There are many iconic hikes in Peru. Most people focus on the Inca Trail. But thanks to the stunning mountain range that runs down the spine of Peru, there are many more hikes worth doing. One of my favourite hikes was Colca Canyon. This canyon is famous for the magnificent Andean condors and sheer depth. It is said to be the second deepest canyon in the world, at 3270m deep. Colca Canyon offers stunning views, and comes without the hoardes of tourists on other more famous Peruvian treks. It can be done as a guided tour in a group, but to truly appreciate this trek I highly suggest hiking Colca Canyon without a guide!
Why hike Colca Canyon?
Many small villages are dotted in and around the canyon, and locals here are traditional and very friendly. Colca Canyon is also famous for the Andean Condor, they are often seen spreading their huge wings as they soar above the canyon. Although the third most visited attraction in Peru, the canyon is without the hoards of tourists you may find elsewhere. The feeling of trekking through the Peruvian landscapes without another person in sight is simply unrivalled. In the 3 days we spent hiking Colca Canyon, we only met about 10 other tourists. More importantly, the scenery here took my breath away! The 3 days hiking in Colca Canyon were the highlight of my Peru trip.
Is hiking Colca Canyon difficult?
There are several different routes you can take during your hike, and therefore difficulty varies. You can go for 2,3 or 4 days, and trek from 3 to 9 hours a day. It all depends on the route you choose. It is important to remember that whichever route you choose, you need to descend and ascend 1300m, so a relative level of fitness is needed. We are both moderately fit, and found our 3 day trek challenging. It is particularly hard on the knees. There are possibilities to take a horse or bus out of the canyon if you really feel you can’t make it back up. Personally, I really do not like the idea of putting my own considerable weight on the back of a tiny horse. I saw them carrying a few tourist out of the canyon, and it did not sit well with me.
Getting from Arequipa to Colca Canyon
Nearly everyone who is arriving to hike Colca Canyon comes by bus from Arequipa. The main starting point for most routes is the small town of Cabanaconde. There are several buses a day from Arequipa, you can check times here. Price is 17 soles. In November when we took the bus, we bought tickets half an hour before departure. The bus was less than half full, however I am unsure if this is normal. Perhaps in high season you may have to book further in advance. As you drive from Arequipa to Colca Canyon, you are gradually ascending above sea level. Cabanaconde is 3287m above sea level. This is certainly enough to bring on altitude sickness, so be aware and stay hydrated. The road from Arequipa to Cabanaconde is full of twists and turns, and can bring on travel sickness.
Getting from Cusco to Colca Canyon
There is no direct route from Cusco to Cabanaconde and vice versa. Unfortunately, the cheapest option appears to be going to Arequipa first. This is a little irritating, as you then end up going back the way you came. Plenty of overnight buses run between Cusco and Arequipa. Once in Arequipa, just follow the instructions above to reach Colca Canyon.
I have heard of a recent tourist bus that runs between Chivay and Cusco. It is difficult to find reliable information about it. From what I heard, it is around $70 USD and only goes a few times a week. If you were to take this, you would have to make sure you took a local bus from Cabanaconde to Chivay with enough time to catch the elusive luxury tourist bus.
Seeing the condors at Colca Canyon
If doing this trek alone, it can be more difficult to see the famous Andean Condor. The Cruz del Condor lookout is about an hour away from Cabanaconde by bus. If you do an organised tour, you will usually stop at Cruz del Condor before you reach Cabanaconde. From here you can see the birds flying around the canyon, usually early morning. If you really want to make this stop, you could take an early bus to Arequipa after your hike, get dropped off at the lookout and then hop on the next bus. During our 3 days I saw 3 condors, so you don’t necessarily need to visit the lookout. Just keep your eyes peeled, especially early morning.
