From Arequipa we decided to explore the Colca Canyon, a famous Peruvian landmark that we were told was a must-see. The canyon is 4,160 meters at its deepest, which makes it twice the size of the Grand Canyon, although the sloped hills of the Colca Canyon make it appear more like a giant valley.

There are many different routes through the canyon that depend on how many days you can afford and your affinity for hiking. Options include hiking through the towns that line the edges of the canyon or taking a bus straight to the town of Cabanaconde at 3287 meters and hiking straight down to Sagalle, the lush oasis that lies 1.3 kilometres below. We took the latter route, which is straightforward enough to do without a guide.

Our journey from Arequipa began at 11:30am when we boarded a “Reyna” bus at the Terminal Terrestre. We heard “Reyna” busses were nicer than those of other companies. We had purchased our tickets the night before, but this probably wasn’t necessary.

Tourist Ticket:

Four hours later we got to the town of Chivay. When we got off the bus we were accosted by official-looking tourist officers who told us we had to buy a 35 sole tourist ticket to visit the canyon’s main attractions. We were dubious so we found an internet cafe and did some research, and found most people had purchased the ticket. Despite this, we were only asked to show this ticket once, when we got to “Cruz del Condor”, and the security here was spotty at best. If you’ll be sorely disappointed at missing Cruz del Condor, I’d recommend buying the ticket otherwise don’t. The ticket is controversial amongst locals since it is supposed to support the Canyon communities and yet the money never gets there.

We had a quick lunch and then boarded an Andalucia bus to Yanque, which we read was a nicer place to stay than Chivay. In Yanque we found Qoyllur Wasy (Calle Ticlla 307) a casa viviencial, or home stay, owned by a kind farmer named Teodoro (qoyllorwasiyanque@hotmail.com). We explored the town further and went into a cafe attached to the Colca Backpacker’s Hostel. There we met Frank and Jang who teach yoga and offer hikes in the valley. Coincidentally, they knew our friend Priya from Cusco who we mentioned in an earlier post. We shared a glass of a tasty concoction they called ‘Inca beer ‘ and then they offered to take us on a quick tour of the surrounding area.

It was getting dark, but we walked with flashlights to the outskirts of town. They showed us a giant natural ampitheatre formed by a semi-curcular hill of andenes cut into the hillside. Then they showed us the “Colcas” that the canyon is named after. The ancient indigenous people built natural cold cellars, or “Colcas”, by storing their food in caves carved into the cliff. The food was naturally refrigerated by the cold wind that funnels through the canyon.

The next morning we woke early and were in the plaza by 6:45 am to catch the bus to Cruz del Condor. Traditionally dressed women danced around the plaza, while snow-capped mountains stood in the distance. The morning was crisp and cold, and our bellies were aching for something to eat. We found a woman in the plaza selling sandwiches, some with egg and others with cheese. We convinced her to sell us ones with both egg and cheese, and quickly scarfed down our Peruvian egg Mc-Muffins. The bus finally screeched into the plaza at 7:30, a half-hour late, and we were off.

At Cruz del Condor we sat patiently taking in our first magnificent views of the canyon. Some minutes later a giant condor swooped up from the depths and soared over our heads. The tourists gathered at the lookout point followed the condors flight across the sky through the lenses of their digital cameras. These majestic birds have a wingspan of over 10 feet and weigh up to 15 kilograms. They are categorized as “soarers”, birds that flap their wings once or twice to take flight, then rely on thermal air currents to stay aloft.

Once the condor had disappeared, we began walking the 12 kilometres to Cabanaconde while we waited for a bus to pass. After 2 kilometres, the bus still hadn’t come so we flagged down a passing pick-up truck and hitched a ride into town. From the back of the farm truck, we balanced ourselves while taking in an amazing unobstructed panorama of the canyon.

In Cabanaconde, we followed the street across from the church to the beginning of the trail to the oasis. For the next two and half hours we navigated the rocky switchbacks down the canyon face, pausing occasionally to catch our breath and admire the views. Below us, we could see the lush green oasis that would eventually reward our efforts, although it never seemed to get any closer. When we got to the bottom our legs were so wobbly we couldn’t fathom how we’d manage the climb the next morning.

We stayed at some rustic cabinas surrounded by beautifully manicured gardens, streams and pools, appropriately named “El Eden“. Our simple room was only 15 soles for the night, but was nothing more than a dirt floor, muddy adobe brick walls and a thatched roof. While the room was cheap, the beers were not. Understandable, considering they must take the same route to the oasis that we did.

We went for a quick dip in the pool, a huge relief for our aching bodies, then walked down to the river that flows at the bottom of the canyon. The light was quickly fading, blocked by the enormous western cliff face. We returned to “El Eden” for a candlelight dinner and chatted with another guest, an Argentine travel-writer, until it was time for bed.

Navigating with flashlights, we crawled into our cabina, dozing off as the trickling of the river mixed harmoniously with the lightly falling rain.