The Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world, it is over twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US and in places it is over four vertical kilometres from the river bed to the top and is home to one of the sources of the River Amazonas as well as the majestic Condor. It is a spectacular place to visit and is quite a popular tourist destination for those visiting Southern Peru. The most common itinerary is simply to start in a small village called Cabanaconde on the southern flank of the canyon and trek for the day down into a small oasis made up of swimming pools and comfortable shacks run by some entrepreneurial locals, the following day trek out of the canyon and back to the start.
As you can imagine there is a lot more to experience here than just a weekend break. You can extend the trek over days taking in lots of peaceful hamlets within the canyon and enjoying the company of some of the friendliest and welcoming people you’ve ever met, learn about some of their traditions and trades that have remained unchanged for generations and enjoy some spectacular scenery. In total I spent around ten days in the canyon and for me there is still a lot more to discover...
An additional benefit to visiting the Colca Canyon is that you get the chance to stay in what must be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Peru’s second largest, Arequipa. A stunning Spanish colonial heart built from the nearby volcanic Sillar rock surrounded by a high contrasting, exciting developing world exterior all under the shadow of a series of volcanoes all over 5500m (which can also be climbed). Arequipa offers amazing cuisine and a rich cultural heritage (The Monastery and The Santuarios Andinos Museum are two fantastic examples.) and it is also the place we commission our local guides. The guides take care of everything; mules, transport, food, accommodation, translation and entrance to the national park. They worked incredibly hard but remained sociable, happy and are full of interesting information.
When extending your trip here you quickly leave the relative crowds behind at The Oasis (don’t worry, you’ll still get to experience this on the last evening) and continue on to the northern side. The bottom of the canyon is lush with vegetation, terrace farms and hot springs which you can bathe in under the stars after the dry and dusty trek. The high valley sides offer a wall of subtle pastel hues creating a bedazzling rainbow effect on the enormous cliff faces that occupy your whole line of sight. As you cross the ‘rope bridges’ and weave your way through Euphorbia’s you will eventually find yourself amongst small communities offering a bed for the night or if you wish a plot to camp on. The guides having carried all of the food on their mule begin to cook a simple but satisfying dinner on the in-situ clay stoves while laughing, sharing their beer and tobacco and teaching you Meringue and some cheeky Quechuan phrases.
As you head deeper into the canyon passing the occasional vendor selling deliciously refreshing Tuna fruit and the not so healthy Inca Cola the villages become smaller and more remote. My favourite of which was a small settlement called Fure, it has the most remarkable setting, positioned in the heart of an amphitheatre of mountains, you are surrounded by giants. Under a full moon on a calm night you would be wise to bivouac here and marvel at the glory of it all. If you haven’t done so the previous evening a wonderful addition to visiting Fure is to take a small track leaving the settlement which takes you Huaruro waterfall, an impressive drop where you can fish for trout in the subsequent rock-pool making a fantastic breakfast/supper depending on when you make the trip.
Walking along the dusty trails you can find interesting, small cacti plantations that collect a parasite dispersed by the wind. The parasites are crushed and used to make dye for Inca textiles. There are various plants that can be utilised for stitching and making parchment and women making Chicha (generally a strong alcoholic drink) by traditional methods.
There are of course long stretches of back-country where you won’t come across any other people at all apart from perhaps a local farmer transporting his crops by mules still days away from the nearest town. Be sure to step out of the way as mules take up the whole trail and stop for no one and with a drop of hundreds of meters below you can feel more than a little exhilarating!
On the return if you decide to stop at ‘The Oasis’ you’ll be happy you did, bathing in the pools, eating an evening meal under candle light from the improvised lanterns and resting in hammocks with fellow trekkers all with their own unique and interesting stories to tell. Then it’s an early morning rise and an accent out of the canyon as dawn breaks back to Cabanaconde in time for the local bus to Arequipa but not before stopping off at an excellent ‘all you can eat’ buffet to replenish the lost energy and sample one of Peru’s local dishes; Guinea Pig, just watch out for the teeth!
The Colca Canyon is a great, accessible adventure for all, from a two day trek to as long as you want. You can take everything you need and camp there or take just a day-sack and use the simple but charming infrastructure available. Maps are difficult to come by and generally small scale but a local guide is well-worth hiring even if you are a capable as they are great company and you will get more out of the experience.