The Colca Canyon Trek in Peru: the ultimate travel guide
This post is about my experience on the Colca Canyon trek in Peru and how to choose the best Colca Canyon tour.
The Colca Canyon is one of the world’s deepest canyons, even deeper than the Grand Canyon in some areas. The dramatic landscapes, towering cliffs, and lush valleys make it one of the most beautiful treks in Peru.
The Colca Canyon trek is not easy. The altitude and the steep climb in and out of the canyon make it a challenge. However, it is one of the best things to do in Peru, offering stunning views and the chance to see the majestic Andean Condor. One of the largest birds in the world.
The Colca Canyon trek is also a cultural experience with traditional villages home to indigenous communities. Along the trek, you’ll have the chance to interact with local communities that have preserved their traditional ways of life for generations. You can learn about their farming practices, unique customs, and ancient traditions.
Colca Canyon Trek Tours
There are a variety of Colca Canyon tours available in Arequipa, but they differ in quality and activities. From one day tours that do not include the Colca Canyon trek to 3 day tours that include two nights inside the canyon.
In this post I will share my own experience on the Colca Canyon trek and some advice to consider when booking your Colca Canyon tour. Is the colca canyon trek necessary? How many days do I need for the Colca Canyon trek? Can I do the Colca Canyon trek on my own?
I hope this post helps you in choosing the right Colca canyon tour or to do the Colca Canyon trek on your own.
Colca Canyon Trek Experience
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 the Colca Canyon trek was not going to be easy. The Colca canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world. In fact, in some places it is twice as deep as the more famous Grand canyon.
Altitude sickness on the Colca Canyon trek
A combination of altitude sickness with a stomach bug made me one of the slowest hikers that day. The night before 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 3 AM ignoring the protesting sounds of my tummy. Luckily I felt better when I woke up. 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. The highest point reaches an altitude of almost 5000 meters. Most of my travel companions continued their sleep, but I was looking outside. As the sun was rising I discovered a bare landscape. All I could see were some shrubs and the occasional group of lama’s.
Chivay and the Condors
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. Condors are most active between 8 and 9 AM.
Our tour only gave us 15 minutes. I was sad we were given such little time, but my body already started to feel the effects of the altitude. We were now above 3500 meters and I felt light headed and tired.
Hiking to San Juan de Chollo
After the Condors we were rushed to the starting point of our Colca Canyon trek. With a light headache we started the hike 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. I knew that getting out of the canyon means I will have to climb the same distance up that I went down today.
Life in the Colca Canyon
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 trek to the next town. Today was much easier, because we were now hiking through the canyon rather than going down or up.
As we passed several villages our guide explained how life is changing since they have a connection with the road. There was a lot of construction going on and simple huts were transformed into concrete houses. For us tourists, these visual transformations may take away part of the natural beauty of the area, but for the local people it means better access to education and healthcare.
The Colca Canyon Oasis
That night we slept 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. 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 Colca canyon. 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. However, I felt I did a good job getting there within 3 hours.
Sightseeing in the Colca Canyon
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 where ladies allowed you to take pictures with their lama’s.We also stopped at some viewpoints, but they could not beat the views on the Colca Canyon trek itself. It was a tough hike, but for me the best way to get to know the Colca Canyon.
What is the Colca Canyon trek?
The Colca Canyon is one of the most beautiful areas in Peru famed for its colourful and traditional towns and for its wildlife. There are over 100 species of birds including the giant Andean condor that you can see flying by at the Condor del Cruz.
The Colca Canyon is also one of the deepest canyons in the world. It is, in some places twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. The Colca Canyon trek is the challenging hike in and out of this canyon. For many this is one of the highlights of their trip to Peru.
The Colca Canyon trek Route
Cabanaconda is the starting point of the Colca Canyon trek. There are several trekking route options, but they all start with a steep walk down to the bottom of the canyon and end with another steep hike out of the canyon.
The western loop (27 km): If you take the western loop you come across the villages of Lahuar, Belen and the Oasis (Sangalle).
