10th August 2020

HOW HARD IS THE COLCA CANYON TREK?

Man Walking the Colca Canyon Trail
Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post (however affiliate links may be used, including Amazon Associates, which mean I earn commissions on purchases at no extra cost to you) and all thoughts are my own.

At 11,000 feet deep (more than twice the depth of The Grand Canyon), The Colca Canyon, home to the magnificent Andean Condor, is an impressive feat of nature which should definitely feature on your Peru itinerary.

If you book a tour of The Colca Canyon, you’ll be faced with two options, a day bus tour of the Canyon or a trek into the canyon and back out again (this can be spread over 2 or 3 days).

As with every trek I had the opportunity to complete in South America, my first thought was “how hard will it be?!”.

View of The Colca Canyon

My Fitness Levels….

I’d never hiked before my three month trip to South America. Before my trip, I’d booked a 4 day trek along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu (which most people called me crazy for – who books a 4 day trek without trying a day trek first? Let’s not also mention the fact that I have never stepped foot in a gym and bought my first pair of adult trainers just before this trip…).

Thankfully, it turns out I LOVED my Inca Trail trek (you can read all about my experience here). The group of people I treked with were so much fun, the incredible scenery was breath-taking and the sense of achievement unrivalled.

When I arrived in Arequipa a week later and had to choose whether I would trek into The Colca Canyon or experience a bus tour, it didn’t take long for me to book the trek (especially as I’d just met a lovely couple who would doing the same). Both myself and everyone I knew was baffled at the fact I was embarking on yet ANOTHER trek…

Spoiler alert: sadly, the doubt people had in my abilities to complete another hike were proved to be warranted!

RELATED: Heading to South America? There is so much to see and do! You can read my entire 3 month itinerary here!

Colca Canyon Viewing Platform Mirador Cruz Del Condor

Booking

I booked the 2 day / 1 night tour with Oasis Palmeras after annoying the lady working in the office relentlessly with so many questions on how difficult the excursion would be.

You can find more about Oasis Palmeras here:

I was running short on time, so unfortunately the 3 day / 2 night tour was out of the question for me. The two tours follow exactly the same route, the 3 day / 2 night tour simply stops halfway through the first day, allowing visitors to relax for an afternoon in a hostel pool! Perfect if you are hiking on an extremely hot day – we were all very jealous when we left part of our group to splash in a pool while we continued on in the heat!

What To Pack

Packing light will be your saviour! While there are a few “essentials” you need, make sure not to bring too much stuff as it will only make the hike harder. Your hotel/hostel in Arequipa should be able to keep hold of the rest of your luggage until you return.

You should wear:

  • Hiking boots (don’t make the same mistake as me by only wearing hiking shoes with no ankle support!)
  • Comfortable hiking clothes
  • Sunglasses and hat

In your backpack, be sure to pack:

  • A refillable water bottle
  • Hiking friendly snacks
  • Camera (you will definitely be snapping pictures every step of the way)
  • Lightweight fleece (for when the temperatures get cooler in the evening)
  • A lightweight change of clothes (I packed a new pair of leggings, underwear and t-shirt which took up practically no room in my backpack)
  • A torch (to navigate the hotel at night and to begin the trek on day 2 before sunrise)
  • Your phone (and a portable charger, if you have one)
  • Swimsuit (for the pools at the hotels and also the hot springs)
  • Microfibre towel (to dry off after the pool/hot spring adventures)
  • Cash (there are no ATMs along the route and nowhere accepts card)
  • High SPF sun cream (there is very little shade on the trails)
  • Flip flops/sandals (light weight shoes that you can put on in the evenings to give your feet some rest!)
  • Your personal toiletries (try to be as light weight as you can!)

RELATED: Are you going to be travelling through South America for a while? Check out my packing list for 3 months in South America here!

Day One

Andean Condor Flying Over The Colca Canyon

Mirador Cruz Del Condor

The tour begins early (something you will become accustomed too after a few hiking tours in South America!), with the mini-bus set to arrive at 3am. The drive to the canyon takes around 3 hours, so you will be able to catch up on some sleep during the drive!

Our first stop was a small restaurant for breakfast where we were served bread and jam (with the option to pay more for scrambled eggs). It wasn’t a substantial breakfast considering we were going to be embarking on a multi-day hike, so be sure to bring some hiking-friendly snacks for along the way (chocolate flavour Nature Valley bars were my snack of choice)!

