The Colca Canyon is one of the most spectacular places on earth for trekking – but it’s no easy accomplishment. When we did a two-day Colca Canyon trek, we underestimated the difficulty and had a bad experience with our guide. To help you avoid the same mistakes, we open up about our experience in this article and explain everything you need to know before you go trekking in the Colca Canyon yourself.
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With the right preparation and foreknowledge, a hike in the Colca Canyon can be a fabulous experience. Even with our hiccups, we still have some great memories of it, not to mention the stunning photos. So please don’t get the wrong impression from this article – we would absolutely recommend doing it. Just don’t go into it blindly.
If you would prefer to skip our story, you can jump ahead to our tips on booking, preparation and trekking. But if you do have a few extra minutes to spare, you may find something in our experience that helps to make yours a great one.
In this article:
About the Colca Canyon
At 3,501 metres at its deepest point, Peru’s Colca Canyon is double the depth of the USA’s Grand Canyon in Arizona. Impressive, huh? But it’s not just the numbers that make it a great place to see.
The landscapes within the Colca Canyon are among the most jaw-dropping in Peru (and there’s plenty of competition for that!). You can expect to see dramatic rocky faces, condors soaring and swooping, and paths descending through desert steppe and sprouting cacti.
The entry point to the Colca Canyon for trekking is the small town of Cabanaconde. While it’s possible to reach it independently and trek without a guide, the transport links can be unreliable and time-consuming. Most visitors choose to take a guided trek or tour rather than navigate this maze unassisted.
Arequipa, a large city in the south of Peru, is the usual pivot point for trips to the Colca Canyon. From the city it is roughly a three-hour drive to the canyon. Guided treks and tours include direct van transfers there and back, making your life a lot easier.
For more ideas on activities during your trip, read our article on things to do in Arequipa.
Lessons from our Colca Canyon trek
Booking our trek: the first mistake
One thing we have learned from our travels is that when booking a guided trek, it is essential to ask a lot of questions. We took some information at face value when booking our Colca Canyon trek, and it hurt us later on.
We booked the trek through our hostel before arriving in Arequipa. The family owners were very helpful and communicative, and it seemed like a good deal. We were short of time and so we decided to go ahead and save the hassle of shopping around.
In our email exchange with the hostel, they had shown us options for two- or three-day treks, listing all the highlights and extra sightseeing included. That was all great. The main problem turned out to be the bold letters at the top of the email that said TREKKING DIFFICULTY: EASY.
As you will read below, our trek was anything but easy.
We were arriving in Arequipa just a couple of days after completing the Inca Trail. Our legs were still quite weary, but an easy trek shouldn’t be a problem, we thought. As it turned out, the Colca Canyon was one of the most challenging treks of our lives.
If I could go back to this moment and do it all again, these are the questions I would ask the hostel:
- What is the total trekking distance and elevation gain? What kind of terrain is involved? ‘Easy’ for who – is it suitable for people with average fitness? Too often, trekking difficulty levels are categorised on an arbitrary basis, so it’s important to understand what will actually be involved. A quick Google search would have told us that ‘easy’ was far from accurate.
- What is the name of the trekking company? When given this, I would then do some research into them and check out online reviews.
With our time limited, we opted for the two-day trek. This may have been a mistake too, as the overall distance is the same in each case. Spreading it out over three days would have helped (although the big ascent on the final morning would be no different – more on that later).
The knock-on effect: unpreparedness
As a result of the misinformation about the trekking difficulty, we didn’t take a lot of care in our preparations for the Colca Canyon. Looking back, it was madness to try it so soon after the Inca Trail. We should have taken at least a couple more days to get ourselves properly rested.
Thankfully, we had invested in high-quality gear for the Inca Trail, so we had no problems there. Without a good pair of hiking boots our tough experience would have been unthinkably worse. Check out our Inca Trail packing list for help with equipping yourself for trekking in Peru.
An early but late start
The three-hour drive from Arequipa to the canyon means an early start for trekking. We were due to be collected from our hostel at 3am. Our minivan arrived nearly half an hour late though, prompting our first concerns about the trekking company.
After a few hold-ups on the road, we arrived for breakfast at Chivay town around 7am.
The incredible flight of the condors
Before embarking on our trek, we made a stop at Cruz Del Condor viewing point to see the world’s largest flying birds in action. These giant winged beasts come out to play early in the morning, and running late, time was not on our side.
Further road delays after breakfast threatened to result in us missing out, but as we pulled up at 8:30am we could see their dark forms gliding around in the sky, and crowds of people clamouring to catch a glimpse.
With just half an hour’s grace to indulge in some condor-spotting, we hastened to the viewing area. After just a few seconds, people gasped as one swooped low above us, wings outstretched. It was amazing to see it so close! A condor’s wingspan can reach over ten feet, and this one can’t have been far off that.
On a protruding rock not far below us, three condors gathered to survey the landscape below. One craned its neck around 180 degrees and seemed to make direct eye contact with me, sending a shiver down my spine.
The stifling descent begins
With the accumulation of the morning’s delays we arrived at Mirador de San Miguel – the trek’s starting point – at 10:30am, about an hour behind schedule.
