Twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, the Colca Canyon northeast of Arequipa is an incredible patchwork of agricultural villages nestled in colorful canyon walls. Like the Grand Canyon, Colca Canyon is still home to indigenous Cabana and Collagua peoples, who make their living through traditional farming. Unfortunately for us, its winter, so for the most part the fields were dry.
Every tour agency in Arequipa seems to offer tours to the Canyon from one day bus tours, to multi-day treks. Fortunately we contacted a local guide through couchsurfing who offered his expertise. In true Tobias style we decided to do a two day hike in one day. Our friend told us that it just isn’t done in one day because of the intense afternoon sun, but we’re either arrogant or stupid, and figured that after we conquered the Grand Canyon in a day we could certainly do Colca Canyon. Having assured our friend that we could do it after he expressed hesitation, we took the map he drew us, which we affectionately called the “treasure map”, and headed out on the bus. Six hours later we arrived in Cabanaconde, the furthest village in the canyon, grabbed a cheap hotel room and prepared for our hike.
Inspired by our plan, our new Spanish friends decided to dash their original plan and instead do our circuit, but in the less crazy time frame of two days. Our plan was simple, a loop from Cabanaconde east into the canyon crossing the river before breakfast, and continuing on the other side of the canyon west to the oasis before crossing the river again and climbing out. One variable was left to be determined- how would we handle the 3000 foot change from the canyon rim to the river and back up at over 10,000 feet?
At 4:15am the alarm rang, but seeing as it was still completely pitch black outside we slept for a few more minutes before finally rolling out of bed. Cold and in the dark, we walked out of the hostel shocked to see that the town was already up and moving. Shops, schools and even a restaurant or two were already open, and people were already sitting in the main plaza. Getting a move on, we hurried out of town to the trail head, arriving just before sunrise.
Hiking down to San Juan de Chuccho, the first village on our trek, we passed a few mule trains headed back up to Cabanaconde and a few indigenous men and women heading down. The trail down was steep, and in parts very rocky. (If you ever want to do this trail, it is definitely necessary to have good shoes, don’t be fooled by the smooth mule path the first hour.) Reaching San Juan de Chuccho we were shocked to see a number of really nice looking hostels and restaurants, but pushing to finish in one day we declined a very nice indigenous womens offer of breakfast.
Hiking along the other side of the canyon we were greeted by a number of side trails and off shoot trails. Unsure, we asked everyone we met which way to Costinirhuha, our next village. Friendly, they pointed us in the right direction and sent us on our way with a cheerful “buen viaje.” Unspoiled by the tourism they have, the small villages of Costinirhuhua and Malata were downright wonderful. Traditional clay homes spanned the canyon cliffs, hovering above terraced fields which spread down to the river. Clothed in traditional costumes, the villagers we met seemed genuinely happy to greet us and never once became pushy or aggressive while selling their hostel, food, or crafts. Unfortunately, pushy and aggressive locals have become a regular on our trip, sometimes so much so that they ruin the place we are visiting.
With the sun beating down on us, we clung to what little shade we could find as we rushed down to the Sangalle, the Oasis. The canyon itself was beautiful, from the inside it was blazing hot, but looking up we could see snow covered volcanoes. Hot and tired, we threw ourselves into a frigid pool at El Eden and lounged in their shade eating lunch. We had yet to run into our Spanish friends, and with a real lack of enthusiasm on my part, we headed out of Sangalle only to bump into them at the outskirts of town. Less zealous than us, they decided to take a mule train back to the canyon rim, so we parted ways and marched on.
The trail was straightforward, and by that I mean straight up. Though we didn’t have an altimeter, we figured that we climbed about 1000 feet in the first hour. Unfortunately the next two hours were similar and by the time we reach close to the top we were exhausted. Just as I was about to take my 30th break in the last hour, a man with two mules cheerfully came around the next switchback. “Hola Senorita!” He cried. Como estas? Necessitas Agua?” “No, pero estoy muy consada,” I replied. Laughing he chatted with us for a few more minutes before leaving us with good news- only 15 more minutes to the top! Energized, we mustered up what strength we could and found our way to the top. A beautiful view from above, we were unfortunately greeted by several burning trash fires, making us unwilling to spend time admiring our work. We headed back to Cabanaconde and collapsed.
The trek was difficult, but as we say in spanish, “vale la pena” (worth it). If you ever feel so inclined, it can definitely be done in a day, just make sure you are in shape, start early and be prepared with enough food and water.