Colca Canyon: Explore One of the Largest Canyons in the World

Colca Canyon Peru hike

Home to soaring condors and snow capped Andean Mountains, Colca Canyon towers at an impressive height twice the size of the Grand Canyon.

Strangely enough, the idea for a three-day trek through the second largest canyon in the world began with an “Ah-Ha!” moment watching a simultaneous moonrise and sunset on a Nicaraguan volcano. After that first night sleeping under the stars, there was no going back for me.

 

When was the last time you tried something for the first time?

As we get older it seems that we experience fewer brand-new experiences – partly because we have decades of experiences already under our belt, but also, more importantly, we become more and more comfortable in routine.

It’s a beautiful thing to experience something new, especially in adulthood. There’s a certain deeper appreciation for a new activity or skill that I think we were naive to in our youth.

An “Ah-Ha!” moment, you feel like you’ve just discovered a missing piece of your story. You’re instantly hooked, wondering what took you so long to try it. It could be the first time you played a round of golf, started a community garden or took a Barre class.

One of the most recent activities I tried for the first time is multi-day treks.

The first multi-day trek I went on was an overnight trip hiking El Hoyo Volcano in Nicaragua in Spring of 2017. After climbing 6 hours in the grueling mid-day heat, and foraging for firewood to carry up the final hour, we ended the day watching only the most picturesque moon rise to the east and sunset to the west – the sky a tangled mix of cool blues and vibrant yellows. I sat there on top of that volcano, whipping my head from side to side to soak in opposing celestial forces, with a heart full of gratitude, joy and celebration.

I was hooked on multi-day hikes.

That fall, I did a four-day hike to the Lost City in Colombia, then just a few months later, I completed another four-day hike to Machu Picchu.

I’ve always loved hiking – I hiked frequently on weekends living in San Diego, and made a dozen trips a year to places like Big Sur, Glacier National Park, and Maui where I spent half of the trip following footpaths in the wilderness.

But multi-day trekking was different; it wasn’t just back to back days of hiking, it was more somehow.

I loved carrying everything I would need on my own back – you couldn’t get more minimal than that I thought, and growing up in a privileged household this was a new personal attribute I was enjoying immensely. Additionally, I loved having no Wi-Fi, no external connection to the news or social media and therefore being really internally connected to my surroundings and my thoughts, truly present and engaged in the here now moment.

For this trip to South America, I was going to spend 3-months in Colombia and one month in Peru.

While doing preliminary research for this four-month trip, I came across Colca Canyon – and I knew that Peruvian destination was a definite. So I added Colca Canyon to my short list of top priorities of things to do in Peru which now included Machu Picchu, Rainbow Mountain and Colca Canyon.

I read, and read… and read some more on Peruvian destinations and activities – taking notes, saving articles, fact checking, etc. to best optimize my time and experiences there.

Yet, per usual, it wasn’t until I got to South America that I got the juicy insider details came pouring in about what to do in Peru, and how to do it.

NOTE: When I visit a place for the first time, I know that most of my research actually gets done while I’m in the country – the Internet just has too much information leading to inevitable outdated, conflicting, unspecific, impersonal or just plain wrong information – an important reason for working with a travel agent who has been the country you’d like to go to.

Since I’ve got the extra time, I always plan to be in my first location longer than people normally would.

In this case, I was in Cusco for just over a week talking to locals, travelers and ex-pats to get real-time information before making a solid plan… bearing in mind the at-home research with its’ segmented lists and priorities, of course.

For example, while internet research told me day trips to Colca Canyon were do-able, and like the Grand Canyon you could stand at the top [of the Colca Canyon] and gaze down in awe of the grandeur beneath you. And Peru’s Colca Canyon is twice the size of Arizona’s Grand Canyon, so it should be even more impressive, right?

Yet still, a bell went off in my head, ringing tales of watching the moon rise in the wild. I craved more out of my experience with the Colca Canyon than to just… see it.

While I appreciated the magnificence of the Grand Canyon standing at the top, it was hiking down to the river below that really left its’ mark.

So that’s what I was going to do; spend a couple of days hiking in the Colca Canyon.

Colca Canyon Peru panorama
Colca Canyon

I decided against a tour, and opted to do it on my own because I wanted to spend more time hiking than driving.

Luckily I had met three others who wanted to do the same, so the four of us set off from Arequipa to spend 3 days and 2 nights hiking in the Colca Canyon.

We opted to bus from Arequipa to Cabanaconde, and then to make a loop to Llahuar to spend the first night, then to Sangalle for the second night, and then the third day hike back up to Cabanaconde where we would take an afternoon bus back to Arequipa.

