Hiking in the Colca Canyon

As smooth and inviting as the elegant city of Arequipa is, I couldn’t resist the nagging urge to get out of the urban chaos and check out what lies beyond the bordering peaks: massive stretches of desert leading up to the Colca Canyon, the world’s second deepest. (Actually, if you keep going you will in fact get to THE deepest, the Cotahuasi Canyon. The Colca drops 4,160 meters, a depth made more dramatic by the snow-capped peaks towering above its rim.
The 15 sole local bus that leaves Arequipa several times daily follows a route that takes you right up to a front row view of the local volcanoes before passing in to an arid section of desert and then climbing sharply into the mountains. We choose to go directly to Cabanaconde, the tiny town that marks the end of the bus route, and takes anywhere between 6 to 8 hours depending on the number of stops (planned and unplanned) made along the way. If you visit the Colca Canyon as part of an organized tour you will have at least semi-private transport, saving yourself hours and undoubtedly traveling in greater comfort.
Knowing we would arrive in Cabanaconde with limited accommodations in the evening, we booked a room at the Hostal de Valle del Fuego prior to arriving and were greeted at the bus stop in the town’s colonial-style main square by the hostel’s cheerful owner, Joaquim – who really had to hustle given that he was also in the middle of preparing dinner in the hostel’s sister restaurant for several other tourists. We skipped dinner, but got some great information from him on the hike directly from Cabanaconde down to the Canyon’s bottom where several families have created Garden of Eden style campgrounds and bungalows in the lush spot appropriately named “Oasis”.
In the morning we woke up to stunningly beautiful views in every direction. Here on the canyon rim the foliage was still lush green and full of colorful blossoms, and the jagged snow-covered mountains stood in stark relief above long stretches of Inca agricultural terraces. From the straight-across view it was difficult to believe a miles deep canyon dropped off somewhere in between. We went to the hostel’s restaurant for a very bountiful breakfast that was included in the 50 sole cost of our room. We also got some pretty straight forward directions for finding the trail down to the canyon’s bottom: “Follow the main street out of town until it turns to a trail, and then keep going. Always stay on the large trail, you’ll have “problems” if you choose one of the smaller trails.” Easy enough.
The trail starts out as a wide road for locals and their livestock, but already provides amazing panoramic views of the peaks and the incredible variety of plant life and flowers that flourish in this area. When it narrows and approaches the canyon rim we came to a view of the sheer terra cotta colored canyon walls for miles that was unlike anything I’ve ever seen; and with every few meters of trail the view would seem to change entirely.
Once you begin descending into the canyon the trail is a bit nasty: loose fist-sized rocks and larger, slicker rocks covered in fine sand are the norm. And, as you would expect of a trail that drops that far in what’s estimated to be a 2 hour walk, it’s pretty steep. If I were to do it over again I would take trekking poles to give my knees a break, but as long as you take it slow you should be fine.
About half-way down the trail we stopped to take a break at the one constructed shade shelter (stone bench with a thatch roof, and were greeted with an unexpected bonus: a giant Andean condor soaring towards us, floating on thermals. Although I’ve read about how large and powerful they are I was amazed to see the full stretch of its wingspan as it passed directly below our eye level. Later in the day we saw a few more soaring far above, but the close-up view was by far the highlight.
Our destination came into view as a steady rain began to fall (yes, rare). Oasis is exactly what it sounds like, a strip of fertile land cascading lush vegetation in every shade of green imaginable down to the river bottom a hundred meters or so below. There are at least 3 or 4 individual camp sites advertised along the way, so know which one you want to go to before you set out on the hike down (if you’re part of an organized tour the arrangements will already be made for you). The one we stayed at was called simply “Oasis bungalows and camping” . After your grueling hike down the lush garden terraces, small pools, and sleepy bungalows are a sight for sore eyes. Following the appropriate recovery time during which you’ll want to slump listlessly against a chair and chug the first cold beverage that comes your way it’s amazing to explore the variety of gorgeous plants that surround you.
We were given basic but tasty meals and slept well in our bungalow (yes, they have real beds), but decided to forego the pools given that it a rare cool and rainy evening in this desert canyon.
The next morning the sun was blazing again and we had great views of the multi-colored canyon walls stretching up to the peaks for our hike out. We took the same route out, a non-stop uphill beater that takes 3-4 hours. It’s hard to complain, though, you’re surrounded by a landscape unlike any other on the planet, and you realize the locals who live in Oasis do this several times a week…in less than half the time.
If your trip to Peru allows time to visit this corner of the country I highly suggest checking out the Colca Canyon and meeting the incredibly friendly people who live in the villages along its rim.