Where to stay in Cabanaconde
We stayed the night before our trek at Pachamama. We had heard great things from other travellers and I can confirm it is a great choice. The staff are really helpful. On arrival they give you a map and are happy to help you plan your route. What I really appreciate is that they encourage people to hike independently, which is refreshing after constantly being approached by people trying to sell you tours! The food is good, but not the cheapest. They do have a proper pizza oven though! The hostel is also really good place for solo travellers to meet other people to hike with. We paid 80 soles for a double room, private bathroom and (very good) breakfast.
Our 3 day route for hiking Colca Canyon without a guide
Below I will detail exactly what route we took for our 3 days. There are easier and harder routes. We chose a moderate to challenging option, opting to stay off the main trail that tours tend to take. Using a map you can easily figure out which trails you can take yourself. I also really recommend speaking to the staff at Pachamama Hostel. They are local, and give great advice on which route to take!
Day 1 – Cabanaconde to Llahuar
Our first day started with a very good breakfast at Pachamama’s. We seemed to be the last ones to leave that morning which got me a bit worried. We were at the square buying tourist tickets at 7.45 am. These cost 70 soles each, and will be checked when you start your descent, and when you make it back out of the canyon. We were told to buy them directly from the office as there are sometimes people around the trail attempting to sell fakes. I have also heard that you can buy them at the head of the trail. I personally liked the idea of having it from the official office, and then not having to worry about it again. You must buy the tourist ticket, and you may be asked to present it at any time (we actually weren’t).
Heading out of town is easy as their are many signs and locals to ask. The first 30 minutes are mostly flat, and there are some nice views of the canyon. I spotted a condor from the first lookout too. The path then becomes a steep, snaking descent. Walking poles would definitely be a good idea here. The steep descent can be hard on the knees. There is a little respite as the trail flattens and sweeps around the side of the canyon, however the sun was beating hard. Then it’s another steep decline to the road below. To this road, it took around 3 hours. Here there is a bridge and geyser, which offers a nice resting place. Pushing on, we followed the road gradually up to where it eventually forks. At the fork is a rather lonely bus stop, where we found a lovely black dog waiting for us! He followed us to the left, through a handful of houses, and the final descent to Llahuar Lodge. We stumbled into the lodge just over 4 hours after leaving Cabanaconde.
We paid 40 soles each for lunch, dinner, bed and breakfast. The food was really good, and enough to fill us up. Be aware that everything in the canyon is more expensive, and options are very limited. As we had lunch with our new canine friend Jack, we watched others arrive. Some also had dogs in tow. I asked the staff about the dogs, and she said they just spend their lives following the tourists along the trails! So don’t be surprised if you pick up a dog along the way!
After lunch we spent a few hours relaxing in the hot springs. Right on the river and 2 minutes from the huts of Llahuar lodge, the springs are great for achey muscles. Our night was spent in a cute but simple hut with a double bed.
Day 2 – Llahuar to Sangalle
We set off earlier the second day, after realising how intense the sun was the day before. We left the lodge after breakfast at around 7 am, led by Jack who had slept outside our hut, plus another black dog! My calves were aching a fair bit on day 2! The first 20 minutes is the same as the previous day, until we reached the bus stop. From here you continue left, to tiny Paclla. Here, leave the road and ascend steeply behind the houses. We were attacked by flies here, so spray some repellent. Pass through Belen, and you are back into the road. After a little while longer you will see Mirador Apacheta on your left. We stopped here for a while for a snack and to give the dogs some water. The viewpoint offers impressive panoramic views of the canyon, and we could now see Sangalle below us. Drop back on to the road and continue until you reach this sign:
Here, there is a steep path down to the path below. When you meet the path, there should be a small hut. Here we bought water off the man there, as it was only 7 soles for a large bottle. In Sangalle at the accommodation a large water was 15 soles. From the hut, it is a sharp half hour descent, which made my knees feel as though they were cracking! Over the bridge, and we finally made it. Our arrival was 12.15, so 5 hours and 15 minutes after we set off.
