GUIDED TREK VS SELF-GUIDED
We’ll be detailing two ways to hike the Colca Canyon; either on your own or with an organised tour.
We will also outline itineraries for both, along with packing lists, costs and accommodation options, so you know what to expect and can decide on which option is best for you.
Most people, whether trekking with a company or going solo, will start their visit from Arequipa. The Canyon is located 160km northwest of this beautiful colonial-era city. A guided trek has the benefit of providing transport and picking you up in Arequipa, whereas a self-guided trek means you have to get to the Canyon yourself.
Even if you know you want to do it by yourself, we recommend reading the tour section below too as we’ve explained the hiking which is applicable when doing it on your own.
We’ve also detailed four other ways to see the Canyon if you wish to avoid the trekking and just see the highlights.
COLCA CANYON GUIDED TREK: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
Most organised hiking tours are two or three days long, depending on whether you want an extra night in the Canyon or not. Spending the extra day in the Canyon splits up the trekking and is a more chilled way to see it, the tour also departs later in the day so if the early start puts you off this could be for you.
However, the information below details the 2-day trip as most people are constrained by time.
You’re in for an early start but aside from that getting to the Canyon is nice and straightforward. You’ll be picked up between 3-4 AM from your accommodation. The four-hour bus journey gives you enough time to claw back some sleep. Although if you are awake look at the window as the views from the bus are stunning.
The first and most important stop is breakfast in a small town called Chivay at 7 or 8 AM. Fill yourself with as much food as possible as you have a long day ahead.
Following breakfast, the tour bus will take you to the entrance of the park. Here you’ll have to pay the entrance fee and be given a ticket. Keep hold of this as you’ll need it later.
Once through your first stop is Mirador Cruz del Condor. Along with amazing views of the Canyon, the hope is to see a condor, the largest flying bird on Earth. The Andean Condor can have a wingspan of over 3 metres, taller than you! This is a short stop so take some pictures and then keep your eyes peeled, they’re huge, so if you see what looks like a plane in the sky, you’ve seen your first condor.
Following this, you’re back on the bus, and the next stop is at the start of the trail. You’ll be put into groups and set off on the trek.
The route below is the most common route passing through San Juan de Chucco to Sangalle (the oasis) ending in Cabanaconde.
Before you head off, use the bathroom, dress based on the weather and put lots of suncream on.
Follow the guide who will lead you to the path down into the Canyon. You’ll stop for pictures along the way, and the guide will hopefully provide information about the canyon and local culture.
The elevation from the top of the Canyon to the bottom is around 1,000m, so at times it can be easier to do a light jog down. And yes that means you’re going 1,000m up the next day. The way down should take about two to three hours and is tough on the knees. Trekking poles are well suited for this decent.
If your group is slower than you’d like to walk, ask the tour guide if you can meet them at the bottom. There’s a bridge crossing the river where you’ll need to present your ticket again and fill in a form. This area is shaded, so it’s an excellent place to take a break and wait for the group.
After crossing the river, turn left and follow your guide to your lunch spot in San Juan de Cuccho. You’ll eat a healthy serving of soup followed by rice, salad and perhaps alpaca if you’re a meat-eater. Relax and enjoy the break, the second leg of the trek is longer and requires more mental resolve.
After lunch, continue walking in the same direction, your aim is to make it to Sangalle, the oasis, while the sun is still up.
If your guide is happy for you to go ahead and you feel up to it, step up the pace. The route to the oasis isn’t complicated, it’s in one direction, and there are some markers on the rocks to point you on your way.
The sunlight disappears from the oasis earlier than the sun actually sets as the Canyon is so steep.
The oasis is filled by the waterfalls of the valley so it’s cold and you’ll want the sun’s warmth after the plunge.
Just before you get to the oasis, you may reach a small shop to stock up on water or snacks. The final part which shows you’ve made it is crossing a suspension bridge back across the river. Only five minutes more and you can enjoy the refreshing water waiting for you. The afternoon is yours. Enjoy a dip in the pool and a few beers, you’ve certainly earned it.
Dinner is served around 7 PM. No doubt you’ll eat and want to go straight to bed. Especially as there’s another early start waiting for you.
Your start time will depend on how well your group walked that day. If you’re slower, you may well have a 3:30 AM start with the aim of setting off before 4 AM.
Before going to bed, make sure you take a look up at the stars, because the valley is so deep, there’s close to no light pollution, and you will get one of the best views of the night sky.
There’s no breakfast before you leave so you’ll meet your group and get going right away. It will still be dark, so use your headtorch or phone light to guide you.
The second day’s hike is all up, 1,000m in elevation and we won’t lie to you – it’s hard.
Some people we met said it was harder than the 5-day Salkantay trek. It’s the reason you start so early so that you’re not hiking during the day’s heat. Take as many breaks as you need on the way up. It should take around 2 to 3 hours.
Once at the top you’ll reconvene with the group and head for a well-deserved breakfast in the small town of Cabanaconde. The hard work is over.
After breakfast, we had a stop at the thermal baths in Llahuar. And let me tell you these are more than thermal, they were too hot if anything (especially if you’re sunburnt) but it was a great way to spend an hour after the hard trek up the Canyon.
