This is an in-depth account of the three day Colca Canyon trek I did in Peru a few years ago.
As if the four day Inca Jungle Trek to Machu Picchu hadn’t been enough, as soon as we left Cusco and arrived in beautiful Arequipa, The White City, we booked ourselves another trek, this time to Colca Canyon. We paid a little higher than our usual backpacker budget, to go with what has to be one of the best tour companies in the city, Colca Trek.
Colca Canyon Trek, Day One
We set off just after eight, in a minivan with thirteen other people and our lovely guide. Christian was a local who grew up in one of the villages in Colca. After passing through the ugly, ramshackle outskirts of Arequipa – apparently the town has expanded rapidly in the last fifteen years due to huge immigration from the mountain and valley towns in search of better jobs and schools – we found ourselves in a strange, post-apocalyptic landscape of dusty cliffs, red clay, cactus and sparse little grey-green bushes.
We wound through arid brown hills and rubble-strewn yellow cliffs, then descended into the flat plains of Pampas de Cañihuas national park. Here, we stopped by the side of the road to watch families of vicuñas, from the Andean Camel family and similar to llamas and alpacas, but smaller, daintier and with a uniform orange-brown fur coat with white tummies. Vicuñas, the national animal of Peru, were once near extinction, but are now protected in the park, and it is forbidden to hunt them. The locals still sheer the animals once a year, since the fur is highly prized and worth a lot of money (apparently a vicuña wool jumper will sell for $60,000 in Europe), but the rest of the time the animals are left alone.
After a mini off-road experience, bouncing up and down bumpy dirt tracks, we reached our first stop and stepped out in the middle of the plain, near the mouth of a small canyon, which we walked into after a quick drink of coca tea to help with the altitude. At the start of the canyon is the bizarre Imata Stone Forest, created by weirdly shaped rock formations. Traditionally a sacred place, many local farmers still sacrifice a lama here to Pachamama to request a good year. The rocks, formed by molten lava from the nearby volcanoes, are twisted and warped in strange shapes, sometimes taking on the appearance of animals or faces (as long as a little imagination is used).
As we drove away from the stone forest, we saw a huge tornado in the distance, like a tunnel of dust, which is apparently common in the area. Back on the road, we kept on driving through the huge, empty plain, sparsely covered by small, green clumps of grass and sweeping away on either side, huge and flat and stretching, brown and beige under an enormous, empty sky, overlooked in the distance by the silent forms of white-capped mountains and the brooding, grey El Misti Volcano. We stopped a few more times to look at enormous herds of alpacas and llamas, with lots of scampering babies, as the breeding season had just ended, and also at a small series of grassy ponds, where we were able to see a family of Andean geese with their tiny, white babies.
Soon, we were climbing again into rocky mountains, with the sky turning grey and cold as we ascended. We stopped again at the Mirador de Los Andes, a lookout point at 4910m above sea level with a view of the seven surrounding volcanoes, most of which are snow-capped and many of which are still active, including Misti Volcano which can sometimes be seen smoking.
Outside the van it was freezing cold, a surprising contrast with the hot sunshine we’d been stood in just half an hour before, and I felt sorry for the women selling souvenirs at the side of the road, huddled over in the wind.
Our final stop en route to Colca Valley was to view some samples of the llareta plant, one of the slowest growing species of plant. Like a big green rock made up of tiny, hard leaves, a big clump like the one we saw would have taken thousands of years to grow. It secretes an oily sap which smells like aloe vera, and is one of the strangest plants I’ve ever seen.
We stopped in Colca Valley for a buffet lunch, with lots of tasty alpaca dishes, and then headed on into the valley, where we stopped frequently to take in the incredible views. Colca has 70% of all Peru’s Inca and pre-Inca terraces, and 90% of them were made by the Wari culture, one of the earliest civilisations in Peru, and were used to create micro-climates for cultivation. The result is a valley that looks like a 3D puzzle, laced with ruffles of thin terraces built from uneven stone, like neat steps, with the floor of the valley coated in a patchwork of tiny, hedge-lined fields of different shapes and colours: bright green, dark emerald, yellow, brown, beige.
There were more Inca structures in the cliff alongside the road above the valley. Small holes carved into the yellow cliff-side, these were essentially ‘Inca fridges’ used to preserve food, and are the Colcas for which the area is named. There was also a tomb, the small entrance smeared with red iron oxide which was considered sacred, the blood of Pachamama (mother earth).
We sat on the edge of a lookout point over the valley as the sunset, while Christian talked about the towns and the surrounding area of the valley, especially about the discovery of Juanita, the body of a young girl preserved by the ice found in the glacier of Mount Ampato.
