The beautiful but incredibly challenging Colca Canyon Trek in Peru
Everyone in Peru told me that a tour to the Colca Canyon was a must-do on my visit to Arequipa. So I dutifully marched into the reception area of my hostel, and naively announced that I wanted to book the 2-day trek. The receptionist patiently described the trek (or so I thought!), what I needed to bring, when to be ready, where to wait, etc., etc. It seemed innocent enough – the van would pick me up at 3:00am, we’d make a few stops along the way for breakfast and pictures, and by 10 am we’d be half way down the canyon. This trek in the Colca Canyon ended up being incredibly challenging, but beautiful – and worth every drop of sweat and intensely sore muscle.
After a very short 3 hours of sleep, I was awake, packing my few belongings – lots of sunscreen, lots of water, a camera, and that’s about it. By the time the van finally got there at 3:30, I was almost asleep again. It was a 15-seater, and I was the last stop – hence, being half an hour late. But I didn’t mind the delay, because being last in meant I got the front seat.
It was dark for the first hour, but when the sun came up around 4:30, it created incredible maze of light and shadow around the mountain tops and desert scenery. We arrived in the typical village of Chivay for our tiny breakfast – thankfully I’d brought a bit extra – at about 7:00, and by 8:30 we were at Cruz del Condor, the head of the canyon. A few kilometers further, we stopped, packed out final snacks, stretched, and headed off into the second deepest hole in the world. The hike down was truly beautiful. Dusty, hot, dry, and long, but the canyon, the sky, the breeze, the cliffs, the river at the bottom made for a picturesque walk, and even though my knees were aching, it was not lost on me.
We crossed the river at the bottom, and headed up the cliff on the other side. After climbing a bit the path levelled out and it was a half-hour wandering up and down to the place where we finally got to sit down, wash our faces, eat lunch, and replenish our water and snack supplies. And then it was on to the afternoon hike. We trekked up and down, around mountain out-croppings and river inlets, through patches of poisonous plants and stretches of baren, sun-baked trail. Again, it was dry and dusty and hot. We drank water, poured it on our heads, drank some more, and ran out just in time to reach the last snack stand. From this point we could see the oasis far below us where we would spend the night. The pool glittered and the green shone like a beacon out of the brown mountain sides.
It took over an hour to reach it, but when we finally arrived after 7 hours of trekking, we were tired, worn out, and proud of ourselves. The shower was heavenly and the pool even better. Dinner was filling, talk and tea flowed freely, but by 8:00pm everyone in my room was in bed. We would meet up at 5:00am to begin our hike back up the canyon wall. It went as could be expected. More or less overwhelmingly tiring until the very end when you turned around and saw the oasis 1400 meters below you and thought, “I was there 3 hours ago. And now I’m here.” It was barely 8:00am and we were all ready to go back to bed – or eat a good breakfast, whichever came our way first.
And then we were on our way back. We had a few stops along the way: hot springs, lunch, the highest point on any road in Peru surrounded by volcanoes, an alpaca farm. We were all tired and sore, but it was a slow relaxing trip back to Arequipa. If you are thinking about doing a hike in the Colca Canyon, I have some final recommendations.
First, if I had the chance to go back, I would have done the 3-day Colca Canyon trek instead. Almost the same trail – the difference being a small excursion through one of the local villages – but over 3 days. This option would have given me enough time to explore the area, take better pictures, and enjoy the hikes instead of just getting thru them. And for only $10 more…
Second, trekking into and back out of one of the world’s deepest canyons isn’t easy, it’s not for the faint-hearted, and it’s not something I want to do again soon – but it’s was a great experience. To look into a hole so deep that a river in the bottom looks like a tiny silver thread, and then to be swallowed up so entirely that from the bottom you can’t even see the rim… You’ll never view yourself in quite the same way again.
And finally, comfy beds, hot showers, WiFi, and vending machines are really nice. Nothing wrong with eating a little extra chocolate, drinking a quick Arequipeña, and relaxing in steaming hot water after two days of testing yourself against the Colca Canyon!
Arequipa, Beth Pinzur, October 2015.