Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Canyon Country - Arequipa and Colca

After the obligatory (and rightfully so) visit to Cusco and Machu Picchu I was ready to start moving south, to Arequipa. This white city of southern Perú is still in the mountain region, beautifully set next to the volcano Misti. You can feel more of the small city vibe even though you have all the services, lots of restaurants, big plazas with palm trees and another massive cathedral. I got a bit of a shopping bug and found some funny small souvenirs to my friends and actually lots of lambada style dance outfits for the coming dance parties. The shopping malls are not as glitzy as in Argentina or Brazil but you can find everything there. One thing in particular I found surprising were the tens of shops selling wedding dresses, they're everywhere!

One of the top things to do in Arequipa is to visit the Monastery of Santa Catalina (entrance: 35 soles). It’s not just a monastery but more like a miniature city with streets, houses, water distribution systems… The maze of buildings spreads over a couple blocks (20.000m2), conveniently almost in the center of Arequipa. In its heyday the monastery housed 800 people (around a third of them nuns). Several of the nuns’ houses were open to visits, still fully furnished and preserved with explanations in four languages – a very nice place to spend an hour or two. The monastery is also open during the evening on Tuesdays and Thursdays for candlelit tours!

Sunset from my hostel's rooftop terrace
When it comes to travel (Arequipa is no exception to the rest) you cannot miss a tour agency and “trekking” signs. The most popular places to visit close to Arequipa are the canyons in the area, especially the Colca Canyon. The information about the canyon varies but it is one of the most deepest canyons in the world, only about 160 deeper is the Cotahuasi Canyon, right next to Colca. Looking at the tour agendas I opted for the three-day over the more rushed two-day trek with one of the recommended agencies, Peru-Suiza. I paid 150 soles (around 40€) for three days of trekking with a guide, meals and accommodations in the canyon – less walking per day and more time to explore the route than on the two-day trek.

The fun part: we left 3am the next morning. 3am. In the morning. 3am. And yes, I got up at 2.40 with a bag I had packed the last night. First there was a 3-hour ride in the minivan (after we collected all the people around the city – nice that you don’t have to wonder in the city at 3am but that they pick you up). You can try to sleep during that time – which I had no trouble doing – but it’s a bit bumpy. At around 7am we arrived to the little dusty town Chivay for breakfast. From there we continued on in the van to Cruz del Condor, a famous viewpoint for the Andean Condors that use the streams warm air to soar in the canyon. They were quite impressive to watch, especially if you got close enough (we were lucky) for them to swoop above your heads! The birds have the largest wingspan in the world and yes, they look amazing. I was a bit disappointed we didn’t have too much time there (the only thing that I’d change in the trek), but enough to see the condors.

Not just condors!
After that we continued a bit more in the van and were dropped off with our daypacks and our guides at the side of the road, close to the town of Cabanaconde. From there we would set of on our trek. I was in a group with two German guys, Moritz the mountain climber and Michael the funny guy, plus our local canyon guide Sergio. It was about 10am when we started to descend from 3200m to the bottom of the canyon on the sandy paths. I knew I wasn’t a big fan of descending but this one was particularly annoying: three hours on the slippery paths with lots of loose sand and rocks and lots of solid rocks as well. If you didn’t watch your feet you’d soon slip or just step into the canyon. It was really hard for the legs. But – the views were great!

It was pretty warm in the canyon, especially considering the altitude, and shorts & a t-shirt was totally enough (or even too much). Almost no wind to cool you down! By the time we reached the bottom my legs were so tired and knees aching. We crossed a small hanging bridge to get to the green side of the canyon from where it was about half an hour to get to the village of San Juan for hour lunch. By that time, around 2 pm, I was starving – the food couldn’t have tasted better. We took a little break after lunch and walked about an hour more to another village for our dinner and accommodation with a local family. It rained a bit so I was happy I had taken my rain coat with me again. The accommodation was very basic but we had a big room and there was a shower and a toilet across the yard.

In the Canyon villages with Sergio. BTW, did you know that the meat of the black animals taste better? That's what they believe there anyway!

Breakfast in the canyon - kitty Michy wanted some banana pancakes too!

The second day we had a “late” wake-up at 8am – in fact it was really late since we went to bed at around 9pm., exhausted from the hike. After the breakfast we started walking forward in the canyon, towards an area at the bottom of the canyon called the Oasis. It’s just what it sounds like, a green oasis with about five different lodges that have luscious gardens, pools, cabanas and restaurants. It was a two hour hike to the oasis. We passed by the village of Malata, where there was a small museum and we also got to taste the local corn beer, chicha.

Oasis from the above (picture taken the day before from the other side of the canyon)
The garden in the Palmeiras, our lodging

By the time we arrived to the Oasis it was already pretty warm and I couldn’t wait to get into the pool! “Oasis” is actually the name of one of the lodges in this area, the first one that opened there - we stayed at a place called Palmeiras del Paraiso. The pool at the Palmeiras del Paraiso was beautiful and the water was really refreshing, I had some time to lie in the sun chairs before the lunch. After lunch we headed to the actual Oasis – there was a bar and a football field. They guys had a “friendly” football game Peru vs. Rest of the World (Germany & Argentina): the Rest of the World won. I preferred the Palmeiras del Paraiso: the pool and the bungalows were nicer in the Paraiso than in the Oasis. But was fun to go have a Pisco Sour in the Oasis.

