Peru travel guide: Hiking in Colca Canyon
Most Peru trekking experiences are focused around Cuzco, Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail but the country has a lot more to offer, and one of the finest and most rewarding alternatives is a hike in the Colca Canyon region near Arequipa.
Lacing up your hiking boots in Colca Canyon
Colca Canyon is famous for being one of the world’s deepest canyons, more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. The region is also incredibly high and at around 4300 meters above sea level, visitors will need several days acclimatization in nearby Arequipa before attempting anything more energetic than a short walk.
Visiting the canyon region is easy, trips are offered by most providers of Peru tours or else several buses run from Arequipa’s main bus station to the town of Chivay, at the canyon’s head, on a daily basis. Tickets sell out quickly, so either book for travel on the following day or get there early, before 7am.
The three hour journey from Arequipa to Chivay (15 soles) is spectacular in its own right, crossing high mountain passes and the barren, ethereal world of the high alti plano. Up here the water is frozen into thick ice and very little vegetation grows on the mountain-sides, but you’ll still see the odd bird and herds of llamas apparently thriving in this ultra harsh environment.
This entire region is set within a vast natural park, and entrance will cost 30 soles for a universal tourism ticket (boleto turistico) which will cover you for access to the entire 100km Canyon.
Once in Chivay you can set up base here in one of the numerous hotels and hostels. Compared to the generally high standards of Peru hotels, services here are Spartan at best but there are a few good hotels offering hot water all day, cable TV and other luxuries. There are also a healthy scattering of restaurants serving up a range of food, from quick snacks to full hearty meals of local specialties, which will set you up well for a day or two of hard hiking.
If arriving late in the day, save your energy for the following morning or treat yourself by taking the short walk uphill to the town’s famous hot springs (entrance 10 soles) where you can bathe in one of seven pools ranging from unbearably hot to virtually freezing cold.
Enjoy dinner in Chivay at one of the town’s numerous Peñas, restaurants offering lively – and often interactive – music and dance performances. El Nido, behind the town’s market, is a local favorite which gets very busy after 8pm.
The hiking options from Chivay are varied and can suit any level, provided you’re already well acclimatized to the altitude. For a short walk from the town itself, head out on the road to the hot springs, cutting left as you leave the town. This track will eventually lead you to the attractive village of Corporaque, complete with ruins and a pleasant river-side spot to stop and catch your breath.
From here, follow the path to the neighboring village of Yanque, around 5 miles from Chivay. You can either walk back from here or catch a cab back to town.
Stretching from Chivay, the Canyon is dotted with small towns and villages, all of which are served by bus services leaving from Chivay’s bus terminal. For some stunning and fairly challenging hikes, catch a bus to Cabanaconde a small town which provides the basics you’ll need for a few days – lodgings, food and basic services.
You can either hire a local guide, or purchase a map of the area and walk solo. A well trodden path heads to an oasis known as San Galle at the foot of the canyon, where natural swimming pools offer a chance to cool off and catch your breath following the steep descent. From here you follow the same path uphill back to town, a challenging climb which will probably take the rest of the day – bring plenty of water and some high-energy snacks.
The more adventurous visitors can attempt longer treks spanning several days, all of which hug the canyon and riverside which has numerous campsites to pitch your own tent. Outside of the villages and towns themselves, there are no services whatsoever so be sure to bring everything that you’ll need and don’t attempt overnight treks alone unless you have the necessary skills and prior experience.
Visitors needing equipment rental, guides, maps and any other information are best served in nearby Arequipa, before heading into the Canyon itself but informal advice and information is available from hotel owners and fellow hikers within the Canyon.
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Matt left England for Peru in 2008, originally planning to stay for just 12 months but ending up settling down in Lima working for Latin America For Less for three fun-packed years. He remains a perpetual traveller, working and writing his way through Europe, North America and Asia but he has always saved a special place in his heart for Peru and South America.