The eastern loop (22 km): If you take the eastern loop you come across the villages of San Juan de Chollo, Malata and the Oasis (Sangalle)
Full loop (31 km): The full loop combines the eastern and western loops, going through the villages of Lahuar, Belen, Malata and San Juan de Chollo
Most trekking routes can be done in 2 days with an overnight stay in one of the villages. However, the trek is challenging and I would recommend to take at least 3 days for the Colca Canyon trek. This way you will have more time to appreciate the villages you walk through without being completely exhausted.
How to choose your Colca Canyon tour?
The first thing you have to choose is whether you want to visit the Colca Canyon independently or with a tour through a travel agency and whether you want to include the Colca Canyon trek or not.
Is the Colca Canyon trek necessary?
The Colca Canyon trek is spectacular and if in any way, you are able to do this hike, you should without doubt. However, if you are physically not able to do the Colca Canyon trek, there are enough interesting villages to visit that you can reach by car to explore this area.
In my opinion the towns on top of the Colca Canyon were a bit set up for tourists, but it will still give you an insight into the unique culture of the Colca Canyon. Most tourgroups will stop for less than an hour in the villages so if you have more time and travel by public transport it is easy to have a more authentic experience.
Is a Colca Canyon tour necessary?
You do not need a tour through a travel agency to visit the Colca Canyon including the Colca Canyon trek. The trail is well marked and with a bit of planning, it is possible to do the trek on your own. This will give you much more freedom and flexibility to explore this region at your own pace.
However, you do need enough time and patience and you will probably not be able to visit all the places that are included in the tours. Public transport between the towns on top of the Colca Canyon are infrequent and you need to know the bus times beforehand. For example, Cruz del Condor and Yanque have very limited connections with public transport.
If you have limited time I can therefore recommend you to take a tour. If you are adventurous and have enough time (at least 3 – 4 days) you can very well do it on your own.
How to travel to the Colca Canyon independently?
From Arequipa there are frequent buses to Chivay and even a few buses directly to Cabanaconda where you need to go to start the Colca Canyon trek. From Chivay there are 4 buses per day to Cabanaconde.
If you are coming from or continuing your journey to Cusco or Lake Titicaca check my tour Peru bus (Puno).
In the canyon accommodation is available in the villages Chivay, Cabanaconda, Lahuar, Belen, San Juan de Chollo, Cosnirhua, Malata and the Oasis (Sangalle). If you already know your Colca Canyon route, it is best to book accomodation online. You can also arrive on the spot, but in high season places may be fully booked.
The advantages of a Colca Canyon tour?
In Arequipa there is no shortage of travel agencies offering tours to the Colca Canyon that include the Colca Canyon trek. The tours are good value (50$ – 60$) and doing it yourself will probably be more expensive.
Furthermore, it saves you a lot of time and the tours include different stops along the way. Although touristy, some of the viewing points were very beautiful.
How many days?
You can choose between a 1 or 2 day tour by van without the Colca Canyon trek or a 2 to 3 day tour including the Colca Canyon trek. Most tours start at 3 AM to ensure you can see the condors in action at 8 AM.
The 1 and 2 day tours by van will stop at some viewpoints and villages on top of the canyon such as Chivay, Yanque and Cabanaconda. The Colca Canyon trek will offer you a much more intimate experience.
The Colca Canyon trek is not an easy hike and therefore I would definitely recommend you to take the 3 day tour rather than the 2 day tour. The route is the same so having 3 days makes it much more easier. Really, I don’t think I would have been able to walk in and out of the canyon in 2 days.
Another reason is that the 3 day tours stop in San Juan de Chollo for the night, which I thought was a nice village. The 2 day tours stay only at the touristy Oasis.
Colca Canyon Tour options
1 day tour by van (without the trek): only recommended if you are really short on time. It will be a very long day (starting at 3 AM) and most of it is travelling from Arequipa to the Colca Canyon and back with some brief stops at Cruz del Condor and other touristy towns on top of the Canyon.
2 day tour by van (without the trek): Recommended for those that prefer not to do the Colca Canyon trek, but still want to get a good sense of the villages on top of the canyon. Another advantage of the 2 day tour is that you avoid the early start of 3 AM. Because you are sleeping at Colca Canyon you will get to see the Cruz del Condor the next morning.