Going directly to Cabanaconde instead of the first town of Chivay meant that most likely we would be skipping Cruz del Condor, or Cross of the Condor – a lookout point known for Andean Condor sightings. We had heard that while yes if you arrive early in the morning, around 7 am, that seeing a condor or two is practically guaranteed. But we also heard that the high likelihood of seeing a condor was because they have trained the condors with scheduled feedings times. Additionally, it could get really busy with tourists, since a small window of time in the morning was the best time, everyone was there then. This seemed almost a zoo-like environment, so as a group, we decided we’d take our chances in the canyon.

We arrived in the town of Cabanaconde after a 6-hour bus ride from Arequipa and marveled at the stunning Plaza de Armas; a clean square, architectural details indicative to South America, surrounded by massive snow-capped mountain. Late afternoon sunlight. A small town, we quickly found our accommodation and then went for a bite to eat. tell a story

Plaza de Armas in Cabanaconde, Peru

We planned on an early start; quick breakfast and trip to the market to load up on water and snacks for the next few days. Paid our “boleto”, usual price 70 Soles, they were kind enough to give us the student price of 35 Soles.

We set off from Cabanaconde, in search of of our first destination, Llahuar.

We chose Llahuar because it has thermal pools to swim in and the town is off the beaten path as it’s not a stop for any tours coming from Arequipa. Additionally, to get to Llahuar you’ll pass thermal springs and it is also close to Huaruro waterfalls so we had the option of the extra hike to the waterfalls if we wanted to.

Within minutes of leaving Cabanaconde, it was evident the hike was going to be a treat. Even with the high elevation of 12,000 feet, there was nothing but sunshine and warmth – a welcome break from the chill of Cusco, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca!

Quickly greeted by sheep and horses in grassy fields, herded by the local’s dogs - very different from the barren desert landscape of the Grand Canyon.

Colca Canyon Peru hike sheep

Then out of no where, in a frenzy one of my friend’s quietly urged us to look up. And there it was – an Andean Condor soaring effortlessly just meters above our heads.

We all froze, and stared with amazement as this iconic creature hovering. Over the next three days we saw four condors, all in their natural habitat.

 andean condor soaring over colca canyon

andean condor soaring over colca canyon

Colca Canyon Peru hike condor
Andean condor flying over Colca Canyon

Onward in our hike, past bridges, waterfalls, remote towns, and thermal springs – always a thrill to see the Earth boiling over – all along the way, presented with sweeping views of contrasting desert, lush forests and snow-capped mountains all in one panorama.

Colca canyon waterfall
Colca Canyon thermal spring
Colca Canyon Peru town
Colca Canyon Llahuar accomodations

Reaching Llahuar took longer than expected as we underestimated the time it would take – we were going downhill and all in good hiking shape. The heat was relentless.

We arrived in Llahuar in time for a late lunch and a well-deserved ice-cold beer. Well, out here in the middle of no-where we drank the cool beers with as much appreciation as if they were ice-cold.

The next morning, we started earlier than the first day; 5 am wake up, 5:30 breakfast, 6 am on the path the Sangalle. We had discovered on day one that the journey would take longer than expected, and we’d be going back up-hill for the first half of the day so wanted to be done with the incline still by early morning.

Colca Canyon early morning donkeys
Colca Canyon Peru Sangalle town

Last minute we debated between stopping for the second night in San Juan de Chuccho instead of Sangalle for fear that Sangalle would be too touristy.

We were so thankful to have chosen Sangalle, is truly an oasis and could not have been more perfect. Our resort was relaxed and beautiful, the family that owned the resort were so kind and accommodating. With our early start, we were able to spend the entire afternoon swimming and playing cards by the pool. There were only a handful of other people there. When we saw groups arriving in the later afternoon we silently hoped they didn’t come into our resort!

Colca Canyon Peru Sangalle oasis

The third and final day called for another very early start. Hiking from Sangalle to Cabanaconde would be an incessant 3,000 meter (1,000 feet) incline over 3.5 hours. Thankfully, we powered up in 3 hours – a serious and rewarding challenge.

At the top, a filthier and more accomplished version of our former selves, we high-fived and hugged not realizing we we’re quite there yet, we still had another 45-minute walk to town center to eat before catching the bus back to Arequipa.

This time, the bus was only half full – a gift from the universe. We spread out taking up several rows, and napped.

Back in Arequipa, we rewarded ourselves with pizza and beer – replenishing all the calories we burned off. Grateful for yet another incredible multi-day hike.

 

Seek out brand new experiences – at home and while traveling.

Try golf or Frisbee golf, start a community garden, take a Barre class or ride your bike to work. Whatever you feel has been calling you, but for whatever reason have put off because “it’s no the right time”. Do it now.

And traveling, well it is a perfect opportunity to shake up your routine and comfort zone, and provide new vigor to bring back to your life back home. 

Next: Trekking to Machu Picchu, Peru

 

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Colca Canyon
Colca Canyon Peru

 

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