The Colca Canyon is a top adventure travel destination in Peru and the most popular activity is hiking in the Colca Canyon. We spent a few days on the steep and challenging trails in this epic hole in the ground and here’s our day-by-day guide to hiking in the Colca Canyon. And don’t miss the drone video over the canyon that tracks our hiking route from above.
The Colca Canyon (Cañón del Colca in Spanish) was named after storehouses called colcas that were found in the area and in many other areas during the Pre-Incan and Incan times. It’s considered to be one of the deepest canyons in the world and there’s no easy way to hike through it.
Some claim that the so-called Grand Canyon of Peru is nearly 11,000 feet (3,353 meters) deep–nearly twice as deep as the actual Grand Canyon. However, others say that measurement is taken from the highest point on the canyon rim and the Colca Canyon is ringed by massive peaks and volcanos, so that number may be misleading.
Still, the Colca Canyon is a mighty big hole in the ground. Even when measured from the edge of the canyon rim, it’s many thousands of feet to the bottom of the canyon and it has a length of about 43 miles (70 km).
Most hikers go from Cabanaconde directly down to the riverside town of Sangalle and back up to Cabanaconcde. We opted for a longer 3-day hike because we wanted to see more of the canyon. The following hiking loop is best done from the town of Cabanaconde to Llahuar to Sangalle then back up to Cabanaconde as described below. It can be done in the opposite direction, but the trail connecting Sangalle and Cabanaconde is very steep and would make a much more brutal descent than the longer but slightly gentler trail down from Cabanaconde to Llahuar.
Day-by-day guide to hiking in the Colca Canyon
During three days in the canyon, we gaped at condors, gasped on the trails (which are steep and at altitudes between 6,700 feet/2,042 meters and 10,800 feet/3,291 meters), and soaked in hot springs. It was delightful and challenging.
Day 1: Cabanaconde to Llahuar
First, a confession: we had a bit of trouble finding the trailhead out of Cabanaconde and wandered around on the rim of the canyon before we found the way down. Once on the right path, we quickly dropped off the canyon rim and soon left the green grasses and flowering plants behind.
The trail down from Cabanaconde to the tiny riverside village of Llahuar on the valley floor is relentlessly steep. Karen was mostly watching her feet on the gravel-covered trail, but Eric says the canyon scenery was lovely–a palette of earth tones and rocks and cactus punctuated by flashes of green whenever we were near a water source.
After reaching the valley floor, we crossed a couple of bridges before reaching the “village” of Llahuar which was, essentially, just a couple of guesthouses (Casa de Virginia and Llahuar Lodge) near the confluence of the Rio Colca and the smaller Rio Huaruro. We saw just two other hikers on the trail all day.
A sign at the first of two hostels in Llahuar made it seem like only their guests are allowed to use the adjacent riverside hot spring pools. That prompted us to choose Llahuar Lodge where 20 soles (about US$5) per person got us a basic private room with a foam mattress bed and a shared bathroom with a flushing toilet and a cold water shower. The plants in front of our room were full of big black bumble bees and copper-colored dragonflies which were mesmerizing to watch as we rested in the late afternoon.
Llahuar Lodge also has wooden bungalows. Note that bungalows 308 and 309 are located right on the river and have great views. The lodge’s restaurant turned out decent simple meals.
But it was the lodge’s hot springs that won the day. Large stone and tile soaking pools on the river were just what our aching muscles needed (why is it so much more brutal to walk downhill all day vs. walking uphill all day?).
Allow 4-5 hours for this 6-mile (10 km) day which is almost entirely downhill.
Day 2: Llahuar to Sangalle
Because we crossed the Colca River near the end of Day 1, we were now hiking on the other side of the canyon from Cabanaconde. From Llahuar, we climbed up on the trail for about 2 hours then continued along the dirt road that travels through the canyon, passing the village of Belen. We were surprised to see a bus on the road too. We cut off the main dirt road and walked over a plateau before descending through the village of Mulata. From there, we descended steeply back down to the valley floor.