It was good to have a bit more relaxing day since the next morning we had another early wake up again to start the hike at 5am. We needed to get to the top of the canyon in one go, from 2100m to 3200m in altitude. It was another zigzag path and it was still dark when we started. It was good that I brought my headlamp with me! Quite soon after we started the dawn was starting to break further in the canyon. We had a good pace and had a break about half an hour after we started. Our guide stayed to chat with some other guides and Michael, Moritz and I continued on without him.

Ready to leave the Oasis, at 5am...

We kept walking in nice steady pace, passing about four groups of people along the way, not stopping until we reached the top. We even passed three mules (and they’re supposed to go faster than people – you can actually hire a mule to take you up if you’re not in shape to walk)!! It took us 2h 10min to make it to the top. And that was pretty good!! Although I have to point out here that the local record is 45 minutes! The tourist record is a bit more modest 1h 25min, normally they say the hike is around three hours. I just had to race the last 100m to be there first, hehe! I actually liked the hike up, I was so happy to just go up and once I got going I felt really energetic all the way to the top.

It was a bit passed 7am when we were waiting for our guide to arrive to the top as well, enjoying the first rays of sun! He came up about 15min after us and we started to make our to Cabanaconde (about a 20min walk) where we would have our breakfast. Strangely I wasn’t too hungry even though I only had an apple and a Snickers bar before we started the hike.

From Cabanaconde we were taking the van back to Arequipa but we would make a couple stops on the way, first up was a mirador where you see a great view over the terraces all over the green side of the canyon. From there we continued to the hot springs (entrance was 5 soles, normally 15). It was nice to soak a while in the steaming water! From there we drove to have lunch (one of the best buffet lunch I’ve seen in a while – 20 soles) and a part of the group continued to Puno. We would still drive passed the highest point on road, at 4900m! It was about 5pm when we finally arrived to Arequipa… The end of a really nice three-day trip!

At 4900m!
Passing by some llamas

I still had that evening to spend in Arequipa. I went to look if I would find some nice souvenirs to buy but was feeling quite tired after the long trip. I just had a quick dinner (and taught the girls that ran the restaurant next door to my hostel how to open a bottle of wine :D), packed my bags and get some rest in my hostel. After all I would have to get up early, again, the next morning: I got a bus ticket to the southern border of Perú, Tacna, leaving 7am the next morning! And I was hoping to make it to San Pedro de Atacama (in Chile) – 1050km south - in one go… More about that on the next post!

Some travel tips for the Arequipa region

Arequipa is the capital of its region (also called Arequipa) and is well connected with buses – I’d recommend Cruz del Sol bus company, the prices are a bit higher but the service is usually top notch. I left arrived with Julsa and have no complains for that either but the Cruz del Condor departure lounge in Arequipa and the bus to Tacna (30 soles, about 6,5 hours) were really really nice. It’s always good to shop around for the bus tickets, there’s several companies and the all have their own offices, usually only at bus terminal but sometimes also in the cities or you can book the bus tickets at travel agencies. The prices can also change, my bus ticket was 7 soles cheaper when I booked it compared to three days earlier when I asked about the prices.

I can recommend the Colca Canyon trek, especially now at low season it was nice since we had a small group and happen to get a good guide. The canyon was really beautiful – a mix between extremely local and very touristy. It must be a bit different when there’s more people around there; lots of locals have moved out since it’s hard to support your family by just farming but they do return for the fiestas like the Carnival in the start of February. But we got a good taste of the canyon life, tasting the local fruits (some that only grow in the canyon) and learning from Sergio about the numerous traditions that still live among the locals who have high regard for the mother earth, Pachamama.

Some canyon trek tips: First and foremost: pack light! Tough it’s tricky: it’s hot during the day and cold during the night. The accommodations we had were good with nice beds and warm blankets. Pack water for your first day of trekking (I drank about 1l of water but would recommend to drink more) – you can get more from the canyon, as well as snacks. They’re a bit more expensive than in the city as they have to bring everything to the canyon with mules but especially the water is not worth carrying it all the way just to save a couple soles. You’ll find beer there too, as well as some bars. The food there is mostly vegetarian as it’s rare that the locals have fridges to keep the meat. There are lots of hostels so you can come without a tour as well, though I’d recommend finding out before what hostels are open (if traveling during low season) or if there’s space (high season). A walking stick can be helpful like with any treks.

Tours to Colca Canyon start at 70 soles (around 20€) for a two-day /one-night minivan tour + 70 for the entrance to the national park and possibly some extras, going up to (an incredible) 690 soles for a "everything included" three-day / two-night trek… you’d think you’ll get a suite for that price but no, camping! I was happy with my tour with Peru-Suiza and our guide Sergio was terrific. It was 150 soles for three days of trekking with a guide, meals and accommodations in the canyon and I spent around 150-200 on the rest. So yes, bring some cash for park entrance fee (70 soles), drinks (10 soles for a big bottle of water or a beer or a cocktail in Oasis), shopping (snacks, crafts), tips to your guide and possible extras you feel like splurging on… find out what exactly is included in your tour and what’s not before you sign up!


  1. Thanks a lot! The best description of colca canyon trek I've found on Internet. Took away all my questions...

  2. Nice to hear it helped :) Enjoy your trek!