The most troubling consequence of our tardiness was glaring at us from above. The sun beamed down from a cloudless sky, with the day’s forecasts predicting temperatures exceeding 35 degrees celsius. Combined with the thin air at 3,300m altitude, these were extremely testing conditions.
The three hours it took us to hike down to San Juan de Chucchu village (the first leg of our trek) were a real test of endurance. The path that snaked down the 1,200m descent was a gauntlet of treacherous loose gravel, with the soaring temperature doing nothing to help.
The one thing that kept me and Lisa going, aside from each other’s encouragement, was the truly spectacular scenery. Every time we stopped for breath – which was very often – we were able to escape from our exhaustion into the dreamland of chartreuse vegetation, prickly cacti and gaping rocky faces all around us.
After lunch in the village, we set off again. It took another three hours to reach the oasis village of Sangalle, our resting place for the night. Now at 2,100m altitude, we had descended a net distance of 1,200m over the day, with plenty of up and down along the way.
Problems with our trekking guide
Here’s the thing: all of this would have been manageable if we’d had a supportive and understanding guide. Ours was not. Lisa wrote in some detail on her personal blog about the effect this had on her experience in particular. Every now and again I re-read this, and it fills me with pride and admiration for how she overcame the negative treatment she received.
This was the precise opposite to the experience we had on the Inca Trail, where our trekking guides were exemplary. Nobody was ever left behind, and we had a great team environment of positivity and encouragement.
Our Colca Canyon trek guide was the epitome of everything a guide shouldn’t be. From constantly telling Lisa she was going too slow, to saying the trek was for ‘able-bodied people’, to constantly pressuring us to take a mule ride instead of continuing on foot – he was a hindrance more than a help. In the face of this, however, we both somehow made it through to the end.
In hindsight, I wish we had spent more time exploring different tour companies rather than taking the default option of going straight through our hostel. Most tours operators are transparent about the difficulty. This is why it is so important to shop around, read reviews, and ask tour companies about their guide’s approach.
The toughest climb we’ve ever done
The biggest challenge of the trek was still to come. On the morning of the second and final day, we were faced with hiking an elevation gain of 1,300 metres from Sangalle to Cabanaconde, for which we were allotted just three hours.
We arose at 4am for a 4:30am start. At least the sun wasn’t a factor this time, but the relentless ascent was gruelling. Like the previous day’s descent, the path was stony and slippery, with no break from the steep gradient.
Having trekked all over the world and climbed many steep hills, this remains the single toughest stretch of hiking I’ve ever done. It felt like it would never end. Every time it looked as though we were reaching the top, another summit would appear higher up, and our morale dropped again.
About two thirds of the way up, the sun began to peek over the horizon, bathing the crest of the canyon in wonderful orange light. Once again the scenery became our crutch.
We emerged at the top on the stroke of seven-thirty, red-faced and exhausted. With a paper-cup coffee from a little stall that was on hand, we enjoyed our reward: a stunning view across the canyon in full morning daylight. We had made it.
Agricultural terraces at Achoma
The day’s activity wasn’t finished yet, but thankfully there was little walking left to do. After a nourishing breakfast of eggs and crepes in Cabanaconde, we set off in the minivan for some sightseeing.
A meandering drive through the Colca Valley and some wild-west-style desert scenery took us to the viewing point at Achoma. The lookout was perched upon an Incan ceremonial site, marked by stone circle relics.
From here, the overlapping steps of agricultural terraces stretched out to the horizon in every direction. It was like some kind of rural theatre, and we were looking out from the stage.
Chivay hot springs
After another stop for an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch, we moved on for a relaxing break at some thermal springs near Chivay. With our calves still burning from the morning’s exertion, nothing could have been more welcome.
A few days earlier we’d had tattoos done in Cusco, and they needed to be kept out of water for a couple of weeks. Most awkwardly, mine was on my lower leg, but I wasn’t going to miss a dip in the inviting hot water. I did my best to wrap up the tattoo in plastic bags, and hopped in.
There were three different pools to choose from, each with different levels of heat. We picked the hottest and ordered some ice-cold beers. We had definitely earned them.
Heading back towards Arequipa, we made a couple of final stops. The first was at a viewing point to see the colossal Patapampa volcano. Stepping out of the van we were more than 5,000 metres above sea level… that’s higher than any peak in Europe!
You might expect to see snow at this height; but there was not a single flake. Instead, we saw a desolate desert horizon dominated by smoking volcanos. As we were about to leave, one of the summits spouted fumes into the air in an explosive belch. Pretty cool to witness.
Finally, we drove on through La Reserva de Llamas y Vicuňas, making a brief stop to spot llamas and vicunas frolicking in the wilderness. Done for the day, we strapped up for the long drive back to the city.
Still an incredible trip
Despite the difficulties we had on our trek, the misinformation beforehand and the unhelpful approach of our guide, this was still a great trip and we can’t complain too much. We came away with some great memories and a story to tell.
At the same time, it’s a case in point of how a little bit of research, careful preparation and good decision-making can make such a big difference to your travel experiences. Read on in the next section to make sure you get it right for the Colca Canyon.
