Colca Canyon: Trekking into the worlds 2nd deepest canyon

Arequipa is the natural stepping off point if you are looking to traverse the Colca Canyon but should you book onto a group tour or take the leap and go it alone? Here’s how we went on our own 3 day / 2 night adventure…

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This map of the trekking routes is good to give you a rough idea. Keep in mind those cute squiggly bits are actually ruthless cutbacks up or down steep inclines and it’s really, really tough on your legs and joints! The timings are more or less accurate but we found it pretty challenging, so give yourself plenty of time and a day or two for rest if you’re thinking about trekking for more than 3 days. 

3am we are sitting outside our hostel waiting for the tourist bus, boozed up locals are still stumbling past as the pubs begin to shut. At least we have a bit of entertainment.
We booked the bus through a tour company on the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa for 30 soles each, this was without breakfast having talked them down from 40. The local bus costs about 17 soles but it’s a 4-6 hour drive (depending on stops) but the tourist bus stops in Chivay for breakfast (which is the typical bread rolls and jam), then at the Cruz del Condor so you can watch these magical vulture-like birds rise up from the depths of the canyon.

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Condor soaring up out of the Canyon on the warm updrafts
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We saw 2 at the lookout then another 5 or so from the van on our way to Cabanaconde
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The lookout is very busy between 7am and 10am as the tourist buses unload

Our tourist bus pulled up at the lookout around 8am along with a million others, and left at 9am. This was a good amount of time to get down to the other parts of the mirador and also to use the services if need be! We arrived at the San Miguel Mirador around 9.30am to begin our decent down into the canyon towards San Juan. We were hoping to make it to the Oasis in Sangalle today then continue on to Fure, the reports we read all said Fure is the most beautiful spot in the Colca Canyon so that’s our goal! It didn’t look that far on the map.
The way down wasn’t too bad but it heats up quick, by 10am the sun was scorching and because of the East to West direction of the canyon it’s not easy finding any shade, make sure you take a hat and plenty of sunscreen.

After about 3 hours of downhill walking our knees were feeling it, so our 1st glimpse of the bridge was a welcome site! After crossing the river we started along the path, there was a painted arrow and the words “San Juan / Oasis” so we headed that way. Before we could make it too far along the track we heard a woman shouting at us from above, she looked like she had something important to tell us so Steve headed up to meet her. I’ve never seen anyone run down such a steep track like she did! It turns out she wanted us to take her short cut, she was friendly and playful so we obliged and headed straight up a much steeper path.

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The 1st rio crossing

At the top of the monkey scramble we were faced with another fork in the road.. To head towards Roy, the Oasis and Malata? Which was where we needed to go… Or to take the unknown path? After feeling that the “right way” seemed a bit overgrown and unused, we decided to consult with Maps.me. This is a friggen amazing little app. We have used it more than any other travel or map app, as you can download specific countries and see the roads, paths and historic landmarks in detail offline. You can also drop pins to bookmark places you’ve been or have been recommended to go including notes.  AND it has hiking paths and trails on it which showed us that the other way effectively led to San Juan anyway.

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The unknown turned out to be a good choice because it lead into the back of San Juan but before we got there we bumped into a traditionally dressed, lovely young lady selling drinks and fruit. There was a sign in English that said “You are now on private property. But we don’t mind if you spend a couple of soles on a drink or some sweets” tricky! Again, she was friendly, so we obliged. We decided to try the Cactus fruit for one sole. Luckily the lady peeled it for me after I tried to put the whole thing in my mouth.  The flavour is mild, sweet and fruity and the flesh is pink and full of seeds. Not a new fave but not bad. The canyon has a semi tropical climate so is very good for growing all kinds of fruit, the higher farms are much cooler and used to grow more grains and cereales.

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How could you say no to this lovely looking, locally grown fruit?

It wasn’t far from here to San Juan. San Juan is just a tiny little canyon town with a couple of restaurants and hospedajes. From here you can either stop for lunch or the night, head up to Tapay (which is about another hour and a half up hill and what most of the 3 day tour groups do) or carry on up to Malata.

