The main attraction of the Arequipa area is Colca Canyon, which, depending on who you ask, is either the deepest or second deepest canyon in the world. In fact, most people only spend a day or two in Arequipa on their way to the canyon and not eleven days as Angela and I spent there. After relaxing for eight days we were ready for a change of scenery and so we booked a three day trek in the canyon. The first day started early with a 3AM pickup at our hostel and then driving around town picking up other trekkers before leaving Arequipa bound for the first stop at Chivay for breakfast. I’ve observed that nobody cares about traffic laws in Peru – they don’t stop at Stop signs, they pass through intersections by playing a game of chicken with traffic on the cross street, and ‘no passing’ signs are always to be ignored – and we’ve had our share of aggressive drivers, but our driver to Colca Canyon took it to the next level. The road to Chivay is heavily traveled by buses and semis and it’s also a mountainous road full of blind curves. This was no worry for Driver (I didn’t catch his name so I’ll call him “Driver”). We were constantly passing semis on blind curves in the dark, speeding up to prevent others from passing us, and then re-passing them when they did succeed. It’s really no wonder why traffic accidents are the number one cause of death for travelers. The only time Driver displayed any patience at all was when he stopped at a random roadside cafe to enjoy a coffee, a smoke, and a shot of something, probably Pisco, while we all sat in the bus watching. Despite Driver’s best efforts we arrived safely in Chivay and enjoyed a typical Peruvian breakfast of rock-hard bread, butter, mystery meat, instant coffee, and tea.
After breakfast we set off to Cruz del Condor, a peak famous for sighting Andean Condors. When we first arrived the only thing we saw was a bunch of other people also hoping to see a condor or two. However, after about 10 minutes our luck changed and suddenly three or four condors were soaring overhead. Seeing the Andean Condor flying is truly something to behold. These birds are massive with wingspans reaching over 10 feet in length and are the second largest flying bird behind the Wandering Albatross. They’re also considered sacred to native Peruvians and are the symbol of Peru. One of the most interesting, if not disturbing, festivals I’ve heard about involves sewing the feet of a live condor into incisions on the back of a bull. As both animals struggle to free themselves the condor will repeatedly peck the bulls neck, eventually killing it and then the condor is set free. This is meant to symbolize Peru (the condor) defeating Spain (the bull) and becoming a free nation. After we left Cruz del Condor we headed for Pampa San Miguel where we’d begin the hike into the canyon.
Once we arrived in San Miguel we split into groups based on the number of days we were trekking (some do two days and others do three days). There were nine of us in our group – me, Angela, a German couple, Jan and Christina, a French family, Rafael, Natalie, Lucy, and Theo, and our guide, Juan. As we began the first day’s hike Juan told us that the group would walk as a group – nobody would race ahead and nobody would be left behind – and then promptly left the majority of us far behind. The first day is tough on the legs as you descend 3,200 feet from San Miguel at 10,700 feet to San Juan de Chuccho at 7,500 feet over a distance of just over 3.5 miles. Needless to say it’s a steep descent at a high altitude and a never ending series of switchbacks down into the canyon with no shade from the sun. Angela had a particularly hard time with the altitude and heat and was completely exhausted by the time we reached the river at the bottom. Unfortunately for her once crossing a bridge we had to then climb for another 30-40 minutes to reach our hostel because for reasons still unknown Angela and I were split off from the group to a different hostel for the first night. Once we arrived we had lunch and then she slept for several hours and by dinner was feeling better. Our hostel, Posada Roy’s, was nicer than expected as we had warm water and a private bathroom but no electricity (the rest of our group had no electricity, cold water, and shared bathrooms at their hostel).
The next morning we were led back to the rest of our group by the children of the family who owns Posada Roys and set off for a four hour hike to the oasis of Sangalle. The second day was much easier than the first with a lot of flat ground and only a couple of sections of steep ascent or descent. We arrived in the oasis around 1:00 and had the rest of the day to rest, swim, or just hangout. Angela and I once again won the hostel lottery as we were the only members of our group to have a private bathroom (there was no hot water) at the hostel in the oasis. The guides devoted a decent amount of time on the second day to telling us how difficult the hike out the next day will be, the fact that we only have four hours to do it, and selling us on the option of taking a mule out. Based on her experiences with hiking the first two days Angela decided, and I whole heartedly agreed, that a mule was the best option for her. Others in our group were tempted, myself included, but decided to go forward with the hike.
Day three started early with those of us hiking leaving the oasis in the dark at 5AM and those riding mules departing at 5:30 AM. The climb is difficult, ascending from 7,080 feet to 10,700 feet over a distance of just over 3.5 miles, but it’s completely doable – and it’s beautiful. Our group moved at a relatively slow pace and finished the ascent in 2 hours and 20 minutes. The night before was a full moon so we saw the full moon setting behind the canyon and then the first rays of sunlight hitting the canyon walls. I wouldn’t trade the experience of hiking out for anything although the mule ride did look pretty nice when Angela passed us near the top.
After reaching the top we made a short walk to the town of Cabanaconde for breakfast and to meet our bus back to Arequipa. Unfortunately the rest of day three is completely forgettable and unnecessary. You’re out of the canyon by 8:30 AM at the latest but due to the many stops you’re forced to make, such as a tourist trap village where they want you to buy things and take pictures with llamas, you don’t arrive back in Arequipa until around 6:00 PM. After the morning hike most of us just wanted a hot shower and to relax but instead we were stuck on a cramped, hot bus all day. Looking back, that and the fact that our guide was completely lackluster are the only two negative things I can say about the trek. I’m glad we did it and would highly recommend it to anyone; however, shop around as it doesn’t seem to matter which agency you book with since you’re seemingly randomly placed with guides anyway. We paid about 60 soles more than the German couple for the exact same trek because we used a different agency. And while we did get private baths and hot water one night, that’s not the reason since our agency specifically said we’d have shared baths and no hot water. At the end of the day, 60 soles is about $20, guides are luck of the draw, and the beauty of the canyon far outweighs any frustration we experienced along the way.