particular, bring pain killers and Imodium. You never know! At altitude, it’s quite possible to get mild headaches during the trek, so it’s always good to be prepared.
Toiletries: Bring a small travel size shampoo and soap. None of the lodges provide toiletries.
Toilet paper: Nope, the lodges in the canyon don’t provide this either!
Snacks: The food is also rather basic and you will be pretty hungry after all your hiking. On day 3, you also don’t get breakfast until you reach the top, so start your day with a snack or two. Personally, I was missing the coffee more but we’re all different!
A copy of your passport: You will be required to show this to your guide but a photo on your phone is sufficient.
Camera: It goes without saying. The canyon is incredible and you will want to take lots of photos.
Flashlight: You’ll need a flashlight for the ascent at 4.40 am. We just used our iPhone’s flashlights but an LED headlamp would have been handier.
Travel insurance: Be sure to buy travel insurance. You never know! People occasionally break a leg, twist an ankle or suffer altitude sickness when doing this trek. It’s not an easy trek and anything can happen. It’s always best to be prepared.
Also, make sure that your travel insurance covers the right altitude. We realised after our trek that our insurance only covered us up to 2000m in altitude, so just as well nothing happened to us!
Clothes packing list for a three-day trek
- 3 t-shirts
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 pair of trousers
- A set of thermals for the evening
- Hiking shoes
- A waterproof jacket
- A warm jacket
- 3 pairs of socks
- Bathing suit (for the thermal baths)
- 1 warm jumper
- Flip flops
Is there a fee to enter the canyon?
Yes, there is a fee of S.70 per person which is not included in the cost of your tour.
What do you do with your luggage during the trek?
Most hotels and hostels in Arequipa will store your luggage for you while you do the trek. If you choose to go onwards to Puno after your trek, instead of going back to Arequipa, the tour companies have somewhere to store your luggage near the canyon.
Which company did we use?
We booked with Peru Andes but I’m not sure that it matters much because other people in our group booked with different companies and we all ended up together anyway. This is Peru!
Where to stay in Arequipa?
There are plenty of great places to stay in Arequipa. You can use HotelsCombined to search across all of the major accommodation websites. We use it all the time.
So now, are you ready for the challenge? If so, good luck! I hope you enjoy the hike as much as we did.