There are 3 or 4 options for accommodation in Sangalle. Most have swimming pools. The first place, I think Eden garden was the name, it was near impossible to find any staff. The second place we found was Paradaiso. We paid 20 soles per person after some back and forwarding for a double hut, shared bathroom and no breakfast. Breakfast was an extra 20 soles, but we decided it wasn’t worth it as we still had lots of snacks, and planned to leave very early the next morning.
We spent the afternoon swimming in the pool and admiring the goats that were wandering around.
Day 3 – Sangalle to Cabanaconde
Our alarms went off at 5am on day 3, and I could really feel the pain in my muscles. Looking at the steep climb ahead was daunting. The walk up was slow and monotonous, with a few nice view points. We were passed by several tourists who had opted to ride a horse up. Horsemen are always waiting in Sangalle for weary travelers, with the price being around 70 soles. The angle of the ascent was better this day though, as the sun didn’t hit us until about 7.30am.
We reached the top nearly 3 hours after we started. There was a man waiting to check the tourist tickets at the top, and he cheered and clapped on our arrival. From this check point, it’s a flat 20 minutes stroll through pretty farmland and terraces back to the centre of Cabanaconde.
Where to go after Colca Canyon?
Nearly everyone ends up going back to Arequipa. We took the 11am bus from the square back to Arequipa. Then from here, a night bus to Cusco. It is a little frustrating, as you have to go back on yourself, to continue on to Arequipa. I saw that there is a tourist service from Chivay to Cusco a few times a week, however it was very expensive.
What to pack for hiking in Colca Canyon?
Unless you are planning to camp, then I suggest leaving your backpack or suitcase at a hostel in Cabanaconde. Me and Vincent both used our day packs for the 3 days in the canyon. Most of these things will come in really handy in Peru in general. We did the 5 day Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu a few days later, and were glad we got to test out what we needed during this Colca Canyon hike. Here is a list of what I suggest you pack:
- Clothes for 3 days, bearing in mind it will be hot in the day and maybe colder at night. I went for 2 T-shirt’s, shorts, and leggings. Plus obviously underwear and socks.
- Waterproof or rain poncho. We never needed it, but it’s up to you if you want to risk it. I am not sure if it rains often in Colca Canyon.
- Sunhat / sunglasses / sunscreen
- Bug repellent
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Phone / camera
- Snacks – we took bananas, peanuts, energy bars and apples
- Water – you can only bring enough for a day as it’s heavy. Water in Colca Canyon can be 2 to 3 times more expensive than usual. We drank tap water a lot after speaking to locals. Please be aware that it is not recommended by most websites that tourists drink tap water, and it is your decision. All I can say is we are the type of people that eat food if it’s fallen on the floor, or cut mould of food and eat it, so felt we would be fine with the water! We never had any adverse affect. You could take water purification tablets if you are not quite as gross as us!
- Toilet paper – do not expect to find any in the toilets along the way!
- Hiking poles – really takes the pressure off your knees
How much does it cost to hike Colca Canyon?
Many people told us we wouldn’t save any money by doing it ourselves as tours are so cheap. We were ok with this, and just wanted the flexibility of going alone. Below I outline exactly what we spent per person :
Bus Arequipa to Cabanaconde – 17 soles
1 night Pachamama Hostel – 40 soles
Dinner night before hike – 20 soles
Tourist ticket – 70 soles
Lunch, dinner, B and B Llahuar – 40 soles
Lunch Sangalle – 15 soles
Dinner Sangalle- 15 soles
Accomodation Sangalle – 20 soles
Shower Pachamama – 5 soles
Bus Cabanaconde to Arequipa – 17 soles
Water and snacks – about 25 soles
Total spend for 3 days hiking in Colca Canyon without a guide – 284 soles per person
I don’t really think you can find a tour cheaper than that, but please let me know in the comments if you can!
Even if it was more expensive, I think I still would have gone for it! There were moments where we were alone in the Canyon, and could see for miles. Yet we couldn’t see another single person. The breath taking views and feeling of complete isolation in the wilderness would have been ruined by a guide an group. Hiking Colca Canyon without a guide was possibly the best experience I had in Peru!