The deep blue sea contrasted stark with the bright yellow…
I was sweating and my knees were shaking. The bridge, where the rest of the group was waiting for me, was still far below. It was warm and there was no cloud in sight for some relief from the strong sun. My only comfort was that my loyal guide that I just met a couple of hours ago remained by my side. I could have known that this hike was not going to be easy. The Colca canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world. In fact, it is twice as deep as the more famous Grand canyon.
A combination of altitude sickness with a stomach bug made me one of the slowest hikers that day. The night before when I was still running up and down to the toilet I was thinking about cancelling my tour, but I was stubborn. I put my alarm clock at the early hour of 3 AM ignoring the protesting sounds of my tummy. Luckily I felt better when I woke up the next morning to exchange my bed for a seat in a small tour bus.
Despite the early hour Arequipa’s youth was out and about. Young girls and boys stumbled out of bars and discotheques to find their way home. Taxis were waiting eagerly for business while our bus had to maneuver itself through the small streets of Arequipa. It was a 3 hour drive to the Colca Canyon right through a National Reserve with the highest point reaching an altitude of almost 5000 meters. Most of my travel companions continued their sleep, but I was looking outside. As the sun is rising I discover a bare landscape with some shrubs and the occasional group of lama’s and vicuna’s.
We had a quick breakfast in Chivay, our first town in the Colca Canyon. The next stop was the Cruz del Condor, the viewpoint where you can see the Condors flying through the canyon. These majestic birds are the reason for our early departure from Arequipa as they are most active between 8 and 9 AM. Our tour only gives us 15 minutes here. I was sad we are given such little time, but my body is starting to feel the effects of the altitude. We were now above 3500 meters and I felt light headed and tired.
After the Condors we were rushed to the starting point of our trek into the canyon. It was a 4 hour steep descent to the bottom. I was exhausted when we finally arrived at our homestay in San Juan de Chollo. It was a hard day and I was slightly worried for the coming two days knowing that getting out of the canyon means I will have to climb the same distance up that I went down today.
The next day we had an early wakeup call by a small earthquake. I was still a bit shaken from the experience when we started our hike to the next town. Today was much easier, because we were now hiking through the canyon. As we passed several villages our guide explained how life is changing since there is a connection with the road. There was a lot of construction going on and simple huts were transformed into concrete houses. Besides these visual transformations lives have been improved by better access to education and healthcare.
That night we sleep in the Oasis, a tourist resort with a pool where all tourgroups gather. It was a huge contrast with our lodge from the previous night that felt more like a homestay in a village. This place is only for tourists and will give you more insight in the lives of backpackers than the local culture. The Oasis is at the bottom of the steep road out of the canyon and the next day we had another early start to reach the top around sunrise.
It was a tough climb and I did not make it before sunrise, but felt I did a good job reaching the top within 3 hours. The rest of the day was a somewhat touristic tour past several sites on our way back to Arequipa. After my hike in the canyon it felt a bit unnecessary, but it was nevertheless fun. In Yanque we visited a beautiful old church and ladies in traditional dresses allowed you to take pictures with their lama’s. Still, the views at the viewpoints we stopped at, could not beat the views I experienced during the hike. It was a tough hike, but for me the best way to get to know about life in the Colca Canyon.
Logistics Colca Canyon
The first thing you have to choose is whether you want to do the Colca Canyon independently or with a tour and whether you want to hike into the canyon or not.
From Arequipa there are frequent buses to Chivay. From Chivay there are 4 buses per day to Cobanaconde, the startingpoint for the hike into the canyon. In the canyon accommodation is available in the villages San Juan de Chollo, Cosnirhua, Malata and the Oasis. Personally I liked San Juan de Chollo the most of all villages within the canyon. Therefore, I would recommend 3 days for the hike with a night in San Juan de Chollo and the Oasis. Some people do it in just two days with one night in the Oasis. If you want to explore other sites such as the Cruz del Condor and Yanque there is infrequent public transport as most people visit these places on a tour.
In Arequipa there is no shortage of operators offering tours to the Colca Canyon. The tours are of good value (40$ – 50$). Doing it yourself will probably be more expensive. You can choose between a 1 day tour by van or a 2 to 3 day tour hiking. Most tours start at 3 AM to ensure you can see the condors in action at 8 AM.
The 1 day tour by van will mostly stop at some viewpoints and villages on top of the canyon such as Chivay, Yanque and Cobanaconda. The Colca Canyon hike will offer you a much more intimate experience. It is not an easy hike and therefore I would definitely recommend you to take the 3 day tour rather than the 2 day tour. Most 3 day tours stop in San Juan de Chollo for the night, which I thought was a nice village.