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Photo essay Colca Canyon, Peru : 3 days trekking into the Canyon

Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world, measuring 4,160 meters (13,640′).  To give you some perspective, that’s twice as deep as the Grand Canyon! Woah man, that’s deep!  Most visitors to Arequipa decide to combine the city with a visit to the canyon, since the main town, Chivay, is just a short bus ride of 160 km (just about 100 miles) away.  There are a bevy of tour agencies in Arequipa that offer one or multi-day tours to Colca.  Like the Grand Canyon, it’s a pretty big tourist attraction.  Tour companies are quite competitive with each other and so it’s fairly cheap to go on a tour (tours run about 150 Soles or less).  One of the main ‘attractions’ of the canyon, aside from the beauty of it in itself, is seeing the condors from close range which you can do from the rim.  Condors are some of the largest birds in the world; the Andean condor has a wingspan of 3.2 m (10.5 ft)!  Seeing one in flight, is truly impressive.

Unfortunately, it’s also very popular to view them.  There is one location along the canyon rim that has been dubbed ‘Cruz del Condor’ because the nests of the condors are located nearby.  Most tours head out and spend the night in Chivay, then in the early morning they usher the hordes of tourists to the rim at Cruz del Condor in order to see the condors take flight (early morning is the best viewing time).  This is a fine plan if you are coming to the Colca Canyon to see the condors.  We have been fortunate enough to see the mighty condor during our previous travels and so we didn’t have a real interest to wake up early and go stand with other tourists waiting to see the famous bird.  We feel it becomes almost like a zoo at that point.  Instead, we wanted to get feeling for life inside the canyon and so we organized our own trekking trip.  Truth be told, we didn’t save a lot of money by doing it independently but the freedom we had to plan our own itinerary and avoid the crowds was priceless.

The canyon is rich in history and has been populated for thousands of years, first by the hunter-gatherers and later by the Cabanas (Quechua descendents from the Wari culture) and the Collaguas (Aymara from the Lake Titicaca region).  They built extensive terraces into the landscape which were used to irrigate their crops.  Later, the Incas came and helped perfect the system.  The canyon gets its name from the various ‘colcas’ built into the cliffs.  These colcas were basically storage rooms, using the naturally cool earth to store seeds for their crops.  After the Spanish conquest, small villages were created and those remain in place today.  Walking in the canyon is a dusty, hot affair and can be challenging for your knees (downhill) or your heart (uphill).  However, the rewards of visiting these small villages where locals allow homestays, are large.  Being immersed in the scenic beauty of the canyon without many other tourists was worth the work of climbing in and out.

In my next post, I plan to detail our trip of how we organized it independently, so if you are planning a visit to the region, stay tuned!

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_IMG8872_IMG88581. The village of Cabanaconde

Our first stop was at the village of Cabanaconde, which is located along the rim of the canyon.  We decided not to stop in Chivay (which is the major port of call that you come across).  It is a longer bus ride to Cabanaconde (just about 5 hours) but the scenery along the way makes it feel like less.  We found the town to be tranquil without crowds of tourists.  Keep in mind, however, if you visit Cabanaconde that there are no banks here.  You must bring all the cash you need with you, preferably in small bills.

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_IMG88962. The way down to the canyon

I am not going to lie, the way down the canyon was steep, dusty and hot.  There is little to no shade so be sure to wear sunscreen and a hat.  We had backpacks, so between the extra weight and the steep grade (and my old age!), my knees definitely paid the price.  But the scenery is absolutely stunning and the only other person we saw was this local villager with his horse.  If you are seeking solitude in the canyon, independent travel is the way to go.  Our first destination, Llahuar, was about 5 hours away (we stop a lot to enjoy, take photos and rest).

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_IMG89343. Geyser next to the river

Walking in the hot and dusty canyon, you can almost forget you are in a volcanic, geothermal area.  Spotting a geyser on the river is good reminder.

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_IMG89424. Deserted village inside the canyon

There are quite a few villages in this area.  Most of the villages are populated but some remain deserted, like this one we passed through on our way to Llahuar.  Yet, first looks can be deceiving because as we crossed, we could have sworn we heard some noise and we even saw a chicken!  Ghosts of the past or perhaps someone living inside one of the shacks. We’ll never know.

