Colca Canyon Trek (part 1)

El Cañon de Colca, at 3191m from highest to lowest point, was once considered the deepest canyon in the world. That was until someone measured the more remote Cotahuasi canyon nearby and declared a few metres deeper. It is all very debatable as to how to measure a canyon's depth and not particularly important in the grand scheme of things. Regardless of whether it is number one or number two, the Colca Canyon is an impressive geological feature, particularly given its long history of human occupation. It seemed appropriate that, having visited the glacier-capped heights of the central Andes and followed them down into the wet and steaming jungles on their eastern flank, we now would drop down into the depths of one of the massive canyons that drain rivers through the arid western slopes of the Andes to the Pacific Ocean.

We signed up to do a 5-day trip, though only three of these would involve actually trekking in the canyon. The first and last day would be in a vehicle, which would hopefully allow us to see a broader range of the many different habitats that comprise the eastern side of the Andes Mountains.

Day 1 - Arequipa to Chivay

A small oasis in the arid hills north of Arequipa

Some curious wind-eroded formations

Marshlands in the high puna

Frozen seepage at 4500m

We left Arequipa at 7.30am in a minibus with eight fellow passengers, though only Bill from the US and Ruben and Ans from Belgium would be doing the 3-day trek with us. The others were doing the classic overnight trip to see the canyon but not to walk in it.

A group of grazing vicuñas

Volcan El Misti (5820m) rises above the tussock grass plains

We were quickly out of the attractive centre of Arequipa, passing through the depressing outer barrios in their arid setting, and on to the countryside beyond. Our bus climbed up behind Volcans Chachanca and Misti across a landscape bleached dry and quasi vegetation free, apart from the odd (in all senses) green and fertile valleys where springs brought the water from distant ranges to the surface. Climbing further, we reached the puna zone - the broad expanses of paja itchu (tussock grass). We had entered the area of the the Reserva Nacional Aguada Blanca y Salina, with its herds of grazing vicuñas, llamas and alpacas.

Llamas grazing amongst the tussocks

The 6075m shape of Volcan Chachanca dominates this high plain

This open landscape was dominated by the profiles of 6075m Chachanca and 5820m El Misti, the sea of tussock grass broken by the odd marshlands, where waterfowl abounded. Every so often we stopped briefly for 5-minute glimpses of some animals, a view, a frozen stream, some waterbirds, before pushing on.

Coots nesting in a small lake

Volcans Ampato (6288m) and Sabancayo (5976m)

Slowly we climbed this undulating high plateau to reach the highest point of the road; at 4910m, the Mirador de los Andes provided extensive views across a barren rocky landscape to a distant circle of seven volcanoes, some dormant and some active.

A field of apachetas at Mirador de los Andes

Overlooking Chivay in the Colca Valley

From the pass, the road dropped relatively quickly down to village of Chivay at 3630m, set amongst the terraced slopes and patchwork fields at the head of the canyon. It was time for a buffet lunch and a short walk to some 800-year old chullpas (tombs) set into the base of a cliff high above the valley floor, followed by a soak in the local thermal baths and a "culture" show with dinner.

Traditional dances at a tourist dinner

Colonial church at Chivay

800-year old chullpas (tombs) beneath a cliff

Cactus in the shade

Young girl in traditional costume

It had been a day of very different tourism than we normally partake of; it was good to see yet another aspect of the Andes, but I don't really like being spoonfed my experiences in small bites. It is much better to chew them over slowly and digest them at your own pace. I guess that is why we like to walk.

Day 2 - Chivay to Cruz del Condor

We were up at 5am and away by 6am, as we needed to be at Cruz del Condor by 8.30am, where the sight of soaring condors was to be the highlight of our agenda. Leaving Chivay, we followed the dirt road around the edge of the ever deepening canyon, with stops at two small villages, Yanque and Maca, both of which have 18th century baroque churches built out of white sillar stone. They also served "tourism on tap", where street vendors, dancers and people in traditional dress appear with llamas or tame birds of prey for the amusement of and payment by tourists. This entertainment is turned on when the first mini-bus load of tourists arrives and turned off when the last leaves. It was sad watching the young children hanging qround in the cold morning air waiting for a bus to arrive, so that they could start dancing with unsmiling faces.