There are a few theories surrounding her sacrifice, but the story Christian gave us is that she was raised in a school in Cusco specifically for sacrifice, and was at the age of twelve or so following a volcanic eruption. For two days she would have eaten nothing but coca leaves, and on the third day would have been given chicha (a local drink made from fermented corn), and gotten very drunk. Once she fell asleep, the priests would have placed her body in the foetal position and left her on top of the mountain to freeze to death; the belief was that she needed to be killed by the mountain god rather than the priests, in order to remain pure.
As she was found with a hole in her head and a bit of blood on her face, others believe that the priests did kill her with a blow to the head, but this is unlikely considering other similar sacrificed bodies found in mountains in Chile were without harm; the cut and blood could have been made when her body fell down the mountain after the glacier melted and her body began to thaw.
We finished the day at Colca Lodge, the gorgeous accommodation that had sold us the Colca Trek tour above all others. The lodge had a huge, cosy lounge with a big central fireplace, comfy sofas and lots of warm blankets, where we sat and chatted with the rest of our group until dinner. Our rooms had floor to ceiling panoramic windows, overlooking the valley and the white-capped mountains beyond, and the décor throughout the lodge was beautiful; way too good for backpackers.
There wasn’t much time for enjoying the luxury, though, as the next day we had a 5:30am start, so we headed pretty quickly after dinner to our enormous, comfy bed to get straight to sleep.
Colca Canyon Trek, Day Two
Our second day started early, at 5am when the sun was rising pale and cold over a chilly valley, catching in the soft grey mist over the dewy fields. After a very short drive, we trekked along the valley’s edge in brightening sunshine to the Cruz del Condor, a popular lookout point for early morning condor spotting.
We stopped first just below the mirador, and watched as the birds began to emerge into the canyon. By now the sun was up and the sky was a big, empty expanse of blue, and as we watched the huge birds started to appear below us, difficult to pick out against the brown and orange cliffs of the canyon.
Condors eat carrion like vultures – although they watch a dead animal for up to three days before eating, to make sure it’s really dead – and have ugly, wrinkled heads which make them look really unattractive. In the air, though, with their huge wings, which can reach up to 3m 20cm tip to tip, outstretched, they look really beautiful. Condors don’t really fly, they wait for thermal currents and launch themselves awkwardly from their cliff-side holes, then just glide in a circular motion upwards until there is enough hot air to carry them out to hunt.
As the birds started to climb higher, we headed up to the top of the hill to the mirador Cruz del Condor, getting there before most tour buses arrived so that we were able to grab the best seats, right on the edge with our legs dangling over. I hadn’t expected a bird-watching session to be much fun, but the condors were spectacular. We saw about ten or so, including six huge, black and white adult birds, and they flew so near to us on each spiral that we got a fantastic view. Sitting in the warm sun watching these enormous birds swirl and glide past us was a fantastic start to the day.
The next stage was a mountain bike ride all the way from the mirador down to the town of Cabanaconde. After the amazing fun of our mountain biking experience on the Inca Jungle Trek, I was really excited about this, and once we set off alongside the stunning valley we were instantly rewarded.
After the first five minutes came a slight uphill section of about 1km, which was only a fairly gentle slope but which knocked me so out of breath thanks to the altitude – which I don’t cope well with – that I could barely move, and had to get back on the van to reach the top of the hill. It was so embarrassing riding up behind everyone else in the bus, but when I reached the top and saw how much the rest of the group were panting I realised it really was the altitude, and not just me.
After that, it was downhill all the way and so much fun. Although I was one of the slowest in the group, I wasn’t right at the back and I was going really fast down a smoothly curling tarmac road. At one point, three of us zipped past a group of cows in the road, so fast that we scared one and it scrabbled back down the hill, almost falling in the process. The feeling was incredible, speeding along empty roads surrounded by incredible scenery and bright sunshine, with the snow capped peaks of distant volcanoes glowing white in the distance.
We arrived in Cabanaconde and were stunned to discover it was only 11am. I’d already had a much fuller day than I ever do normally, and it wasn’t even lunch time! There was quite a long wait while we all changed into shorts, applied liberal amounts of suncream, and handed over all our stuff to be loaded up on mules for the trek into the canyon.
Finally, though, we set off in the now baking midday sun towards the edge of the canyon, walking first through tall fields of yellow corn and quinoa in a landscape that could have been European countryside, before coming out suddenly at the edge of the staggeringly deep canyon.
