How To Hike the World's Deepest Canyon, The Colca - Tips From My Mistakes
Most people have heard of the famous Grand Canyon in Arizona. It is one of the world’s most popular natural sights, attracting an incredible 5+ million tourists a year. Yet not many people have heard of the Colca Canyon, situated some 4,422 miles away in the pre-inca region of Arequipa, Peru. I admit, I too had never heard of it until I arrived to Arequipa itself. But you should; the Colca is in fact over two times deeper than its American rival, boasting an elevation of 11,500ft above sea level. That being said, you can imagine that these conditions pose a challenge for even the fittest of adventurers - least of all for those spectacularly hungover and drastically ill-prepared.
The Colca was one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever done and should definitely be factored into your Peru itinerary. However after claiming the title of the most disastrous (and not to mention most physically/mentally draining) walk of my life, I learnt there are definitely some things you should (and more to the point, should not) do. So, if you’re planning on visiting, have a read on for everything I learnt whilst hiking the world’s deepest canyon!
Invest in a Group Tour
Although hiking the Colca is pretty tough, you can actually do the trip without a guide if you want to save some money and be independent. You will however need to be prepared to put in some serious planning beforehand. For me as a solo traveller, it was a much easier option to have everything, such as the transport and accommodation, pre-arranged. There are plenty of tour agencies in Arequipa offering group packages all for a similar cost.
If you decide to go without a tour group, the first hurdle you have to face is the public transport to the start of the track. You will need to take a red-eye taxi to the minivan terminal heading to Chivay and then once at Chivay, a collectivo minibus (which will only leave when full) to Cabanaconde and then from there to the start of the trail. This alone will take about 6+ hours and so a direct tour minibus is so much more convenient. Essentially you will need to do the hike in three days and two nights as it take practically a full day to get there. As much as I hate being that person on a group tour, sometimes they just make sense and in this scenario forget the planning and enjoy the spectacular walk!
If you want to do the hike independently, make sure you go to the tourism office in Arequipa for advice on how to do it and grab handfuls of maps and schedules.
Don’t Rush It In 2 Days if You Have Time
When looking into hiking the Colca as part of a group, you have the option to do it in two days one night or three days and two nights, staying at homestay accommodation within the canyon oasis (which is an experience in itself).
At this point, as part of my three month South America tour, I'd already hiked in Chile, Brazil and Bolivia, so when I arrived into Peru, I was pretty confident my fitness levels were top notch. Considering it the perfect warm up for Machu Picchu later that week, I chose the faster and more intense hiking option of two days, despite having a leisurely amount of time.
This was probably the first mistake I made. The fact that it can also be done in three days indicates that by doing it in two it may be rushed and quite frankly, hard work. Turns out this was indeed the case. I was walking fast the whole time yet I still managed to trail behind at the back of the group and the dusty dryness of the air burnt my chest with every breath. Turns out I was not as fit as I thought.
Of course doing the hike in two days instead of three is also cheaper. You not only save money on an additional night of accommodation, you are saving on paying the guide for an additional day and also three more meals. Considering I’m stingy, that was definitely another reason why I chose two days. However when the going got tough, it was definitely something playing on my mind. I would have given my life savings there and then to have taken my time!!
If you do have the time and aren’t super fit, perhaps consider choosing the three day trip over two.
Avoid A Late Night Prior
This may seem like an obvious point before a big hike, but the nightlife of Arequipa may persuade you otherwise. Having simply gone out for dinner, we had spent a while deciding where to eat and then on the way home, had walked past a bar with an offer on pisco sours. The rest is obvious, but the 03:00am wake up is painful regardless of more than 2 hours sleep or not. I can assure you the bumpy bus journey in the pitch dark to Chivay, the first stop, is three long hours of hell with a queasy stomach - just don’t do it!
Pack a Telescopic and Wide Angle Lens
Once you have paid your 70 soles entry fee to the park and have had breakfast in Chivay, the first stop on the tour is 'Cruz Del Condor', which as the name suggests is the hang out of the world’s largest bird, the Condor.
These magnificent birds glide on the wind tunnelling through the canyon but rarely come close to the viewing area where the mass of people stand. I frustratingly had a 18-55mm lens which was just not good enough to zoom in to capture these mesmerising birds. On a complete fluke, one did fly directly above me and I managed to get a half decent shot, but all the others apart from this look like a little blob in the sky. Having a telescopic lens to capture these wonderful species free and happy in the wild is, in my opinion, really worth it. I have since invested in a 18-250mm Sigma lens for my Nikon D3200 (which is also available with a Canon mount). It is a great value all rounder and ideal for wildlife photography like this.
