The Colca Canyon Trek: A Complete Guide and What to Expect

One of the most popular tours from Arequipa is the Colca Canyon trek.  The Colca Canyon hike can be done quite easily unguided or guided with a tour group.  It’s quite popular to visit as a day trip, a 2 day tour, or a 3 day trek.  The Colca Canyon in Peru is a beautiful natural wonder that needs to be on your bucket list and this post is a complete guide with everything you need to know about trekking the Colca Canyon from Arequipa.  Read on for more information!

Colca Canyon Trek
The Colca Canyon Trek

About the Colca Canyon

About 150km away from Arequipa near the small town of Chivay, the Colca Canyon is a popular day trip from the beautiful city of Arequipa in Peru. Arequipa has a number of fun things to do but without a doubt, the most popular is to hike the Colca Canyon.   In fact, the Colca Canyon is Peru’s third most visited destination with over 150,000 visitors annually.  Third best isn’t bad when you’re competing with Machu Picchu!

The Colca Canyon is deep….but depending on your source that depth is subject to some debate.  Some claim it’s the deepest canyon in the world (doubtful) and even deeper than the Grand Canyon (yes).  Depending on how you measure and who you trust, the deepest point is anywhere between 3,400m to 4,160m.  Canyons are often measured from the top of the highest point to the lowest, and the highest point nearby is Cabanaconde Volcano at 6,228m so that can be a bit misleading.  If you google “how deep is the Colca Canyon” you’ll get about 5 different answers which is a bit perplexing.  How hard can it be to measure a canyon?

Regardless of how you measure and where it is in the surprisingly competitive “world’s deepest canyon” standings, the Colca Canyon is deep, and it’s a stunning natural area.  It’s worth adding to your itinerary if you’re visiting Peru, whether you choose to hike the canyon independently or as part of a Colca Canyon tour.

Colca River
The Colca River is also known for its fantastic white water rafting!

The canyon can be visited at any time of year, but the best time to visit the Colca Canyon is during the dry season of June – August.

Is the Colca Canyon Trek Difficult?

Being such a deep canyon and in a popular tourist city like Arequipa, many decide to do this tour without a lot of hiking experience.  Naturally, that means that a popular question is about the Colca Canyon Trek’s difficulty.  To answer that question, if you have a moderate level of fitness and some experience hiking, the Colca Canyon trek is doable, and not too difficult.

The hike does not visit the deepest point of the canyon, nor do you have to climb the Volcano, so thankfully you don’t have to descend/ascend all of it but you should be fit and be able to hike for a long distance with about a kilometre of elevation change in a day.  If you are unsure about your level of fitness it is also possible to rent a donkey or horse to take you out of the canyon on the last and most challenging day of the trek.

Colca Canyon 2 Day Tour / 3 Day Tour

The typical itineraries for hiking the Colca Canyon are a two-day tour or a three-day tour.  These both visit the same places, the difference is just how fast you have to hike the length of the canyon.  Obviously doing it faster is a bit more difficult and requires a higher level of fitness.  If you’re short on time you can also visit the Colca Canyon as a day trip, but you won’t get to spend any time hiking into the depths of the canyon.

The following is the typical itinerary you can expect for a Colca Canyon tour:

Cruz del Condor

Colca Canyon tours start extremely early.  Tours begin with a painfully early pickup at 3 AM so that you can make a quick stop at the Cruz del Condor.  The best time to spot the endangered Andean Condor is in the morning, around 8 AM and Cruz del Condor is a 3-4 hour drive from Arequipa.  At least you can get some sleep on the bus.

The Andean Condor is the world’s largest flying bird, with a wingspan of approximately 3 metres (10.5 feet)!  They can live about 60-70 years and are thought of as a symbol of long life and eternity.  Watching them soar effortlessly overhead on the thermals that rise from the canyon is a fantastic spectacle that will take your breath away.  At Cruz del Condor the canyon is 1,200 metres deep so your first views into the canyon are spectacular as well.

Andean Condor
The Andean Condor

Cabanaconde

After a bit of time at Cruz del Condor, you’ll climb back on the tour bus and will be dropped off a short distance away at Cabanaconde.  You may have to wait for the rest of your group and meet up with your guide as tour agencies combine their groups so the bus you took to Cruz del Condor may not actually be your full hiking group.

From Cabanaconde you will descend into the Colca Canyon!  Hopefully you brought trekking poles as its all downhill for this day and they can make a big difference at easing the load on your knees.  The views are fantastic as you work your way towards the Colca River.

Colca Canyon tour day 1
Down, down, down

Shortly after the river, you’ll end your hike for the day if you are on a 3-day tour.  We did the 3 day itinerary so we spent some time getting to know our travel companions.  We had a diverse group from around the world, all with interesting travel stories from destinations near and far.  We swapped stories about hiking in Huaraz and the Salkantay Trek, and we made friends with some South Africans that we met up with again later in our trip when we spent a week in Cape Town!