The descent seemed neverending, but we eventually crossed the river on a bridge and from there we hiked on a (relatively) flat stretch of trail to the village of Sangalle along with about 20 other hikers. Sangalle lived up to its reputation as a backpacker oasis with many riverside hostels with spring-fed swimming pools and cold beer.
In Sangalle, we chose Oasis Paraiso Ecolodge where 15 sole (about US$4) gets you a dorm room bed. We went for a 40 soles (about US$11) private double room with a shared bathroom with a hot water shower and towels but (weirdly) no soap (byo).
Then we hit the pool in their lovely garden and enjoyed a good hot lunch. In high season lodges in Sangalle can be packed, but there were only about 10 other people at our lodge when we were there in the month of April.
Allow 4-5 hours for this 6-mile (10 km) day.
Day 3: Sangalle to Cabanaconde
We got up early to beat the heat for the climb up out of the canyon and back to Cabanaconde. We could see the trail zig-zagging up the canyon wall from our hostel in Sangalle and we’d been visualizing ourselves powering up it.
The morning started out at a fast clip and we had hopes of finishing under the average ascent time, however, sun, increasing altitude, and a mile-long section of boulders showed us who was boss. At one point we also paused long enough to admire an Andean condor circling overhead.
We were asked to show our boleta turistico at a checkpoint on the trail near the top.
Allow about 4 hours for this leg since the trail gains 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) in just three miles (5 km) and it’s a very, very steep climb.
Tips for hiking in the Colca Canyon
Don’t forget your boleto turistico
All foreigners must buy a boleto turistico from the ticket station on the highway from the city of Arequipa near the town of Chivay. This tourist ticket costs 70 soles (about US$21) and is valid for one week (though nobody checked the date on ours when we left the region). The ticket is an impressive souvenir and many people squirrel it away in their luggage right after they receive it. However, you can be asked to show your boleta at any time, so carry it with you even when hiking. We were asked to show our boleta on the trail.
Take your time
Some people rush down from Cabanaconde to Sangalle on the canyon floor, then climb right back up again in one very long, very hard day. The trekkers we talked to who did that one day bounce spoke mostly about being exhausted, not about being amazed. Though Sangalle is the most famous (and busiest) destination inside the Colca Canyon, the canyon is crisscrossed with trails and other places to explore and sleep. If you have the time, our 3-day/2-night loop (as described above) takes you through some of the best the Colca Canyon has to offer.
No one wants to do a canyon hike with an overstuffed pack. However, here are a few things that are worth carrying with you.
- Flashlight (many hostels have no electricity or limited solar power)
- Swimsuit (the hot springs and pools are calling)
- Cash (there no ATMs and no one accepts credit cards)
- SPF 50 sunscreen (there is virtually no shade on the trails)
- Sun hat (see above)
- A mini bar of soap (it’s not always provided)
- Water purifier (bottled water is expensive and polluting)
- Trekking poles (trails are steep and often covered in loose gravel)
- Hiking boots (highly recommended over tennis shoes given the steep, rocky, unstable terrain)
- Lightweight off-trail shoes (we always hook a pair of Crocs to the outside of our packs – they’re ugly but they weigh almost nothing, can get wet, and can be worn with socks on chilly nights)
- Your boleto turistico (a cool German we met in Llahuar didn’t have his boleto with him which meant he had a lot of explaining to do–in Spanish–to avoid paying again)
Soak in it
Like many volcanic areas, the Colca Canyon has a lot of natural hot springs which is good news for sore hikers.
The simple Termales Chacapi, about a mile outside the town of Yanque, has changing rooms and a variety of steaming pools on the edge of the Colca River where you can let the mineral-rich water work its magic. There are also public hot springs near Chivay, including Termales La Calera. The most luxurious hot springs experience can be had at Colca Lodge, Spa & Hot Springs where four enticing riverside soaking pools have been built.
Get a condor’s eye view of the Colca Canyon and this hiking route in our drone travel video about hiking in the Colca Canyon, below.
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