We consulted with Maps.me again and decided that we would take a completely different lower route avoiding the road and the main track. It was not as easy as it looked on the map, but it was very pretty and scenic cutting through small farms and over streams. Unfortunately this part of the track was about 2 hours of up hill and down hill that we didn’t see on the 2 dimensional map… I was stuffed by the time we got back down to the river again!

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This little stream was a great place to soak our aching feet and get the KG of dust out of our shoes.

I also didn’t realise that this next crossing was a seperate river, or that we had to go back up before we could begin our decent into the canyon to Sangalle. Poor Steve had to put up with a lot of stopping and a lot of my signature whinging. It was about 2pm when we finally got to the top of the track and saw Sangalle and the Oasis again. I could have cried, it looked so far down.

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The final leg…

At the top of the path we met a wonderful old man who warmly welcomed us to his “supermarket”. He told us his grande agua was only 8 soles compared to 12 soles in Sangalle. I couldn’t face carrying an extra 2.5 litres of water down the hill only to bring it back up again, so we told him we would see him in the morning.
It took us around an hour to get down the hill, it was tough and when I arrived at the oasis I collapsed at the 1st pool. The owner of the place soon spotted us and asked if we needed a room, he showed us a very basic matrimonial suite for 40 soles. I negotiated him down to 35 and we shook on it. I didn’t realise there were other hospedajes down in Sangalle, but even if I did I wouldn’t have had the energy to go shopping around anyway! I believe you can get a bed for 15 soles down there but hey, we were happy with our little hut. Dinner was to be served at 6.30/7pm and it was an extra 10 soles each. Sold. Paid. Now time to swim before we lost the last of the afternoon sun.

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It’s not the Ritz but you can hear the river rushing by outside and the bed was warm

The showers were warm and dinner was good, but very basic. Cream of chicken soup with a few veges in it, followed by pasta with tomato sauce. It definitely hit the spot and we treated ourselves to a 10 sole Arequepiña cervesa to wash it down. We also got a nice hot lemon grass tea which was just the ticket to send me off to bed! Woke up at 2.30am, spent 5 hours in a van, walked 18kms in 6.5 hours… We deserved a rest.

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Day two…

We were up by 5.30am to get up and out of the canyon before the sun got too hot. It took us about an hour and a half up the way we had come the day prior but our friendly supermarket owner hadn’t opened his stand yet so we needed to go to Malata for water. From the top of the track up to Malata takes around another hour, but the climb isn’t as steep so it was quite a pleasant walk. The village itself is another small, quaint village. The square is lovely with a view out over the canyon and a beautiful old church to the other side. There was hardly anyone about when we arrived, and only one real shop / hospedaje / restaurant that we could see, so we got our water stocks and headed on our way.

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A beautiful local woman posed for a photo for me, I gave her one of our cereal bars to say thanks and she was chuffed. The Colca people seem lovely, this is a kind and funny woman!

We were both pretty surprised at how many cars we saw along the road between Malata and Paclla, we were under the impression that the road was seldom used but we saw a few collectivo’s and work utes as well as one big bus! This could come in handy…

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The view of San Juan from the road to Llahuar

About 4 and a half hours after leaving the Oasis we reached the Mirador Apacheta, this is where we had to decide… To take the long walk up to Fure and spend another 2 days hiking up and down the canyon, or go down to Llahuar and soak our tired legs in the thermal springs, ready for our tough walk out the next day? Our legs were buggered, so we decided to give them a treat and stray from the original plan. If we went to Llahuar now we could spend a night in Cabanaconde and a night in another small Colca village, still get a good feel for the region and be back in Arequipa in time for the Easter weekend celebrations.

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You can see the Oasis at the bottom with the track we walked going up to the left. The track up to the right heads straight back to Cabanaconde and is the way most tour groups go out.