If you’re on the two day Colca Canyon hike you’ll continue after reaching the river to Sangalle which was our destination for the second night.  After the hike reaches the canyon floor it levels out for a bit.  You hike along the river for a ways and then ascend to visit the town of Malata.  Make sure to take a photo of the small stone Church!

Malata Church
Malata Church

Sangalle Oasis

Afterwards, the hike continues through the canyon, eventually crossing the river and reaching Sangalle, the “Oasis”.  The Oasis is a lush, green patch in the valley, with a lot of small hotels that cater those on the Colca Canyon trek.  Most even have swimming pools!  We spent the afternoon relaxing, resting our weary muscles, and enjoying the pool.

Flowers at the Oasis in Colca Canyon
Flowers at the Oasis

That night myself and another photographer spent a bit of time doing some astrophotography because the night sky was insanely clear, but with another early wakeup call at 4 AM looming the next day, we didn’t stay up too late.

Milky Way in the Colca Canyon
Some of the clearest night skies I’ve ever seen in the Colca Canyon

Hiking out of the Colca Canyon

The final day hiking out of the Colca Canyon is a tough one.  All the elevation that you descended down on your first day has to be regained.  We walked by headlamp under a starry sky, and eventually, enjoyed a spectacular sunrise over the canyon.  Thankfully when you reach the top of the canyon there’s a lady that sells coffee and even Nescafe will do when you’ve been up since 4 AM!

Sunrise on the opposite peaks of the Colca Canyon
Sunrise on the opposite peaks of the Colca Canyon

After completing our three day Colca Canyon tour we were dropped off for breakfast and said goodbye to our guide as he was off to lead another group down the canyon.

Sunrise at Colca Canyon
Sunrise at the Colca Canyon

After breakfast, our group met up with the new tour guide that would take us on our leisurely trip back to Arequipa.  Our first stop was a viewpoint which had the cutest Alpaca you’ve ever seen,  but really the part we were all looking forward to was the hot springs!

After about an hour in the hot springs, and muscles thoroughly relaxed we climbed back onto the tour bus which made a couple more photo stops on the way back to Arequipa to see some of the imposing volcanoes of the area.  The final stop was at a viewpoint for Misti Volcano and we arrived at Arequipa in the evening where we said our goodbyes to our hiking group.

Volcano Misti
Volcano Misti viewpoint, last stop before Arequipa

Unguided vs Guided Colca Canyon Trek

We love doing hikes unsupported and on our own but this was one hike where it just made sense to go with a group.  You could do it on your own quite easily but going with a guided group is insanely cheap so you don’t really save much by doing the hike on your own.   It cost us only 100 Peruvian Sol ($30 USD) per day for two people, plus a park fee of 140 Sol for two ($42 USD).  That’s pretty darn cheap for a fully guided hike including accommodation and transportation and we would have been hard-pressed to do the hike for cheaper on our own.

Our guide was simply fantastic.  He made sure that everybody made it and stayed back to hike with those that were moving a little slower.  He had lots to explain about the unique flora and fauna of the canyon, it’s history, and he was a little bit of a superhuman as he repeated the trek with a new tour group every 2-3 days! As a former cruise ship employee and now hiking guide his English was excellent and he had a great appreciation for travellers and exploring the world.

We also met some amazing, like-minded travellers on our guided trip.  This is the kind of tour that attracts interesting people and we loved hearing about the rest of our group’s travels.  We swapped stories about destinations that we had all visited and even added a few things to our bucket list.  We keep in contact with some of them to this day and know that we have an open invitation to catch up should we ever find ourselves in the same part of the world again.

Colca Canyon Tour Group Day 3
Our amazing tour group at the top of the Colca Canyon

Packing for a Colca Canyon Tour

Your typical hiking packing list applies here.  Dress in layers as it will be hot during the day and cool at night.  You only need a day pack if you are going on the guided trek as there is no need to pack a sleeping bag, tent, etc.

Meals are supplied but it’s a good idea to pack some snacks to eat along the way.  This applies especially for the third day as you won’t get breakfast until after you’ve hiked out of the canyon.  You can purchase snacks (and drinks!) along the way, but it’s mostly junk food and a bit pricey since the canyon is so remote.

It’s a good idea to pack a filter water bottle so that you don’t have to purchase water along the way and so that you’re not generating plastic waste.  Be a responsible traveller!

Trekking poles are almost a necessity because of the steep decline on day one and the steep incline coming out of the canyon.  You can rent them in Arequipa, or purchase them ahead of time.  Our recommended poles are Black Diamond as they are durable, mine have lasted for almost a decade now.

Another recommended item that might not be on your packing list?  A Buff.  The canyon was quite dry when we were hiking it so a buff comes in handy to shield your mouth from dust when donkeys or horses are passing.

Sunscreen is also a necessity as the sun beats down you hard in the canyon and you’ll need a headlamp for hiking out of the canyon on the final day.

So that’s it!  Do you have any more questions about hiking the Colca Canyon?  Have you been on this trek?  Let us know in the comments!

Colca Canyon
Are you convinced to hike the Colca Canyon yet?
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