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_IMG89525. Enjoying the thermal bath next to the river

After 5 hours of descending, my knees were grateful for these hot springs located just on the Rio Colca at the Llahuar Lodge.  Okay, so my spirit was grateful too.  After all, how often do you get to soak in thermal baths right on a river?  Along with the extraordinary view of the canyon, this helped to make the descent a distant memory.  At the Llahuar lodge for $4 US, we were given a simple room made from bamboo-hot springs were included and available 24 hours a day.  It was a perfect place to celebrate a special day.  This day we celebrated our one year of travelling anniversary.  It wasn’t exactly a honeymoon suite but for us, it couldn’t have been a more fitting way to spend the day.  Our host, Yola, made us pisco sours and we toasted to many more years of travelling together.

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_IMG89766. Terraces inside the Canyon

These terraces have been in place since the time of the early settlers to the canyon.  The Incas came to be masters of this method of irrigation that fully utilizes and maximizes nature’s natural slope.  Terracing is one of the most efficient systems in agriculture, decreasing erosion and surface runoff.  Before the Incas even arrived, the Wari culture had vast knowledge of this amazing system.  Terracing is seen all over Peru and in various places around the canyon.

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_IMG89917. Local dress

The locals still preserve the old style of dress.  Women wear long skirts, sandals and hats that are shaped at points on both ends.  The culture is preserved and there are often celebrations in the canyon where the locals dance and play music.

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_IMG89958. Amazing color of the canyon

The canyon is alive with beautiful colors in red, orange, green, grey and every kind of color in between.  The areas along the river display a lively green.  There were even palm, banana and papaya fields growing in one area lending it a tropical feel.

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_IMG90009. The oasis of the canyon

Our second day of hiking afforded us many views.  One of the sights we saw quite often was of the village of Sangalle where the ‘Oasis’ is located.  This is the name given to one of the accommodations in Sangalle and it truly is a paradise.  Most people refer to the entrie area as the oasis and for good reason.  Gazing down at the aqua pools when you are hot, tired and thirsty certainly makes it look like a real paradise!

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_IMG9007_IMG893810. Crossing the river

In the early days of crossing, we imagined they had to scramble down the rocks and get into the icy water to cross.  These days, thankfully, there are usually bridges to help you traverse  We were surprised at how sturdy these bridges were and they afforded us a different perspective of the river and the colors around it.

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_IMG901311. The perfect place to relax in the bottom of the Canyon

Our second night was spent in Sangalle, which is pretty close to Cabanaconde.  We figured it would be easier to spend the night here and hike out of the canyon early when températures were cooler.  There are a few options to sleep in this village.  The most popular is at the Oasis but this is where you will find loads of other tourists (the tour groups usually spend the night here).  Nearby, is the Garden of Eden (Jardin del Eden) which we thought had an even more spectacular pool than its popular neighbour, as well as friendly owners who are willing to have a chat.  If you spend the night, this gorgeous, thermally heated pool is included.  It costs us about $4 US.  The pool is heated at about 20 C from the ground and the sun heats it to about 28-30 (about 78 degrees F).  We had a beer and went for a swim.  Not a bad end to the day.

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_IMG903512. After 4 hours of climbing, the view from the top of the canyon

Early the next morning, we climbed very steeply out of the canyon.  The way up from Sangalle was much shorter than the way down into Llahuar which meant it was relentlessly uphill.  Most people take 3 hours to climb out but we are slow, we like to be slow-it’s not a race people!  So after 4 hours, our hard work was rewarded with a spectacular view over the entire canyon.

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_IMG904713. Happy to be back

Three days in the canyon was a perfect amount for us.  If you are a hardcore hiker, you could make a 5 day trek in the area but our time was somewhat limited and to be honest, my knees can’t stand days and days of canyon hiking.  After a 3,600 ft ascent (1,100 m) in just 4 hours, we were happy to be back!!

Click to see more all our pictures of our adventure in the Colca Canyon

Stay tuned for my upcoming post about how we independently organized our trek into Colca Canyon

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