We took advice from maps.me again and headed down into Paclla to find the alternative path. A nice local man pointed us in the right direction and we were skidding down the steep little cut back path before we knew it! It took about 20 minutes to hook back up with the road again, then another 20 minutes to the turn off for Llahuar. That’s where we met a French couple who were waiting for the bus, apparently it stops there each day between 11.30 and 12pm, and costs 10 soles up to Cabanaconde… Interesting.
I was still determined to walk back up, I wanted to see the geyser!
On our way to Llahuar we met another couple, from the UK, they had just come from Cabanaconde down the way we were planning to walk up and said it was rough. We shared a few yarns on our way down and they seemed to be a lot like us, so I let what they said sink in a bit… They came down that way after reading it was the worst way to take out, the way we’d already come down is the best, and even the route that goes straight up out of the Oasis is easier. Hmm… they also mentioned that the geyser was only a 10 minute walk from the bridge so we could still see that and be back in time to hitch out. There were also another couple of guys who had come down that way and they were 100% catching the bus out. I was starting to warm to the idea.

Down and up again, we finally reached the hospedaje in Llahuar at around 1pm, about 6.5 hours and 12kms since we set off. There is only one place to stay in Llahuar, and I’m not sure if the lady we met owned the place or just ran it, but she was grumpy as hell. We daren’t try and negotiate the price with her so 20 soles each for the room, 10 each for lunch and 10 each for dinner. The cost also covered the thermal baths. Fine 🙂

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Our little home, very basic but the bed was warm

She took us outside and pointed down the hill, at the bottom of the steep stairs was our room and down further we would find the pools. Lunch was in an hour and a half so enough time for a beer, a swim and a shower.
The beer was 10 soles (must be the going rate for the canyon) and we enjoyed it up the top overlooking the river below. The walk down to the pools was a killer, but well worth it! They were about 39 degrees and almost a part of the river, we were the only ones in there and it was magic!

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The thermal baths in Llahuar

We could only spend 20 minutes in the pool before we started feeling a bit funny from the heat but it was so relaxing, and just what the doctor ordered!
Lunch was good, creamy vege soup with pasta in it followed by rice and lentils. Yum!
We crashed for a few hours and woke up just in time for another swim before dinner.
Dinner was basic but good. Soup to start, followed by fish with creamy potatoes and rice. The fish was good, it tasted so fresh we suspected it was out of the river that evening, we had noticed a man fishing while we were splashing about before dinner. That would also explain why there had been a bit of a wait but yum! I wasn’t complaining.

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The view in the other direction before dinner, at sunset

That night we were treated to a silver glow over the whole valley, the full moon cast so much light over the landscape I had to get my camera and practice a long exposure.

Day 3: We had decided we would definitely take the bus so were able to take our time in the morning, we got up at 6 and went for our last swim. Yoga and stretching in the thermal waters worked a treat for warming up my aching legs although I still wasn’t really looking forward to the walk up out of Llhuar! I was however very excited to see the geyser. We left at around 7.30 and got to the geyser at around 9am. Coming from New Zealand I’m pretty familiar with thermal activity, we visited Rotorua in December and saw bubbling mud and plenty of hot springs but the geysers were all part of paid thermal parks so I was looking forward to finally seeing one.

This geyser did not disappoint! You can actually see it from quite a way down the road steaming it’s head off. Apparently it’s better in the morning, and when we arrived at 9am she was going for it! You can stand and watch from one of the 2 bridges or you can take the dodgy little foot path up and over the hill, down to the edge of the bubbling, steaming waters. There is one main blow hole which is quite violent, and there is a second spitting area nearby. The big girl is too hot and scary to get too close to and the rest of the bubbling pool is much too hot to touch. If you stand close enough you can enjoy a free steam bath though!

We walked back up and over the bridge to dip our feet in the river on the other side, much to my delight when you dig your feet into the sandy banks earth and water are hot! So we relaxed here until it was time to catch the bus. We ended up catching a collectivo van which arrived at about 11.30. We shared it with some interesting locals and about 4 other tourists (including the two guys we’d met the day before). It was a bumpy hour and a half but I couldn’t have been more grateful!

Click to read about our experience and advice for a couple of lovely Colca towns: Cabanaconde, Yanque and Chivay

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The bus: A welcome sight to a weary walker

 

 

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