How to prepare for your Colca Canyon trek like a boss
The best way we learn in life is by making mistakes. Having made plenty of our own in the process of trekking the Colca Canyon, we’ve put together some essential tips and recommendations on how to prepare for it perfectly.
Let’s begin with one of the questions that often causes confusion at the booking stage…
Treks v tours: know the difference
When looking at options for visiting the Colca Canyon, you are likely to see both treks and tours advertised. Don’t confuse these to be the same thing.
If you choose a trek, that means you will be hiking in and out of the canyon. The classic treks are done over either two or three days, covering a similar distance, but the three-day version takes a more relaxed pace. Whichever you choose, however, the long and steep ascent on the final day will be the same.
The three-day trek is generally a more suitable option for travellers with medium levels of fitness who like a bit of hiking. The pace of the two-day trek can be demanding and is suitable for more serious trekkers.
You can book a three-day Colca Canyon trek through GetYourGuide with one of the most experienced and highly rated tour companies in Arequipa. GetYourGuide is a safe way to book, and includes free cancellation up to 24 hours before your tour. This Colca Canyon package includes an English-speaking guide, meals, transport, accommodation and entrance fees.
Alternatively, you can take a tour to the Colca Canyon that doesn’t involve any trekking and includes additional activities such as condor-viewing and Patapampa volcano. From Arequipa it is possible to do this as a day trip or a two-day tour with an overnight stay.
Colca Canyon tours give you the opportunity to witness the canyon’s beauty without the exertion of trekking, although you won’t see quite as much of it.
Choosing a trekking company
When deciding which company to go with for the Colca Canyon, it’s best to do some background checks. These basic steps will help inform your decision:
- First, as a rule, don’t just go for the cheapest. It’s always tempting to save money, but as a result you might end up with a negative experience and put yourself at risk.
- Look into the company’s experience. Have they been around a long time, and are they trusted?
- Read plenty of customer reviews, and pay close attention to what people say about the guides.
- If you have any doubts, ask the company questions, whether it’s about their guides, which trek they would advise, or anything else. It will help to get a feel for their general level of service.
- Check whether entry fees are included. If not, you will need to bring 70 soles (around $21) to enter the national park, and 15 soles (around $4.50) for the hot springs.
What to pack for trekking in the Colca Canyon
When the time arrives, it’s vital that you’re adequately prepared and equipped. At the very least you should bring the following on your Colca Canyon trek:
- A good pair of hiking boots. See our recommendations here.
- Walking poles are essential. They will help you stay balanced when descending and ascending on loose gravelly tracks.
- Light clothes for hiking in heat. Lightweight t-shirts from Mountain Warehouse are a good shout.
- Warm clothes for the evening – it gets cold up there after the sun goes down.
- Sun protection. There’s nowhere to hide from those powerful rays on the face of the canyon. Bring a hat, glasses and sun cream.
- Plenty of water to keep you hydrated. We recommend a camel pack for quick access and a comfortable way to carry it.
- Toilet paper. There’s no guarantee it will be provided at facilities along the way (it usually isn’t).
- Snacks. Although meals are provided on guided tours, you will still need fuel to keep you going, preferably some carbs.
- Swimming gear. You may need it for the thermal springs or staying at an overnight oasis in Sangalle.
- A stash of cash in case you need to buy anything.
- A decent backpack to carry your gear. For a two-day trek, a daypack like the Osprey Daylite Plus is sufficient. For three days, you may want something bigger. See our guide to the best travel backpacks.
Best time to trek in the Colca Canyon
While it’s possible to hike in the Colca Canyon all year round, the optimal time is during the dry season, from May to October. January to March are the rainiest months, while June to August sees the most sunshine.
Coping with altitude
Cabanaconde, the typical start and end point for trekking in the Colca Canyon, is perched over 3,000 metres above sea level. Trekking at this altitude can make things a lot more difficult.
Our Inca Trail preparation guide includes a section on coping with altitude, so give that a read. As a basic rule:
- Keep yourself hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
- Take your time, pace yourself slowly and rest whenever you need to.
- Tell your guide if you start suffering any symptoms of altitude sickness.
- Take a couple of days to acclimatise to altitude before attempting a trek. Arequipa, at over 2,300 metres, is ideal. If arriving from Cusco or Puno, you should be well acclimatised already.
Travel insurance for the Colca Canyon
Trekking in Peru is generally very safe, and it’s rare that anyone comes to harm when trekking in the Colca Canyon. However, just in case something does happen to you, it’s always wise to invest in insurance. The canyon is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, and emergency care would be dauntingly expensive to cover yourself.
We recommend World Nomads for insuring travel and hiking in Peru. Their policies are tailor-made for this kind of activity (including trekking at altitude), and they are underwritten by secure, specialist travel insurers. Perhaps most importantly, their team provides round-the-clock support and excellent levels of customer service.
You can get started with a quote for your trip below.
Where to stay in Arequipa before and after trekking
Our guide to the best hostels in Arequipa picks out some of the city’s top budget accommodation options. Alternatively, if hostels aren’t your thing, check out booking.com for a whole range of options.
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