Note: see article end for 14 tips on visiting and hiking the Colca Canyon
A majestic Andean condor flying past Cruz del Condor in Peru’s Colca Canyon
One of the deepest canyons in the world, the Colca Canyon is an excellent hiking destination and a prime place to see the awesome Andean condor.
Located in Arequipa Region’s Caylloma Province, the Colca Canyon is five hours’ drive north of Arequipa city. A major tourism destination, buses, tourist vans and guided tours depart daily from Arequipa for the canyon.
I first visited the Colca Canyon in July 2016. From Yes! Arequipa hostel I caught the 3am tourist van. Booked through the hostel (30 soles; ~US$9), the van stops at Chivay for breakfast (5 soles), Cruz del Condor to see the condors and terminates at Cabanaconde around 10am before returning to Arequipa. On the way, one can see volcanoes and, on the high plains, vicuña, a wild relative of the llama and alpaca.
Crowds at Cruz del Condor waiting for the condors to fly past
In the Colca Canyon, condors fly east mornings, returning west afternoons. The best place to view these huge vultures is Cruz del Condor. Here I joined hundreds of people waiting in anticipation. The experience was worth the crowds and 3am start. Several condors, in ones and twos, cruised past, some even perching briefly on the cliff.
Cabanaconde town, at the western end of the canyon, is less visited than Chivay, the Colca region’s largest town and tourist centre. Cabanaconde and Chivay have different traditions including clothes and hats.
A wedding party backed by a band parades around Cabanaconde’s main square
Cabanaconde has limited internet and the only place I found wifi was at Las Terrazas on the main square. While enjoying a beer, I was fortunate to see and hear a wedding party in traditional Cabanaconde dress parade around the square.
Video of the Cabanaconde wedding party
At Pachamama Hostel I met friends Barbara and Anze and, amazingly, bumped into Kentucky Jan (and husband Bob). I first encountered Jan in May in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina, where she was leading a college group.
Barbara and Anze opted to stay the night in Cabanaconde. As I intended to hike the Cabanaconde-Llahuar-Oasis Sangalle-Cabanaconde loop, I opted to hike to Llahuar alone during the middle of the day. This is not recommended, particularly after waking up at 2:30am to catch the van.
The beautiful Colca Canyon with cacti plants in the foreground
Although hiking tours of the Colca Canyon are common, a guided tour is not required to explore the region. The trails are obvious and, despite often being steep and slippery, are manageable. Yes! Arequipa and Pachamama Hostel both provided excellent independent trekking information. Pachamama also has a useful map with instructions for suggested routes.
Trekking from Cabanaconde down 1,100 metres of vertical drop to Llahuar should take five hours; I took a few wrong turns and made it in six. Hiking during the heat of the day, alone and without trekking poles was a liberating experience but also one of my toughest physical and mental challenges. I didn’t encounter another hiker until three or four hours in.
The last stretch involved going down a steep embankment from Paclla to Llahuar. Here a front end loader was excavating a road. During construction, rock dislodged had previously fallen down and damaged the pedestrian bridge across the river.
I finally arrived to Llahuar Lodge in the late afternoon and sat exhausted with head in arms. 12 hours’ sleep later I felt much better.
A wild fox eyeing off a domestic pig (not pictured) below the Llahuar Lodge restaurant
Originally I wanted to hike to Oasis Sangalle the second day but decide to stay due to a combination of exhaustion and wanting to enjoy the Llahuar natural hot springs. Instead, I spent the morning recovering in the hot pools. From the pools I witnessed a condor flying high above.
The morning moon descending past the canyon; note the criss-crossing animal paths
Barbara and Anze arrived in the afternoon and the hot pools received another visit.
Two Llahuar locals, one carrying a sack of alfalfa, cross the river over temporary bridges
Barbara and Anze in the Llahuar hot pools next to the cold river
Wading in the freezing river water in-between hot pool sessions
Even after two nights at Llahuar, I dreaded hiking back up the canyon and delighted learning that a daily bus to Cabanaconde stops approximately 12pm at nearby Paclla.
The short trek from Llahuar to Paclla involved crossing the river and hiking back up the steep hill which afforded great views of the Colca and Huaruro rivers and Llahuar Lodge.
The Colca and Huaruro rivers join below Llahuar Lodge
The bus to Cabanaconde provides amazing views, travelling over roads dangerously close to steep and giant canyon sides. Hiking and travelling down and up the Colca Canyon is not recommended for people who fear heights.
The view from back near Cabanaconde shows part of the road followed during the hike to Llahuar
Back at the canyon next to Cabanaconde, a pair of eagles entertained in the late afternoon. I enjoyed seeing them almost as much as I loved the picarones (hand made doughnuts) cooked by the woman with a cart on the town square.
Video showing roaring rivers at Llahuar, the dangerous drive back to Cabanaconde and eagles flying around the canyon edge near Cabanaconde
Following a night at Pachamama Hostel, Barbara, Anze and I took a regular bus (17 soles) back to Arequipa, passing vicuñas and lovely scenery on the way.
A gorgeous baby on the Cabanaconde-Arequipa bus
14 Colca Canyon Tips:
- The Colca Canyon is easily accessible from Arequipa with daily buses (17 soles; ~US$5) from the bus station, tourist vans (30 soles) and guided tours. The journey takes between 5 and 7 hours depending on stops
- I recommend catching the early morning tourist van as it picks up from your accommodation and gets to Cruz del Condor in time to see the condors fly past – my Colca highlight
- Leave large luggage with your accommodation in Arequipa, only taking what is necessary for the canyon
- The road between Arequipa and the canyon goes almost 5,000 metres high and one may feel the effects of altitude. Bring altitude pills or coca leaves if concerned. Cabanaconde is about 3,000 metres high
- When travelling to Cabanaconde from Arequipa or Chivay, try to sit on the right as this side has the best canyon views
- Hiking the canyon requires good physical fitness and a willingness to challenge any fear of heights
- A guided trek is not required. Hostels YES! Arequipa and Pachamama (in Cabanaconde) can provide information about hiking in the Colca Canyon; Pachamama’s website is also informative
- Hiking poles are very useful as there is a 1.1 kilometre height difference between the canyon top and bottom and the trail can be very steep and slippery
- Cabanaconde at the western end is more tranquil although has less services than Chivay in the east; hikes are possible in both areas
- Hiking solo up or down the canyon is not recommended; solo travellers can join with others at their accommodation doing the same route
- As the Colca sun can be harsh, the early morning is best for hiking
- Wifi is non-existent in Llahuar and rare in Cabanaconde
- One can hike from Llahuar to the Fure Waterfalls and, with their own sleeping gear, spend the night in Fure
- At time of visit (July 2016) there was a daily 12pm bus which passed through Paclla (near Llahuar) on its way to Cabanaconde – an easy alternative to hiking back up the canyon