Colca Canyon: Dramatic, Gorgeous, but not Deepest

Trip Start Jan 30, 2010
Trip End Sep 12, 2010

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Just one week after trekking to Machu Picchu, we were itching to hit the trail again. We found the perfect destination for a challenging hike in the southwest corner of Peru, a few hours east of  Arequipa. Touted as being twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, the Canon de Colca is indeed an impressive depth, and a challenging hike, as it would turn out. 
We arrived as the sun was setting at Cabanaconde, a dusty pueblo with a cathedral in need of repair and few services. We had our taxi driver take us to the town's several hostels, but all were below our comfort level, even by budget standards. So we ended up returning to the town's over-priced tourist hotel (to Oliver's delight, of course) and registering for the room that, 1/2 hour before, we had righteously rejected as being not worth the price. We then wandered around the dark, deserted streets looking for a place to eat, and found a restaurant that served killer pizza and fresh lemonade, so we were all happy.  We returned to our cramped, noisy, over-priced room for a fitful night's rest
Next day, we got an early start as the mountain chill quickly gave way to an unforgiving sun.
We hiked a mile or so to edge of the canyon and looked over. The first thing we noticed, having hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon on several occasions, was that Colca Canyon didn't seem all that deep. In fact, the depth of the canyon, officially 4,100 meters, is deceptive as it is measured from the highest peak in the mountain range that rises high above the canyon. In fact, the descent to the bottom of the Colca Canyon is about 1,200m (about 3,000'), compared to a hike of approximately 1,750m (nearly  4,000') from the lip of the North Rim down to the Colorado River.
Despite the misleading promotion, hiking the Canon de Colca is far from a walk in the park. This verdant canyon in lined by steep walls on both sides, and trails are without benefit of switchbacks. The canyon's narrow river valley was formed by the Colca River, which formed precipitous cliffs and dramatic landscapes on its journey to the Pacific Ocean. We had chosen to do the hike ourselves, though most hikers join a tour group out of Arequipa, a good two hours' drive south. However, the trail is well-marked, and using a map hand-drawn for us by the owner of the pizza restaurant, we easily navigated the route. There are two major trails down into the canyon, both descending the southern wall to a bridge over the river, where a network of trails awaits on the other side. We opted for the longer route, a distance of least twelve miles, which took us more than seven hours, including breaks. The trail down is extremely steep, and the hot afternoon sun, blistering. The terrain lacked vegetation, and thus shade, but for the occasional shrub. To make matters worse, the trail is rocky and uneven, caused by rock slides and the many donkeys that share the trail. When we finally reached the river at the base of the canyon, Oliver, who had zipped down without complaint, was waiting patiently by the bridge. 
The river here was not very full, but it was a relief to cross it, into the shade of trees on the opposite bank. A local woman who ran the nearest restaurant had been watching our poky descent from the opposite cliff. As we struggled up the steep hill from the river, she coaxed us into her cafe -- a climb of an additional several hundred feet that involved using all fours  -- for a welcome lunch and cold drinks. The Canyon's north side is fed by streams running down from Andean glaciers, so this side is not only very green but populated with small villages built against the steep slopes. People have lived here for many hundreds of years, farming the valley's rich soil. Terraces built by pre-Incan civilisations are still used for cultivation. After lunch, we descended from the cool, high desert into warmer, tropical climes. We crossed streams and passed small waterfalls. These feed into elaborate irrigation channels that efficiently funnel water to the crops. Donkeys, some barely visible under their huge loads, passed us on the trail regularly. Donkeys are the sole means of transporting goods in and out of the canyon, as there are no roads and access to villages is via steep footpaths.
The trail became very scenic and the going easier, with just the occasional steep climb. We hiked through pueblos, evenly spaced apart, each with its own crop fields and orchards growing lemons, avocados, oranges and even apples. Most of the people we saw were hard at work in the fields. Fruit from this valley is among the best in the country, and these farms were some of the healthiest we have ever seen. Yet, just across the river, nothing save a few bushes could grow. The contrast was remarkable. 
We crossed back over the river to the opposite valley wall and saw in the distance the first bridge, which now appeared small and very far away. It was getting late, after 5pm, when we reached the cluster of hostels at the canyon floor. We were exhausted and ready for a swim in one of the tempting pools that marked our arrival at the aptly named, "Oasis".  We checked out several of the hostels by the river, and found the best one to be the last in the chain, El Paraiso. We hoped the place lived up to its name! The big draw here is the blue swimming pool built into the rocks, complete with natural waterfall. It was fed, as are all the pools at the base of the canyon, by local thermal springs. The water was heavenly and we quickly recovered from the day's exertion. 
We spent two nights in the canyon, sleeping in simple adobe cabanas next to the river. We relaxed one full day, only venturing from that heavenly pool to eat simple meals prepared in the rustic "cocina".  
Most other hikers were on guided tours, so they stayed just one night at the base of the canyon. Heeding dire warnings by local guides, tour groups rise at 4am, and start hiking before sunrise to beat the heat of the day. This seemed excessively early to us. We hit the trail at 6am, and still managed to hike out in just three hours, before the sun hit the canyon walls. It turned out to be perfect hiking weather in the shade of the steep cliffs, and the views were gorgeous. When we reached Cabanaconde, we found the bleary eyed hikers who had gotten an early start idling in the plaza, waiting for their transport back to Arequipa. Yet another advantage of independent travel!
The Canon de Colca is truly a world-class canyon with great hiking trails, spectacular views, and friendly villages. And, if you were to continue climbing above the town of Cabanaconde, up the snow-covered Andean mountains, you really could believe it is indeed the "deepest canyon in the world".
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Grampa on

Nice writing. Makes me want to go there. It seems like you are doing what you want to do without the formal tours. Except where it makes sense, i.e. the jungle at Lake Titicaca. I have a question: Is the Colca usually that small? Love, Grampa

Denice on

HI Annet and family,
Thanks for your post card! The pool at the hostel looks deluxe! it must have been heavenly after the hike down! I enjoy hearing about your adventures. Oliver looks like he is getting tall on this trip! looking forward to seeing you when you return!

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