Mirador Cruz Del Condor was the first sight seeing stop – this spot is super popular and you will get to visit it on either a hiking or a bus tour. It can get quite busy (especially as everyone congregates at around the same time as the condors are most active in the early morning) – I wasn’t bothered as I was too busy looking upwards, in absolute awe of the condors circling above us.

I must admit that I didn’t have particularly high expectations for this stop – how interesting can a bunch of birds be after all? I was so wrong. With a maximum wingspan of over 3 meters / 10 feet, the Andean Condor are incredible to see. The sheer size and gracefulness of the birds is mesmerising.

View of Oasis In The Colca Canyon

The Descent – Part One

Once the condors began to become less active, we all jumped back into the minibus to drive to the hike start-point. At this stage, our guide gave us some more information on the hike and what our time would entail.

Weather in the Andes can be turbulent and I was travelling during the rainy season, so I didn’t hold much hope for visibility (if you’re read my Inca Trail experience, you’ll know that I experienced torrential rain on day three!). Thankfully, the weather gods were kind to us and we experienced glorious sunshine for the entire 2 days – while this makes for a very sweaty hike, the scenery is unrivalled in the glistening sun!

While the sun ensured that the scenery was gorgeous, it also meant that the path was pretty dusty, meaning it got pretty slippery (like trying to walk downhill on sand) at some points!

Lunch Stop

Time flies when you’re surrounded by gorgeous scenery, before we knew it, we had arrived at a small hotel for lunch.

By this point, we were all very hot and sweaty, so I was very jealous when we found out that the people who had opted for the 3 day / 2 night hike would be spending the afternoon lounging by the hotel pool while we continued hiking.

We carried on knowing that there was also a pool waiting for us at our rest-stop this evening!

View of Stream Running Through The Colca Canyon

The Descent – Part Two

After suitably refuelling, we carried on the descent into the base of the canyon. At some points, the descent is pretty steep and I am not the most confident hiker, so I adopted a “slow and steady” approach.

Thankfully, the trail to follow is fairly clear (while there aren’t any signs as such, the trail is just clear to see through the terrain). There was only instance where we (the slow and steady crew) weren’t sure if we had take the right turn to catch up with our group, thankfully all was well!

While it was very hot (with very little shade) and some parts of the downward hike were fairly steep, day one is relatively easy and there isn’t any real need to split it into 2 days (as the descent only takes 5 – 6 hours) other than to enjoy some time relaxing in the sun!

Oasis Sangelle

Overnight In an Oasis

Towards the end of our hike into The Colca Canyon, Oasis Sangalle (an incredible oasis in the middle of the Canyon with small hotels sheltered by luscious greenery – how this exists in such harsh Canyon conditions baffles me!) became visible.

By the time we arrived, it was early evening and the sun was beginning to set. Night times in The Colca Canyon can be very cold, so despite all of our hopes and dreams of relaxing in the hotel pool, none of my group actually ventured into the pool! This is where I think the 3 day / 2 night tour would be great – you’d get two afternoons of relaxation, being able to take in all of the gorgeous scenery while chilling in a cool pool.

Despite this, the hotel did have showers which we all rushed to after a very sweaty day! The showers are in a communal block but have doors on each cubicle, so you have complete privacy when showering. It’s safe to say that it’s not the most luxurious shower you will ever have, but it does the job!

The rooms at the hotel are very basic. Wooden structures with no electricity and no lighting. It does get extremely dark, so make sure that you bring a torch alongside your phone (as there isn’t any electricity to re-charge your phone).

I was one of a few “solo travellers” on my tour group and with an odd number in the group, I ended up with my own room – result! The room was very big for one person, which is good because I could position myself near the door, away from the two HUGE spiders that had taken residence on the ceiling at the other end of the room. Thankfully, they stayed on that side for the entire night. The huge, loud buzzing insect that decided to join them for the evening did keep me awake during the night though!

All in all, this was the worst room I stayed in during my time in South America, but do I care? No. Can you expect luxury when you’re at the bottom of one of the world’s deepest canyons? No.

Thankfully, the other amenities provided by the hotel (restaurant/bar area, pool and showers/bathrooms) were all great! We spent the evening playing cards in the bar area. A few hiking groups had congregated here for the evening and a few of my group were enticed to “the dark side” (a much rowdier group who were taking full advantage of the bar’s happy hour). My biggest tip for this hike is NOT to go-hard at happy hour – you will regret it the next day!

Day Two – The Incline

Stream Through The Colca Canyon

A Good Start

Day two started with another early wake-up call, at around 5am (which is unfortunate for those who had enjoyed last night’s happy hour a little bit too much).