The baroque colonial church at Maca

Early morning light on the Colca Valley

Yanque at dawn - A tourist and his dollar are soon parted

The Colca Valley starts to deepen and
form a canyon

Such displays of culture seem unnatural (unlike fiestas that you may have the good fortune to stumble upon, where the people are obviously enjoying themselves), but who are we, loaded up with tourist dollars, to judge how the people here make an extra sol or two. Still, I felt depressed.

Terraced fields dating from pre-Incan times

Condors waiting for the thermals to develop

Leaving Maca, our bus continued to follow the edge of the deepening canyon. Across the river, now 800m below us, the slopes were a network of terraces and a patchwork of fields, legacy of the pre-Incan cultures who lived and practiced agriculture in this upper part of the Colca Valley. My depression intensified when we first saw the Cruz del Condor - up to 20 minibuses were already there and the rocky knoll at the edge of the canyon seemed to have more people on it then there were pigeons in the Plaza de Armas in Arequipa.

We duly took up a place on the canyon edge and, not long after, an audible gasp from the crowd was heard. The first condor had taken off from its rocky ledge on the cliffs below and soared by beneath. Almost immediately it was joined by another, then a third and the magnificent spectacle of the condor fly-past began. Up to a dozen of these giant birds were in the air at any one time, their 3m span wings outstretched as they soared by, enchanting the crowd with sweeping curves below and above, sometimes almost hovering kite-like a few metres above our aheads.

Mature male condor at Cruz del Condor

Soaring high above the Andes - El condor pasa!

The condors themselves seemed to be observing we curious earthbound humans, before soaring off with a subtle flick of one wing and (if condors could smile) a wry smile at all the gaping mouths. For an hour we watched this rhapsody of flight, where even a near mid-air collision became a balletic move, before one by one the birds drifted off on the rising thermals to go about their daily business. Depression had long since been replaced by wonder and I didn't mind how many people I shared this experience with. So sit back and appreciate the flight of the majestic 3m wing-spanned condor.

3m wing-span in full stretch

Perfect synchrony

Young male soaring by ...

.... followed by a mature female

The condor stalled just above my head and for a brief moment
this 3m wing-span bird was watching me!

Day 2 - The trek starts; Cabanaconde to San Juan de Chuccho (10km - 1200m descent - 140m ascent)

Once the great birds had gone, we met up with Elias, our guide for the walking part of this trip, and drove down to nearby Cabanaconde to begin our 3-day trek into Colca Canyon. After the last couple of treks with horses and porters, it seemed strange putting on a fully-loaded pack once again. Our small group of six, Elias, Bill, Ruben and Ans, the fair Nello and I, set off from a field at 3370m, crossing quickly over to the rim for our first glimpse of the Colca River, now over a 1000m below. On the opposite side, several villages dotted the northern wall of the canyon, with their green terraces and faint interconnecting paths, while other trails zigzagged straight up the steep walls to the canyon crest over 4500m high. These paths are a product of over 800 years of human settlement - even today everything needed by the villagers is brought in by mule.

Looking down the canyon from our start ...

.... and looking up the canyon

Track across the dry north-facing wall

Some of the villages and tracks on the far side

We started our descent of one of these well-worn tracks, traversing the steep north-facing southern wall. The sun was obviously strong on this side and the vegetation had a distinctly parched air. Nonetheless, the track was still dotted with blue, yellow and orange flowers, while several species of cacti, some over 200 years old, grew amongst the rocks. Views westward and then eastward, up and down the canyon, opened out as we descended the first 350m along this winding traverse, while two last condors soared by as they swept up the winding canyon.

Descending into Colca Canyon

A large jointed cactus on the path

View up the canyon

Above us and below us the rock walls dwarfed us with their height and sheerness, until a series of steep zig-zags led us down another 650m to the river in its orange-walled inner gorge. The geology of the canyon was fascinating, with enormous walls of fluted grey rock adjacent, smooth orange coloured cliffs and thick layers of conglomerate rock.

Part of the steep descent to the river ....

... beneath sheer grey fluted rock walls

Across the river lies the green oasis of
San Juan de Chuccho

Grey boulders and orange cliffs of the Colca River

We crossed the river on a new suspension bridge, where a short steep climb brought us out above 80m conglomerate river cliffs to the green oasis of San Juan de Chuccho. From here we wandered the stone paths alongside tinkling water canals and green grass that rew beneath the shady trees (what a contrast to the exposed north-facing canyon wall) to reach our hostal in time for a late lunch and solar-heated shower.