There’s an option to get transport straight to Puno after the trek, but as we were returning to Arequipa (and had left our bags there), we took the scenic route back.
The bus took us to one final stop, a viewpoint in which we had an incredible view of the volcanos which surround Arequipa. And after that, you should arrive back in Arequipa around 4 or 5 PM.
COLCA CANYON WITHOUT A GUIDE: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW
The trek is the same as described above, although there are other options for starting points and extending the trip by an extra day. The main difference is getting to and from the Canyon.
We recommend making the trip in 3 days as it gives you more time to enjoy the Canyon.
Getting to the Canyon
Take a bus from Terminal Terrestre in Arequipa to Cabaconde. Buses leave through the day and start pretty early if you want to start the trek the same day.
As is always the case in South America, we recommend visiting the bus station the day before you intend to travel to find out the latest bus timetable. The bus takes between 3-4 hours depending on the typical South American factors.
We haven’t done this ourselves, but you can check out Along Dusty Roads blog for self-guided trekking options in the Canyon
What Route To Take
There are two main routes within the Canyon. The eastern or western route, both can be hiked in two or three days depending on what you prefer. For two day hikes, ignore the first ‘stay’ below.
- Eastern route: Cabanconde > San Juan de Cuccho (stay) > Sangalle (stay) > Cabanconde
- Western route: Cabanaconde > Llahuar (stay) > Sangalle (stay) > Cabanaconde
The second option allows you to visit the thermal baths as well as the oasis and this is the route we’d recommend.
You may want to do something different, and there are a host of options. We’d recommend speaking with your hostel in Cabanconde who will be able to provide you with a trekking map and recommendations. The main piece of advice is that the ascent from Sangalle to Cabanconde is the easiest, so keep this in mind if you want to reverse the order of your stays.
BEST HOSTELS IN COLCA CANYON
If you prefer to book, then go ahead; however, there’s no reason why you can’t turn up and find accommodation on the day. There is enough on offer, and you may get a better price.
Here are the best choices in each area:
- Cabanconde – double room costs between $20-25 per night. We’d recommend staying at Homestay Pachamama who have breakfast included and provide maps to guests.
- Llahuar – Stay at Llahuar Lodge costing c.$17 per night. Chilling in the thermal baths with the vast Canyon surrounding you is some experience.
- San Juan de Cuccho – There are two options both costing around $18 per night: Posada Gloria – more simplistic or Hospedaje Victor – a bit more luxury
- Sangalle – Stay at Oasis Paraiso Ecolodge, which has a great outdoor pool and includes free breakfast. Double rooms cost c—$ 25 per night.
COLCA CANYON PACKING LIST
Below is a full list of things you’ll need for the trek:
- Windbreaker / waterproof jacket – if travelling in the rainy season
- Lightweight warm top layers (for the evening)
- Base layers – hiking or sports top
- Hiking or sports shorts
- Hiking boots (trainers are doable if it’s dry season)
- Three pairs of underwear
- Two pairs of hiking socks
- Travel towel
- Battery pack
- Snacks – nuts or energy bars
- *Money – enough for water, beers and snacks on the trip
*If doing it on your own, you’ll need to pay for accommodation on the way so you’ll want to bring more money.
GUIDED TOUR VS WITHOUT A TOUR COST COMPARISON
We booked with one of the tour companies found in Plaza De Armas.
- Tour – 80-100 soles (depending on your bartering skills)
- Entrance fee – 70 soles – the ticket lasts 5 days
- Thermal baths entrance – 10 soles
Total – £45 ($60)
- Bus to and from Capanconde – 40 soles (20 each way)
- Entrance fee – 70 soles
- Accommodation and food – c.80 soles per night
Total – 2 days: £65 ($80) / 3 days: £80 ($100)
WHAT WE RECOMMEND
If you’re someone who likes things to be arranged for you, then the tour is the one for you.
All your meals and overnight stay are arranged, and transport to the Canyon (which is the trickiest bit if doing it by yourself) is sorted, so all you have to do is turn up. It must be said that the tour was outstanding value for what you get and is cheaper than doing it on your own.
However, if you prefer the freedom to take things at your own pace, then definitely do it by yourself.
The freedom to take pictures, walk at your own pace and enjoy a more relaxed experience is always more appealing to us, and staying in the Canyon for an extra day allows more time to enjoy its beauty. We also like the adventure of figuring things out on our own.
BEST TIME TO VISIT COLCA CANYON
The rainy season in Peru is from November to April. During this time the Canyon is a lush green colour, but of course, it may rain during your time hiking, especially in the afternoon.
The dry season is May to October, and the trail is dusty, and there’s less vegetation and more tourists.
The choice is yours, both will be memorable. The dry season is always preferable for trekking but if you can’t visit during this time, don’t let it put you off as we trekked loads during the wet season and got lucky many times!
Not sure how visiting Colca Canyon fits into your Arequipa plans?
We’ve planned out three different itineraries (with and without Colca Canyon) so you can get a better idea of which one works for you.
If you are working your way round in the classic Peru loop, then why not stop off at Lake Titicaca to break up the journey before Cusco?