Hiking Peru's Epic Colca Canyon
Colca Canyon, Peru
Tours into Colca Canyon vary quite a bit and depend on your level of adventure. Two-day one night tours are very common but you can also take a quick day tour or even stretch it out into three or more days. Base your tour from Arequipa and ask your local hostel to store your luggage.That way, you won't have to drag everything on the tour.
Consider the time you have available and how much you enjoy hiking. I set up a two-day one night tour with my hostel, Maycawasi, for 90 soles ($30 US).The package included a guide, transportation, breakfast and one nights stay in Chivay (and zero hiking). Some of the hostels in Chivay don't offer hot water but I'd recommend getting one that does. It's super cold in the mountains.
Tour packages don't include your tourist ticket into the canyon which costs another 70 soles for foreigners, 40 for South Americans and 20 for Peruvians. Meals other than your breakfast are not included either, as well as a visit to the hot spring.
Day 1: Morning | Search for Wild Vicuñas & Enjoy Mirador de los Andes
At 8:30 a.m. a bus arrived at my hostel carrying about 20 other travelers. We began our journey toward Chivay stopping a number of times on the way to admire the scenery.
Our first stop was at Pampa Cañahuas about an hour into the tour. We were on the hunt for wild vicuñas. Vicuñas are wild South American camelids living in the Andes mountains. Their wool is the finest in the world, costing thousands of dollars for just one garment. A vicuña can only be sheared once every three years and animals don't live long due to excessive eating (maybe ten to 15 years). Our guide told us they eat so much eventually their teeth fall out and they die of starvation.
About ten minutes down the road, we stopped for tea in Vizcachani. Our guide recommended we try Inka tea, an herbal combination including traditional coca leaves. It was delicious and cost five soles, about $1.50 US.
Some time later our bus stopped to see llamas guarded by women selling goods. The animals were so beautiful, covered in colorful pompoms.
Patapampa was our next stop. It's the highest point of the journey at 16,109 feet above sea level. The road is said to be the highest paved pass in the Americas and lies between a number of volcanoes including Volcano Mismi and Volcano Ampato. Named Mirador de los Andes, the viewpoint will not disappoint.
Even at this altitude, people honor Volcano Ampato, a dormant volcano where an Inka mummy named Mummy Juanita was discovered in 1995. Human sacrifices on the mountain were not uncommon in years past. Today, people offer little towers of rock for good luck rather than human sacrifice.
Day 1: Afternoon | Explore Chivay & Dip into Hot Springs
In the afternoon we arrived in Chivay for lunch. It wasn't my favorite but we didn't have much of a choice. Most of the group ate a buffet style lunch and I chose chicken with rice. Afterward, everyone was dropped at their respective hostels. I took a moment to explore the area. The town of Chivay is gorgeous. It's rough around the edges but set in the most beautiful valley surrounded by mountains. The main plaza is super cute and is filled with restaurants and coffee shops.
In the late afternoon we had a choice to relax or visit a hot spring in the area. Of course, I chose to see the hot spring. Around 3 p.m. the bus picked up a small group for the spring. The scenery surrounding the spring was gorgeous. It was out in the open, near the base of a mountain. They had one large pool in a covered area and multiple smaller hot springs across the river. In order to reach the smaller ones you had to cross a rope bridge. Would you dare?
There were more pools near the river but those were empty. It seemed like the hot spring must have been pretty popular in the past but has since slowed down. The open pools were packed full of bodies.
Our group had an hour and a half to relax at the springs. As we were finishing up, I found a small waterfall nearby to practice shooting.
Day 1: Evening | Dance the Night Away During Carnival
After a long day, the bus dropped us back off at our hostels for a quick nap. A few of us planned to gather for dinner but I missed the meetup trying to figure out hot water. By this time I was starving so I took off toward the town center. I could hear music pounding as I approached and it turned out to be Carnival!
Carnival in Arequipa and surrounding cities is celebrated with parades, dancing and folklore competitions. A carnival queen is chosen and the festival is characterized by water fights, even thrown on passers by to celebrate. The 'Dance of Love' went on for hours. It was really something magical to see - men and women dressed in their best, drums pounding and smiling faces.
It was well past dinner but pulling myself away from the celebration was tough. I spotted Tradiciones de Mi Tierra, a restaurant overlooking the plaza. The woman inside was so sweet and her little girl, Melody, was playing inside with her friends.
The little town of Chivay was freezing so I turned up the little space heater and kept on watching the celebration. For dinner, I ordered grilled trout, rice and mixed veggies with a papaya and pineapple smoothie. The food was delicious and I really enjoyed my night. The village was so cute.
Tradiciones de Mi Tierra
Before leaving Tradiciones de Mi Tierra I took a few photos of Melody and her friends. They were just too adorable to pass up.
Day 2: Morning | Admire One of the Deepest River Canyons in the World
After a quick breakfast of eggs and tea at my hostel the bus was ready to go at 6:30 a.m. Our first stop was only a few minutes away from Chivay in Yanque. The beautiful square of Yanque was full of women selling goods and children dancing as they were the night before.
For a few soles, I took photos with the women and their animals including a giant hawk. It's grip was so strong. I learned later that the hawks are raised from birth and nearly domesticated.
After leaving Yanque we began our climb toward Colca Canyon, stopping a number of times along the way to admire the views. At each stop, women rested as they sold goods to tourists and posed with their animals for a small fee.
Early in the morning, the valley was covered with clouds making it tough to see clearly. Still, the landscape was increadible.
One of the stops was a little town with a beautiful church and shops lining the street. I bought some wool socks and took a few photos of the women selling goods.
Our group continued on to another amazing viewpoint in Colca Canyon, Mirador Wayra Punku Autocolca.
Colca Canyon's local people still practice ancestral traditions and cultivate the pre-Inca stepped terraces. You'll continue to see these terraces throughout Peru as they provide protection from mudslides, create micro-climates for growing produce and are a trademark of beauty and status. Talk about a beautiful landscape.
Time for check-in before entering Colca Canyon. Remember, a tourist ticket into the canyon costs 70 soles for foreigners, 40 for South Americans and 20 for Peruvians. You'll have to fork it over before entering. And keep in mind, Colca Canyon is the third most visited tourist spot in Peru, so it'll be packed.
Mirador Cruz del Condor is the highest point in Colca Canyon and is the spot where most tourists hunt for the giant condor. Our guide told us condors are too big to fly, they can only soar through the air. The huge birds catch drafts of wind in the canyons and glide through the air. Consider yourself lucky if you spot one!
The views are like something I've never seen before. Colca Canyon is one of the deepest river canyons in the world and you'll definitely be impressed. Our group had an hour to roam the cliffs and take photos. Be careful to move slowly and drink lots of water. The elevation is brutal and many people became nauseous, myself included. Keep a few coca candies in your pocket for times like this. Vendors are also at the top selling snacks and drinks, if needed.
A final stop to try jugo de sancayo - the juice of a local cactus. It looks like kiwi and is pretty bitter until you add sugar. They also had a version with alcohol but it was too hot for that. I picked up a muffin made with the cactus, as well. So good!
Watch out, I learned pretty quickly that these guys don't mess around. The second I gave him a pet, he tried to kick me. Caught in the act.
The group loaded into the bus as the tour came to an end. We made our way toward Arequipa, almost a four hour drive. It was super hot and the roads were packed. I felt so sick from the altitude and motion that the ride was almost unbearable. Make sure to keep hydrated and drink your coca tea.