A hike into the world’s second deepest canyon (twice the depth of the Grand Canyon in the US) was just too tempting to miss, particularly given that we had organised it so that we would only hike down into the canyon and then have a 4wd return us to our starting point. Over 100km long, the Colca Canyon is divided into three parts – the upper, middle and lower canyons. The upper canyon is fairly desolate and consequently rarely visited by tourists. The middle canyon is dominated by agricultural terraces rendering an otherwise brown rocky landscape surprisingly green. It also has the regions largest town – Chivay (at 3600m above sea level) with a variety of accommodation options and the starting point for a number of hikes. If, however, you want to descend into the deepest part of the canyon in the lower canyon region then the best place to start any hike is Cabanaconde (at 3290m).
Best time of year
Most tour companies recommend the dry season (May to November) as the best time to visit the canyon. This, however, is also the high season which means that accommodation on the various hiking paths is in demand and best booked before embarking on any hike. We undertook our hike at the end of December, just before the rainy season (January to March). At that time it was hot and dusty, with no evidence of the region having had any rain for months. The big advantage of this time of year, however, was the comparative absence of other tourists. In addition to our group of four there were only five other tourists in our lodge.
Choosing a track
There are various paths and hiking options out of Cabanaconde. The most popular include: Cabanconde to Sangalle (the “Oasis”) return (the shortest trek at 2-3 hours down and 3-4 hours back up); Cabanaconde to Llahuar (4-5 hours down and 7-8 hours back up); Cabanaconde to San Juan de Chuccho to Sangalle to Cabanconde; Cabanaconde to Llahuar to Sangalle to Cabanaconde; Cabanaconde to Fure & Huararo.
We did the Cabanaconde to Llahuar trek for no reason other than that was the trek which was included by our tour company as part of a 4wd exploration of the altiplano above Puno, the Colca Canyon and Aticama desert. Even though it was only one day of hiking with an overnight in Llahuar this was about right for us as the scenery within the lower canyon does not really have a great deal of variation.
Independent or guided
We had limited time in Peru and therefore chose to organise our trek through a tour company based in Arequipa (Peru Adventure Tours), which had the advantage of including the trek as part of a tour which took us from Puno to Arequipa. Unlike Machu Picchu, however, tour guides in the Colca Canyon region are not mandatory and it is relatively easy to undertake any trek independently. Buses regularly leave for Cabanaconde from Arequipa via Chivay (from where the tourist boletico for the region must be bought). Once in Cabanaconde information on the various paths can be obtained from the municipilidad or one of the hostels in town. Alternatively guides can be hired in the town, which at least has the advantage of keeping the tourist dollars in the region.
Our trek – Cabanaconde to LLahuar.
We started the trek from the north west corner of the Plaza de Arnas next to the municipalidad and proceeded west on Calle San Pedro, turning right at the first cross street, Calle Ayacucho. We proceeded for one block and then turned left into Calle Bolivar and followed it slightly uphill. Near to the end of Calle Bolivar were signs pointing to two Miradors in opposite directions. We veered right to Mirador de Achachichua from where the paths leading down to Sangalle and Llahuar stretched out into the distance. We then made our way back to a bull ring just south of the Mirador. Keeping the bull ring to our left side we walked around to the west side from where a rough vehicle/livestock track started to head off down the valley. Conveniently “Llahuar” and an arrow had been painted on a stone on the track indicating the direction to take. We continued along the track in a westward direction until it narrowed and started to zig zag down into a narrow ravine. After reaching the bottom of the ravine (a convenient place for a snack break) the path crossed over a small bridge and curled on a slight incline along the other side of the ravine. After about 15-20 mins of fairly flat walking, the path recommenced its way zig zagging down towards the river at the bottom of the canyon, occasionally intersecting with a road from Cabanaconde. Finally, after about 4 hours we reached the bottom of the canyon.
From the bridge at the bottom of the canyon a small active geyser could be seen. This bridge was not, however, the end of the trek. A slog up the road on the other side of the bridge followed until we reached a track that branched off the road as the road turned 90 degrees. From there, the track passed through a small farming community (all dressed in traditional costume and thankfully selling cold drinks) before commencing another set of zig zags down to a bridge over the Rio Huaruro (losing all the height we had just gained slogging up the road). From the bridge it was just 10 minutes up the path on the other side to reach the Llahuar lodge (at 2020m), perched above the Rio Colca and Rio Huararo.
Accommodation at the Llahuar lodge
The Lluhaur lodge, like all accommodation at the bottom of the lower canyon, is rustic and basic. It comprises a restaurant overlooking the rivers and individual huts made out of bamboo or reed stalks tied together and separate toilet/cold shower servicing all of the huts. The views are stunning, the staff and owners friendly and the cold drinks very welcome. However the main reason that a lot of travellers choose this lodge over others in the canyon are the thermal pools which sit just above the Colca River to ease the aches and pains from the trek down.
Getting back to Cabanaconde
From Llahuar lodge you have a few options on how to return to Cabanaconde. First, you can simply walk back the way you came – but, given it is all uphill, allow a lot more time to get back up than it took getting down. Secondly, you can take a path round to Sangalle, spend a night there and then head back up to Cabanaconde, effectively splitting the uphill climb into two days (with some added distance). Lastly, you can do what we did and organise a 4 wd to take you back up the road to Cabanaconde (when we were at the lodge they advertised this as a service that they could arrange on your behalf). Be warned, however, the road is not for the feint hearted (i.e. me). It appears to have been created through the use of dynamite and bulldozers. There are no foundations to keep the road in place or guard rails to keep cars on the road. The road which zig zags up 1200m to the top is barely able to fit two cars (and in many places is one and a half cars wide at best). With any mistake potentially resulting in a car plummeting 1200m to the canyon below, the road is a clear candidate for the tv show “The Worlds Most Dangerous Roads”. A skilled driver and roadworthy car are musts and we were fortunate that our tour company had specifically selected a rally driver who demonstrated great skill and care on these roads to escort us around the region.
Like most hiking paths in Peru, treks in the Colca Canyon are at altitude, albeit that they are hiked in the reverse of what is normal – taking you first down in altitude before re-ascending to your starting point. Even so hiking at altitude should be undertaken with care and proper acclimatisation. Don’t think that you can embark on such a hike on your first couple of days in Peru. We bumped into a European couple at the LLahuar lodge who had done just that and as a consequence decided to stay at the lodge for a few days before embarking back up the path to Cabanaconde.
Hiking in this region is hot, dusty and largely devoid of shade. Sunscreen, a hat, plenty of water to keep you hydrated and snacks for energy are highly recommended. The paths are also often steep and gravelly and hiking poles can be invaluable in keeping you upright.