Our hostal in San de Chuccho

The inner gorge of the Colca River

A shady oasis in the village

The canyon wall from San Juan de Chuccho

It had been a long day, but we still had time to relax in the afternoon and watch the shadows gradually creeping up the opposite canyon wall as the sun lowered in the sky. It was good to have this chance as Elias, our guide, had promised us that tomorrow would be the hard day of the trek.

Day 3 - San Juan de Chuccho to Fure (14km - 920m ascent - 590m descent)

We were on the trail by 6.30am; the hard day of the trek lay ahead and we wanted to benefit from the early morning shade. Leaving the village of San Juan de Chuccho, we walking along the stone-wall lined paths, following the intricate canal system that keeps these villages as green oases. The water originates from springs higher up the canyon walls and the canal systems were originally built by the pre-Incan inhabitants of the canyon.

Small waterfall near St Juan de Chuccho

Early morning in the shade of the canyon wall

A superb blue agave

We followed a canal up into a narrow side valley, before crossing the valley stream and climbing steeply up an agave-lined zig-zagging path to the next village along, Cosnirhua. We wandered through this village to follow the flat path to Malata, the largest and last village of this cluster, with its terraced fields and aesthetic adobe church, listening to Elias' explanation of the history of setlement and social systems of these isolated communities.

Rest stop in Cosnirhua village

Shadows receding from the terraces of Malata

The adobe church in Malata

Villages and terraced fields of the Colca Canyon

As we crossed from village to village, the sun crept up in the sky, the shadows slowly descending down the opposite wall of the canyon and receding to the top of our side. Soon the protection of the high canyon walls was gone and the sun shone hotly as we left the green irrigated fields of the villages and entered the much drier natural vegetation, climbing slowly up a dirt track to a point where we could look back across the line of villages and garden terraces behind us.


Crossing the agave and cactus lined slope

From here we traversed an environment of dessicated shrubs, agave and and cacti, slowly traversing the steep slopes of the canyon. Cacti of many types - pear, candlestick, jointed, tiger, dwarf white - dotted the landscape, while the odd flowering bush lent a splash of colour.

Looking back along our path

Track across the parched wall of the canyon

The Colca River was once again far below and, across it, a long zig-zagging path led out of the canyon, over 1000m above. We were pleased that we would not be taking that route out. We were once again in full sun on this longish upward traverse, shared with the odd local dog and an old lady on a donkey out collecting tunas (the fruit of pear cactus).

Hot day in the canyon

Track zig-zagging 1200m up to the canyon rim

Old lady on a donkey

View back up the Colca Canyon

Finally, we reached the rounded dome of a ridge marking the junction of the Colca Canyon with a side canyon, the Huaruro. Ahead lay impressive views of our path tomorrow along the canyon floor far below. However, today we turned north and headed up the side canyon, first crossing a broad and gentle dry slope near its mouth, before starting an undulating and meandering climb across the steep slope and beneath sheer rock walls as we penetrated deeper into the canyon.

Heading across to the Huaruro Canyon

Junction of the Colca and Huaruro Canyons

Once again, the vegetation began to change; other cacti became rarer and prickly pear more dominant on the slopes in the upper canyon area, while the shrubby plants were less drought-stressed, with occasional heliotropes and lupins covered in scented blue flowers. Ahead the narrowing canyon walls took on an almost glowing greenish tinge in afternoon sunlight. Clearly the microclimates of this complex canyon system change rapidly, both vertically and horizontally.

The canyon walls become steeper ...

.... and steeper ...

... as we penetrate deep into the Huaruro Canyon

One last steepish climb on a narrow path high above the valley floor, to cross a stream below a ribbon waterfall cascading down from several hundred metre above, brought us to Fure, a tiny village deep in the Huaruro Canyon and our home for the night. This one of the most isolated villages in the Canyon and permanent home to about 20 families, not so long ago it was more than twice this size, but the activities of the Sendero Luminoso saw many villagers escape to the city, Arequipa. A strange group, the Sendero Luminoso, to terrorise the very people they purported to fight for.

View of the Huaruro Canyon from our hostal

Our rustic hostal in Fure

We set up in a small and rustic hostal for a late lunch and a chance to relax in the warm afternoon sun and enjoy the views up the narrowing canyon. However, our day was not yet done - siesta over, we would doing a 5km climb further up into the canyon to see whether the Huaruro Falls were as spectacular as they were claimed to be.

Go to Part 2