2 day Colca Canyon trek: If you only have 2 days and you are fit enough, this is an option, but your first day will be very long. Starting at 3 Am and hiking all the way from Cabanaconda down into the canyon through San Juan de Chollo and then the Oasis in a single day.
3 day Colca Canyon trek: This is the best option in my opinion. You do the same route as the 2 day Colca Canyon trek, but you stay in both San Juan de Chollo and the Oasis (Sangalle). This allows you more time in the villages in the canyon and makes the trek more easygoing.
Where should I book my Colca Canyon tour?
In Arequipa there are a lot of travel agencies and as I have experience with only one agency it would be hard to recommend one over the other.
Do your homework and read some reviews. Prices and quality differs, so compare the offers of several travel agencies and check carefully what they do or do not include.
Safety on the Colca Canyon trek
The colca canyon trek is absolutely safe whether you do it on your own or with a Colca Canyon tour. There are just two things to keep in mind
Altitude sickness in the Colca Canyon
The Colca Canyon tour brings you to high altitudes. Chivay is at 3632 meters where altitude sickness is a risk.
It is hard to predict who will suffer. Mild symptoms may include being tired and more easily out of breath. More severe symptoms of high altitude sickness are headache, dizziness, trouble sleeping, breathing problems, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting.
Local remedies include drinking coca tea, chewing on coca leaves or using something called agua de florida. Whether they are really effective is up to debate.
What does help prevent altitude sickness is acclimatization. You need to give your body enough time to adjust to the height. This starts in Arequipa that is at an altitude of 2325 meters. Spend at least one or two days in Arequipa before you head to the Colca Canyon.
Diamox is a medicine that might help your body to acclimatize, but will not cure altitude sickness once you have severe symptoms. In that case, the only remedy is to go down to a lower altitude as soon as possible.
Severe symptoms indicate you are developing high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) or high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). Both conditions are fatal if you do not get to a lower altitude on time.
The sun is strong in the Colca Canyon and during the trek there is not a lot of shade. Bring something to protect your head, sunscreen and enough water to prevent sunburn and a heatstroke.
Sustainable travel in the Colca Canyon
The Andean region, including the Colca Canyon is affected by climate change that has a huge impact on the local people. The indigenous communities in Peru, have faced historical discrimination and challenges related to their land rights and cultural preservation. Climate change is now another challenge to their way of life.
The Colca Canyon sees more tourists every year. While Tourism is a welcome source of income for the local community it can also have negative consequences. Traveling sustainably in the Colca Canyon, involves conscious choices that minimize your environmental impact in these remote and pristine ecosystems.
Stay in small scale sustainable hotels: It is better to stay in locally-owned guesthouses or homestays to support the local economy directly. These accommodations often have a more positive impact on the environment compared to large hotels. I can recommend staying in a homestay for an authentic cultural experience. You might want to bring a small book with pictures of your family to break the ice.
You can try to look for guesthouses or homestays that prioritizes sustainable practices. That said, environmental awareness is still low. It’s up to you to use water sparsely, turn off lights, air conditioning, and heating when leaving your accommodation.
Leave no Trace principle: When hiking the Colca Canyon trek, stick to designated trails to protect the fragile ecosystems. Straying off the marked paths can cause soil erosion and damage to plant life. If you are lucky enough to spot wildlife, observe quietly from a distance to prevent disruption to their habitats and help maintain their natural behaviors.
I encourage you to take all your trash back with you and dispose of it responsibly. In other words, leave no trace of your visit. Even better is when you bring something to pick up any of the trash that other people left behind.
To avoid single-use plastics, invest in reusable items. For example, you can bring your own water bottle with a filter that you can refill at your accomodation. At last, use biodegradable and eco-friendly personal care products to minimize pollution of water sources.
Respect the culture: Besides environmental concerns it is also important to respect the culture. Peru is a multicultural country home to a number of indigenous groups. Therefore, learn about the local customs and traditions beforehand and be mindful of your behavior.
People will appreciate it, if you dress modestly, especially at religious sites. Learning a few basic phrases in Spanish, can go a long way in building meaningful connections and to learn more about the local culture. Not everybody is happy to have their picture taken. When in doubt, ask permission.
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