On the other hand, the landscape of the canyon is a truly unique Andean spectacle: pre-inca rice terraces and fields are mindbogglingly carved into sharp, rocky mountains that are both arid, yet green with thriving vegetation. A wide angle lens would be perfect for snapping shots in the canyon itself in order to capture this, as well as the sheer scale of this natural wonder. There is the issue of the additional weight though, but if you’re into your photography then two lenses are worth it.
Prepare for Pain
Sorry to be so blunt, but even if you’re at the peak of physical fitness, you’ll no doubt experience some sort of pain in either your knees, ankles or legs. From the very offset, the paths into the canyon are super steep, gravelly and slippery. The repetitive downward motion for hours on end tugs and pounds at muscles you didn’t know existed. For me, it flared up a major previous knee injury and so the guide ended up taking my backpack and forced me to take his hiking pole. It’s downhill pretty much from the sunrise start to just before sunset and then of course steeply uphill all the next day, which takes its toll on your body!
Before you undertake this walk, make sure you bring the following to avoid or lessen the pain!:
good walking shoes (ideally not trainers)
thick but breathable hiking socks
hiking pole x 1/2
knee/ankle support (if applicable)
deep heat/tiger balm (for those sore muscles)
Accept Taking a Mule on Day 2 if Your Guide Advises
Taking a mule ‘taxi’ on day two to go up the canyon is an option if you struggle or pick up an injury on day one. This is something that isn’t really advertised beforehand and personally, even if I had known about it when booking, I 100% wouldn’t have done it. In all honesty I still didn’t want to even up until the moment I jumped on the poor animal. Nonetheless the guide pressured me for hours, telling me that my injury would hold the group up - I basically had to!
When I woke up in the morning aching and with a swollen knee, I realised the guide was right – there was no way I’d have been able to keep up the pace. I was totally gutted to not walk with the rest of the group, but I guess I would have been even more gutted to have injured myself further. Disappointment in myself soon turned into gratefulness for giving in - especially when I saw the exhausted faces of the others at the top!
You don’t have to decide to take a mule until the evening before either. There is a small charge for it but the bonus is you get an hour extra in bed whilst the others go on ahead in the darkness (and you get to enjoy the scenery more too).
Pack Jumpers, a Sun Hat and Swimwear
The early mornings and nights in Peru are bitterly cold so you will definitely need a jumper or two for the bus journey in the morning and also to wear at night. As soon as the sun disappears, the bottom of the canyon gets icy cold and you will no doubt be sleeping in a concrete hut on a concrete bed. I definitely wished I had just one more layer to wear at night.
On the flip side, when you are hiking during the day there are no trees for shade and it gets burning hot with no breeze. Make sure that you wear a light t-shirt that covers your back and shoulders so you don’t get burnt, wear sunscreen and also a hat so you don’t get sun stroke.
Once you have finished day one of hiking, the homestay in the canyon oasis is likely to have a swimming pool which is a total godsend to cool down and more importantly, ease aching muscles. Make sure you pack your swimwear so you can jump in!
Pack Some Extra Cash for Souvenirs
Once we reached the top of the canyon and celebrated, we then walked to another village which was the last opportunity to take in the beautiful landscape and what I didn’t realise, to buy some lovely handmade souvenirs. It was here that I took some of my favourite pictures of the trip; colourfully dressed ladies in traditional attire flogging their wares at a little market set up for us tourists. A lot of the market sellers live in the mountains or in the canyon itself so lugging their goods here every day just for us lot deserves a look at least!
Of course, being as unprepared as I was, I was down to my last few coins so was not able to buy anything aside some water. The souvenirs looked really nice so if you’re not too exhausted to do a bit of shopping, it may be worth provisioning some money for it
Although I technically didn’t hike the entire walk and beat myself up about it initially, my pride was restored as soon as we set off on the mule alongside the stunning rising sun. It was a really beautiful and fun experience that on reflection, taught me some important lessons - including that the guide often knows best!
Just before I leave you, here are a few more small tips and things to take if you are going to be hiking the Colca:
Keep hold of your national park entrance ticket. At the end they check it to allow you to exit. If you lose it they may make you buy another!
Pack mosquito spray – at night they devour you!
Take snacks – for me I needed a few muesli bars to give me some extra energy.
Don’t overdo bringing bottles of water – you can buy it at many points throughout the walk such as at breakfast, lunch and back at the homestay.
I hope you found this useful and go more prepared than me. Happy hiking!
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