Day two’s hike is pretty intense. Instead of taking a path that weaves gently into the canyon (like we had done on the descent the day prior), the incline is much steeper. You can see the steep path from the hostel in Oasis Sangalle – ask your guide to point it out to you!

The idea is that you do the hardest part of the hike as quickly as possible, beginning before sunrise so that you don’t have to endure the intense heat while hiking – which all makes sense.

After a fun evening getting to know each other, we were all ready to start the day and get hiking.

Things started well, until my torch decides to break around 30 minutes into the hike. I had to pair up with a new found friend and try to maintain their hiking pace to share their light! We had a giggle along the way, so all was well!

Girl with Alpaca in South America
I am aware that this is not a donkey… Apparently I was in too much pain to try and take photos of the donkeys… We stopped to meet these lovely alpacas on the drive home!

An Emergency Rescue Donkey

Another 30 minutes in, a historic ankle injury came back to bite me as I stepped over a rock and ended up twisting my ankle. I tried to hobble on for a bit but kept rolling my ankle, causing more and more pain.

We reached a wider section of the trail, where the team grouped together to check how everyone was doing. I was in agony by this point. The guide radioed down to the donkey guide who was still at the hotel (if you aren’t able to complete the hike out of the Canyon, you are able to pre-book a donkey ride at an additional cost. The donkeys are able to hike the trail faster than humans, so they set-off slightly later). Thankfully, he had one spare donkey and would bring it up for me to use.

As my team continued the hike, I took refuge on a huge rock, awaiting my emergency rescue donkey! I probably should have been concerned about being completely on my own, in the middle of nowhere at 6am, but it was so peaceful and serene that I actually enjoyed my time waiting for the donkey. I got to watch the sunrise over the mountains which was truly beautiful!

It got pretty cold sitting on the rock, but thankfully I had a few layers and Chocolate Nature Valley bars (the true hero of the trip) to keep me company.

It wasn’t too long until the group travelling by donkey arrived. I quickly hopped onto my allocated donkey and was so relieved that I didn’t have to continue on with an extremely painful ankle! I tried not to look too smug when I ended up passing the other members of my team along the trail.

While I had to use the donkeys as a necessity, I would not book this trail knowing that I would be using a donkey. The donkey guide was extremely harsh with the animals, throwing stones at them and occasionally whipping them along the way. I couldn’t see any need for this as the donkeys were extremely well behaved and seemed to know exactly the route they needed to take. His mistreatment of the donkeys on the trail does not give me hope for their overall living conditions.

RELATED: Of course, this isn’t the only “incident” that I had in South America – read about EVERYTHING that went wrong on my 3 month trip here!

Group Reaching The Summit of The Colca Canyon

The Summit

While I didn’t have the same overwhelming sense of achievement at the summit as the rest of my group, I still enjoyed celebrating each time one of them made it to the summit (the strongest hiker in our group ended up summiting last due to her Happy Hour antics, so it there was a big celebration when she finally summited)!

After the summit (and the departure of the donkeys), there is a 20-30 minute walk through flat grass to reach the breakfast stop and the minivan. At one point, we had to climb over a large rock to continue along the trail, of course, I smashed my knee into the rock and gave myself yet another injury and epic bruise!

Hot Springs

Time to Relax

After hopping back into the minibus, we made a few stops at various viewpoints of The Colca Canyon. It’s crazy to look back at the huge Canyon and think that you were at the bottom of it only a few hours prior.

The natural hot springs of Chivay were the stop we were all most excited about (especially after missing out on two opportunities to soak in pools yesterday)! We spent about an hour relaxing in the pools (which reach up to 38°C!) before continuing on to a buffet restaurant for lunch and beginning the drive back to Arequipa.

View of Rice Terraces

Summary of My Experience

Overall, I don’t think that this is a particularly difficult hike. The incline is intense due to it’s steepness and how hard it is to catch your breath at altitude. However, as the incline isn’t not too long (circa 3 – 4 hours), it is manageable with the correct equipment, health and attitude. I was just extremely unlucky and clumsy! Next time, I would definitely wear hiking boots (as opposed to hiking shoes) for more ankle support.

I loved this two day adventure and am very glad that I attempted the hike. While I haven’t really research the alternative option of taking a bus tour, I just don’t think you would get the same appreciation for The Colca Canyon from viewpoints alone.

Every step (both by myself and the donkey) was rewarded with incredible scenery. There’s nowhere quite like the Andes!

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