Hiking Colca Canyon without a guide

Every where you look in Arequipa you will see offers for guided tours to Colca Canyon. These vary greatly in price and quality. Many tour operators will tell you that it’s dangerous or impossible to hike Colca Canyon without a guide. This is simply not true. In November 2018 Vincent and I did a 3 day, 2 night trip to Colca Canyon independently and it was amazing.

Why hike Colca Canyon?

Colca Canyon is the second deepest canyon in the world, and offers some breath taking views. 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.

Is Colca Canyon a difficult trek?

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 depending 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.

Getting 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 and 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.

Seeing the condors

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 we 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 in Colca Canyon

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.

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.

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 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 handfull 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 are 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 sokrs, but we thought 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. 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. 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

Soap

Towel

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 door, 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.

Money

Toilet paper

How much will it cost?

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 Pachama – 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!

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