Hiking Colca Canyon, Peru

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Our guide book explained that Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world – in fact, it is twice as big as the grand canyon (which I had always thought of as pretty big). So, when we were thinking of things to do around Arequipa, the obvious thing to do seemed to be to hike down to the bottom of the canyon and then to climb back up again. How had can that be?

A note on our tour company:
There are dozens of tour agencies that offer 1 or 2 nights in the canyon but 1 company immediately stood out to us – Carlitos Tours. Carlitos is a former Colca Canyon guide who gained such a great reputation he was able to start his own company. His company has a very strong ethos of ensuring that the local communities benefit from tourism. Essentially, he involves the local people in his tours and makes sure they get properly paid for it. We could see that we were going to pay a little more for a tour with this company but we were going to be rewarded with a small tour group (only the two of us and a guide) and a few more authentic experiences once we were in the canyon. This was ideal for us – after all, we didn’t want to just walk straight through! If you are reading this and looking for a tour to Colca canyon – don’t bother looking, just email Carlitos and book it!

Day 1: The Decent

Our journey started at 3:20am – armed with as few clothes and supplies as we could survive on for 3 days (we were going to have to carry everything after all) we jumped into the minivan and headed off in the darkness up the windy roads to towards canyon county. We met our guide, Marcelo, on the bus. I immediately liked him because he handed us a lovely wool blanket to use for the 3 hour journey. This proved to be very valuable as the journey took us over a pass at 4900m where it was pretty chilly.

After a stop for breakfast in the town of Chivay, we drove to Cruz del Condor for condor viewing. This part of the tour as amazing. We stepped off the bus and 1 was already circling above the canyon. There were 2 sitting on the rocks nearby and then during the course of the hour there were several at a time soaring above us… they were spectacular.

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After our encounter with the condors, we headed to the start of our hike. Standing at the top one thing immediately struck me: The canyon was deep. Really deep. When Marcelo pointed out our lunch spot in the distance I wondered whether or not we could actually make it there before dark let alone lunch! It took us 3 hours to get to the bottom of the canyon. It is not a tiring walk and Marcelo and Chris (both verified mountain goats) could probably have made it down in two. However, I am ridiculously cautious and the steep trail covered with loose rocks and the sharp descent alongside the path made me a very nervous walker. Even with the help of a walking stick I opted to take it very slowly. Going a bit slowly also allowed me to take in the views of the canyon. Not through any specific planning on our part, we had arrived at the canyon right at the end of rainy season. So, while our walk was nice and rain-free, the scenery was beautiful and green and not yet the harsh brown that is evident in the dry season.

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Bright and ready to start the hike

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Chris and Marcelo - thank you Chris for carrying the big bag!

We had lunch down at the bottom of the canyon at a little restaurant in the village (what do you call somewhere smaller than a village?) called San Juan de Chuccho. We were very grateful for the extra energy from the food and for the fact that the locals had carried cokes down the canyon on mules so that we could by a lovely cold coke. From the lunch spot it was only 1.5 hours more to our host family for the night. Most of the walk was, as Marcelo described it, ‘Peruvian flat’ (i.e. it goes up and down in little bits) but the end was a fairly steep climb up the village of Cosnirhua. Not for the last time on the trek I thought I was going to die. Turns out, while Chris can skip up hills and continue to chat (in Spanish no less), I can’t take 3 steps up a hill without feeling like I can’t breath. (I guess my 20s are coming to an end and perhaps I should start exercising).

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Chris helping me down the hill

We spent that night on a farm with a local family – thankfully with two modern luxuries: a flushing toilet and a hot shower. (It’s the small things…)

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Our modern luxuries

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Chilling in the kitchen waiting for dinner...

Day 2: Exploration

We started the day bright and early at 06:30 to do the optional walk to another village in the valley Tapay. The walk consisted of 1 hour of steep climbing, a short stop for some juice and then 1 hour of steep descent. I was grateful for the breaks when I had to step aside for packs of mules to pass (and then disappear into the horizon). The walk was gruelling (only for me – it was a piece of cake for Chris and Marcelo) but I put it down to practice for the great ascent up the canyon we still had to do.

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Chris and Marcelo proud to have made it to Tapay

We returned back to our farm for well deserved chocolate pancakes and a lovely tour of the farm to try out all the fruit – including the best (and I mean THE BEST) oranges I have ever eaten in my life. Afterwards, much to Chris’ delight, we dressed up in traditional clothes and posed for photos.

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Not sure why Chris put the lampshade on his head?

Saying goodbye to our family we headed off on the easy part of the trek – a 2 hour walk of Peruvian flat. The only thing Marcelo failed to mention to me were that some parts of the trail were narrow sandy paths with huge precipitous drops on the side. (Deep breaths Emmylou.) The last part of our walk was a descent down into the valley – from the top we could see the crystal blue swimming pool of our hotel in Sangelle – perfectly known as ‘the oasis’. The perfect prize to encourage us to keep walking.

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Enjoying a nice flat walk...

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Chris in the pool with the canyon background

Day 3: The Ascent

Against my better judgment I refused the offer of a mule ride to the top of the canyon and decided to walk it. The path is 6km long and is a tight switchback ascending 1km up back to the top of the canyon. The path is steep and unrelenting – to be clear, there are NO flat sections and NO downhill sections. We left at 4:45am and got as high up as possible before sunrise – working on the assumption that I will feel better about walking as long as I can’t see how much is remaining. We made it up in just under 3 hours which just below average so I was very pleased. Phew… no airlift rescue required!

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So excited to have made it to the top I don't care how sweaty I look!

The rest of the day included breakfast, a trip to the hot springs, a few stops in little villages, lunch and a trip to a pass at 4900m to view the nearby volcanoes but, to be honest, I was so utterly exhausted from our morning exertion that I just wanted to sit in the van and sleep. I felt very sorry for our guide who kept trying to tell us facts while I lay against the side of the bus with my eyes closed.

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Visiting a colonial church

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Little Peruvian girls listening to Chris' story

Although (as I may have mentioned) I found the uphill sections of the walk absolutely exhausting – the walk was spectacular. The canyon was stunning, the people friendly and it really felt like we were wondering on our own far away from civilisation. We are so grateful that we decided to be spend 2 nights there so that we had the opportunity to get to know a local family and so pleased to have found Carlitos tours and met our wonderful guide Marcelo.

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