You’ve probably already heard of the legendary ruins of Machu Picchu, but there’s another stunning Peru destination that you should add to your bucket list.
This spectacular natural wonder is located in southern Peru, in a colorful Andean valley still inhabited by people of the Cabana and Collagua cultures. The canyon is 3,270 metres deep, making it one of the deepest in the world. It is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and it is only behind the Tsangpo Canyon in China.
As you hike down the steep zig-zagging switchbacks, you’ll notice the landscape around you change. You’ll start in a dry and dusty cactus-studded desert, but as you descend the vegetation and color of the rock begin to change and you’ll be surrounded by fragrant flowers, green grasses, shrubs and trees. When you finally reach the bottom, you’ll find yourself in a lush green oasis, where a cold beer and a plunge in a swimming pool awaits.
Here are some important things to know about Colca Canyon before you take your trip.
You Don’t Need to Book a Tour
There are many guided tours to Colca Canyon to choose from, but you don’t need to book with anyone. It’s possible to hike the canyon by yourself. Simply take a bus from Arequipa to the small village of Cabanaconde and then follow the path to descend into the canyon.
Keep in mind, you’ll need to buy a boleto turistico (tourist ticket) at the entrance station on the road entering Chivay. It costs around 70 soles (approximately $21 USD) and is valid for one week. So, make sure that you bring some extra cash with you to cover this fee.
Go Slow and Enjoy It
Some people rush down from the towns of Chivay or Cabanaconde into Sangalle, the oasis town on the canyon floor. Then, they stay one night and climb back up. It is possible to squeeze your trip into this tight time frame, but it’s not recommended.
You’ll only get a quick glimpse of the canyon and you’ll end up being exhausted rather than enjoying yourself. Plus, the steep downward hike is hard on your knees and if you aren’t a seasoned hiker you might really feel the stiffness the next morning!
Instead, consider taking two or three days to enjoy the canyon. You can rest in the oasis at the bottom, lounge in the pool, explore some of the other smaller trails and admire the view. Plus, the hot springs at the edge of the Colca River are the perfect place to relax and soothe your sore muscles.
Take a Moment to Watch the Condors
The canyon is home to the Andean condor, a species that has been the focus of conservation efforts for many years. These incredible creatures typically live around 60-70 years and they are huge – their wingspan can be up to 7-9 feet. They are known as the Eternity Bird, as they are a symbol of longevity.
Be sure to stop at the Mirador de los Condores at around 9am, as this is when these enormous birds of prey will be at their most active. It’s fascinating to watch them soaring through the air and floating effortlessly on warm updrafts. You’ll be able to get a close glimpse at them, as they soar so close to the lookout point.
Other beautiful birds you might get a chance to see on your travels in this region include Andean goose, Chilean flamingo and the giant hummingbird – the largest member of the hummingbird family.
You Don’t Have to Bring a Tent
When you reach the bottom of the canyon, you’ll find a lush, green oasis with a swimming pool, hammocks and a basic but friendly hotel. No, it won’t be the Ritz Carlton – you’ll be sleeping in a simple bed in a stone hut.
However, you’ll be so tired from the hike and the fresh air that you will likely have no trouble sleeping. Plus, there is a bar where you can unwind with a refreshing cold beer or a cocktail and a swimming pool that will be delightful to plunge into after a hot day of hiking.
There are 3-4 different hotels to choose from at the bottom of the canyon, so check out your options and choose the best one for your needs and budget.
No matter which route you take into the canyon, the journey will be difficult if you are struggling to carry an overstuffed backpack. Make sure you pare it down to only the essentials that you will need for your 1-3 day stay in the canyon. You can leave the rest of your luggage in storage at a hostel in Cabanaconde.
Here are some things that you should bring:
- A flashlight (your hostel may not have much in the way of electricity at night.)
- Swimsuit (for those refreshing pools and soothing hot springs)
- Cash (there are no ATMs at the bottom of the canyon)
- Binoculars (for spotting condors!)
- Sunscreen (you’ll need it!)
- Hat (there is very little shade on the trail)
- Water (it’s important to stay hydrated!)
- A warm layer for the evening (it will get cold)
- Sturdy hiking boots (give your feet the support they need on the steep trails)
- Flip flops (so you can change when you finish your hike and give your sweaty feet a break)
You Can Take the Easy Way Back Up
So, what if you complete the hike down to the canyon, but you wake up the next morning with leg muscles like jelly? Does that mean you are trapped down in the canyon until you recover?
Of course not. Rather than making the steep and difficult climb, there’s also the option of hiring horses or donkeys to carry you out of the canyon. Whew!