Big canyons are awe-inspiring places. The earth just opens up in huge bizarre clefts, and your normal geographical frames of reference disappear. Giant canyons go beyond awe, to the surreal; even when you’re there looking at them, it’s hard to process what you’re seeing. The Colca Canyon in the Peruvian Andes is one of those places, supposedly the second deepest canyon in the world. Throw in some amazing wildlife, friendly locals and fantastic overnight hiking and you have a near-perfect destination.
The Colca Canyon is one of the deepest in the world, measuring over 13,000 feet (!) deep in some places. That’s about two and a half miles in elevation change. At the bottom the Colca river rages past avocado and banana orchards, and at the top are snow capped mountains. It’s pretty wild.
The most common way to get here is a 5-6 hour bus from Arequipa to Cabanaconde, a tiny town right at the canyon rim that makes a great starting point for a variety of hikes down into the canyon. There wasn’t much to do in Cabanaconde itself, which is a slightly scruffy little town although spectacularly located, and we enjoyed an afternoon strolling around and talking with the friendly people. A lot of tourists make it here but it’s still pretty isolated and lots of people wear the traditional clothing. Supplies here are fairly expensive so if you’re heading here for a camping trip buy everything you can in Arequipa. After dark it gets chilly at over 7500 ft altitude, so we retreated pretty quickly to our damp and moldy $5 hotel room.
The next morning we got up early and caught a bus packed with locals and their stuff twenty minutes back up the highway to the Cruz Del Condor viewpoint. Most of the locals got off with us and proceeded to set up blankets full of handicrafts next to the still-empty parking lot, which soon filled beyond capacity. This is the top tourist attraction in the area and every morning gets packed with tour buses that disgorge hundreds of sightseers, all of them here to see one thing: the Andean Condor. This spectacular bird has the largest wingspan of any land bird: over ten feet! They soar around the edges of the canyon using thermal air currents, hardly ever flapping those enormous wings. After a couple hours of birdwatching we caught a bus back into Cabanaconde to start our hike.
There are lots of travel agencies in Arequipa and all over Peru that are only too happy to arrange a guided trip for you into the Canyon, but if you have even the most basic of backpacking experience and equipment it’s very easy to do it unguided. In fact it was a lot like Nepal, with a series of places to stay and eat for a reasonable price along fairly well marked trails, usually with plenty of friendly people around to help you if you’re not sure which way to go. Peru’s tourist assistance agency, iPeru, will give you a basic free map that shows the main routes. We chose a popular and relatively easy three day loop, but that’s not even scratching the surface here. With some time, camping gear, topo maps and a sense of adventure your options would be nearly limitless.
Our route took us from Cabanaconde (one of our hotel’s owners kindly walked us through town to the trailhead, which would have been hard to find otherwise) nearly straight down to the river to the hamlet of Sangalle where we were staying the night. The trail switchbacked steeply down the canyonside for over two hours, rewarding us with incredible views over the entire descent. Distances were hard to judge; our destination was often visible below us and we kept thinking we were almost there, but it never seemed to get much closer.
Sangalle is also known as the Oasis, which is both a marketing term and a reference to the abundant springwater here that has left the place a lush green island in the middle of the desert canyon. There are a few different places to stay, all of them very basic and inexpensive huts, and simple meals are served for a reasonable fee. Beer was too expensive for me, but it all comes down by mule so it’s understandable. There are nice swimming pools to take a dip in and showers available, all in all a great place that apparently is something of a backpacker hangout.
The next morning we continued on the trail, crossing the river on a sturdy bridge and heading uphill and upstream on the opposite side. We passed through a couple rustic villages with places to buy snacks and water, but we’d brought a filter which I’d encourage everyone to use; plastic bottles are a scourge in places like this. We did buy some bananas and tuna, which is a tasty and beautifully vibrant purple cactus fruit that was growing wild all over. We’d brought sandwiches and ate them while staring out at some of the most dramatic scenery we’d ever had the privilege to hike through.
We stayed the night at a random place near the village of San Juan. Families had set up tiny guesthouse operations for trekkers all over the place, and we just picked one that had a nice looking garden. We love to pick random accommodations and in general plan as little as possible. Sometimes it can turn out badly but usually it’s great; in this case we chose fantastic place run by a nice family, and we enjoyed talking to them and playing soccer with the little kids. After endless cups of coca tea served by the grandmother we had another simple but hearty dinner and went to bed early.
The next morning we set off early for our big day, the ascent back up to Cabanaconde. We crossed the river on another bridge and the trail started endlessly upward, swichbacking its way up the mountainside. We did pretty well, taking it easy and enjoying the views as we walked. Toward the top we encountered quite a few guided groups heading downhill into the canyon to do the hike we’d just completed in the reverse direction. Several people remarked on how cool it was that we’d done the trip unguided, which we thought was pretty funny considering how simple it had been.
In the last hour and a half of climbing we saw several condors flying overhead. They are truly incredible birds and we sat mesmerized watching them closely follow the canyon walls, gliding effortlessly. One pair of birds flew right over us, only 20 or 30 feet above our heads, and it was just jaw-droppingly cool. Soon enough we’d finished our climb, topping out a mile or so from Cabanaconde. We walked through fields back to town and our hotel to pick up the extra gear that we’d left there, a little sad to know that we’d be heading out of this beautiful area on the afternoon bus. We plan on returning with more camping gear and better maps.