As we left the town, Sam stumbled upon a local dog who took an instant shine to him (might have had something to do with the crackers in his pocket), and who followed our group for the entire trek. Since the dumpy little dog, with his scruffy beige fur, looked just like the dog from Anchorman, we nicknamed him Baxter and rewarded him with drinks of water and biscuits all the way down, not to mention lots of leftovers from lunch.
The trek down was tough, following a steep, winding trail with loose rubble and dust underfoot, our feet constantly slipping and our knees working overtime to keep ourselves from running or falling down the cliff-side. The heat was baking, the air dry and full of swirling dust, and the sharp drop at the side of the path made my head spin. Christian, our guide, stopped frequently all the way down, pointing out the interesting fauna and faun, like the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus and the weird, floury looking cochineal bugs which provide dye for food and make up worldwide.
After nearly three hours of painful downhill hiking, we reached the bottom of the canyon, and the riverside ‘oasis’; a gorgeous, green space of bright blue swimming pools, colourful flowers, and gently swaying trees. Although starving, we made time for a long, cooling dip in the pool before a very late lunch, then I spent the afternoon relaxing on a hammock in the sun while Sam and some others from our group went for another hike.
That night, we slept in small wooden cabins in the bottom of the canyon, heading to bed as early as possible in light of yet another early start in the morning.
Colca Canyon Trek, Day Three
The third day of the Colca Canyon trek started nice and early with breakfast at 4:30am, ready to start the long, painfully steep climb back up to the top of the canyon. I’m actually a little ashamed to admit this next part – so much so that I considered leaving it out of the blog altogether – but I didn’t hike back up. Given how badly affected I was by the altitude (I couldn’t even cycle up a gentle slope for 1km), how steep the 1000m ascent was, and how tired the climb down had made me, I did something I haven’t done much on this trip, and quit.
About thirty minutes after the rest of the group took off uphill, I was alone on the back of an ungainly mule with Raphael, the Peruvian guide employed to lead the pack of mules back to Cabanaconde. It was uncomfortable, and also terrifying; my mule walked on the very, very edge of the path, it’s hooves seemingly just an inch away from the ever-increasing drop beside us.
He scrabbled over the loose rubble, with numerous slipped feet, and constantly seemed seconds away from tumbling over underneath me. He also had no concept of looking where he was going; every time we reached a corner in the constantly zig-zagging path, the mule didn’t notice that there was no path to put his feet on until he’d almost stepped onto thin air, then jerked around back onto the path, lurching underneath me.
I was so afraid of falling into the canyon, Wile-E Coyote style, that the experience was almost tougher than walking. But, given that I was out of breath just on the back of a mule, I highly doubt I could have made the climb which, according to our guide, would take up to three hours. The other problem was that my mule decided to be so stereotypically stubborn that we barely reached the top.
Every time Raphael was out of sight, the mule stopped still in the centre of the path and refused to keep walking no matter how much I tried to reason with him. The only highlight was the incredible sunrise, breaking over the canyon cliffs behind me, washing everyone in watery golden light.
Sam, on the other hand, not only walked all the way but also reached the top in the impressive time of one hour forty. I had planned to ride smugly by on my mule while he huffed his way up, red and sweaty, but instead, he reached the top well before I did, and had already recovered by the time I got up there.
Honestly – I felt really bad for not having walked, especially after I dismounted and saw how sweat-soaked my poor, tired mule was, leaving me feeling super guilty for making him carry me when I could have walked myself, no matter how hard it might have been. I can only hope he had a nice big drink of water and a very long rest when he got home.
From Cabanaconde, we bundled back into our minivan and drove to the town of Maca to visit Santa Ana church, followed by the hot springs at Chivay. Thanks to our early start and the group walking up the canyon in record time, we got to the springs about 11am, when they were still empty; most other groups didn’t arrive until nearer 12.
Down in a valley beside a freezing cold river – which all the boys decided to jump into first, for some unknown reason – the several pools of bathlike warm water were the perfect way to relax our aching muscles after the three days of trekking (and, for me, mule riding).
After another huge buffet lunch in Chivay, and a brief, impromptu tour of the town’s plaza from Christian while we waited for a guide from another group to swap with us, we headed back to Arequipa. En route, we stopped again at the Mirador de los Andes, because the sky was much clearer and from there we could see the enormous grey ash cloud above Ubinas volcano, which had erupted the week before.
We arrived home in Arequipa exhausted, but having had the most fantastic three days of exploration, adventure and stunning scenery.
We did the three-day tour with Colca Trek, a company I would highly recommend, and paid £140 GBP each for the two night/three-day tour including accommodation, food, snacks, water, guide and all entrance fees.