On: Colca Canyon

View of some of the villages in the Colca Canyon.

Last weekend we finally got to do one of the main touristic attractions of Arequipa: hiking the Colca Canyon. We decided to do a three-day/two-night hike, and because we are both SERIOUSLY broke and I speak enough Spanish to understand directions we decided to go without a guide. That being said, I do not plan to go into specific detail about how to independently hike the Colca Canyon. It is pretty easily done with plenty of patience and an intermediate to advanced level of Spanish. It’s definitely better than going with a tour group since you can go at your own pace and stay where you’d like, so I completely suggest to anyone considering heading to the Colca Canyon to grab a friend and save some serious soles by striking out on your own. However, most of my readers (aka my family and some friends) aren’t planning a Colca trip, so the exact details of how to go independently won’t be very necessary.

If anyone came here for step-by-step instructions on how to do an independent trek of the Colca, there are some great resources online that I used. These two sites were really what I went off of, and they also provide links to the maps that we used to get around (although honestly, the maps are basically useless and you’re better off asking locals for directions):

Pachamama Hostel in Cabanaconde: http://www.pachamamahome.com/tours.htm

How to Hike the Colca Canyon, Without a Guide: http://theparallellife.com/2011/11/28/how-to-hike-colca-canyon-without-a-guide/

I will also gives some tips in the story below about some of the mistakes we made and lessons we learned, so hopefully someone can avoid making them! Let’s get started:

Kyle and Traveling Dog.

Day one of our Colca adventure started with us hailing a taxi at 12:30am in Arequipa. We had gone to the busport the day before to ask when the various bus companies left for Cabanaconde, the town nearest to the start of the canyon’s most popular hikes (S17 bus ride on Reyna). Turns out the buses left at either 1am or 8am, and since it’s a six hour ride, we opted with 1am to get an early start and beat some of the canyon’s infamous heat. Upon arriving in Cabanaconde with only three hours’ sleep, I fed a cute street dog some of my breakfast crackers and he followed us for three days. We asked directions to the Mirador de San Miguel at a hostel in Cabanaconde, which according to the above guides is the starting point for a hike down to San Juan de Chuccho. Turns out, it’s not that simple.

Mirador de San Miguel trails.

It took us about forty minutes to find the mirador, since (as with the rest of the country) the Colca Canyon has no way-finding signs. We had to hike out of town, along the main road, and then turn left before the soccer stadium to get to the mirador. Once there, we spent nearly another hour hiking up and down paths that seemed to lead from the mirador to nowhere. It doesn’t help that you can’t see the bottom of the canyon from the top since it’s over twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Luckily, we saw another backpacking group with a guide walking past the soccer stadium and to a different cliffside. We surreptitiously followed them and found the actual trail, which was way more obvious.

The actual path to San Juan to Chuccho.

Once we were on the right path, it was really hot and an incredibly steep three hour trek downhill. We met a man with two lazy eyes riding a donkey up the path who very kindly told us a safer way to go when we got to the bridge at the bottom of the canyon. Once we got to the bridge, we had to show our boleto turístico that we bought on the bus when we entered Cabanaconde (S70, the cost doubled this year). You need the ticket to get into the villages in the Colca and the Condor lookout. We took the much less steep path to the right after crossing the river, and hiked back up to San Juan de Chuccho were we slept the entire rest of the day at our hostel called Posada de Roy.

Rooms at Posada de Roy.

I HIGHLY recommend that hostel!! It has the only private bathrooms in town, and quite possibly in the canyon. You do have to deal with bugs and spiders, but all the buildings in the canyon are made from adobe with thatch roofs, so that is to be expected. It was S20/person for a room and S10/person/meal which were delicious! The family was so kind, and spending the evening by candlelight since there was no electricity in town was something I had never had to do before. Smart tip: bring a flashlight, we forgot one which made getting around in the dark pretty hard.

The path gets very narrow and scary at points.

The next morning we did not get going as early as we should have since we opted to sleep in until 8:30am and get moving around 9:30. Terrible idea! It was so very hot in the canyon by that time, and it only got hotter. The wife of the owner of our hostel gave me very long and specific directions to get to our next destination, and I am so glad she did! The path forks a lot, and it would be very easy to waste hours going in the wrong direction. When in doubt, take the path with the most hikers’ footprints. Unfortunately, we went during the off-season and almost no one was hiking the valley in early November so we had to mainly go with directions and guesswork.

As you can see from the first picture, we had to start the hike by going straight uphill to the next town of Coshñirwa. We were sweating and miserable by the time we got there an hour later, but luckily the path flattens out and the road to Malata (not pictured but it’s to the left of Coshñirwa) is pretty straightforward. From there, we had to hike all the way back down to the bottom of the canyon to cross another bridge over the river and then back up to our final Colca destination: Sangalle, aka The Oasis. All in all, day two took about three and a half hours to hike.

A view of Sangalle before hiking down to the river.

Once you get to the Oasis, if you take the lower path you walk straight through a hostel with two pools called Oasis Paraíso which I read was no good according to the blog I linked to above. We tried to explore around, but it is really hard to find the other hostels since there is no signage and so many trees in the Oasis. We finally found one after continuing to hike to the left (when facing Cabanaconde) and then down a flight of stone stairs to Paraíso Lodge, which was pretty nice. It had shared bathrooms, and the doors of the entire place were made of bamboo sticks which made it a little uncomfortable when people walked past the bathrooms and could look in and see you.

Paraíso Lodge, view of the main building.

Paraíso Lodge cost the same as most of the hostels in the valley at S10/person for a room and S10/person/meal. It also offers a nice pool and a place to wash your laundry by hand. We were the only people at the hostel in San Juan de Chuccho, but there were many other groups with guides in Sangalle. We met a nice group that consisted of a few Germans, a guy our age from Austria, and a nice lady from France. It was fun to talk to other travelers and hear the conversation going in so many languages at once. Another tip: bring water purification tablets since water is S5 for a personal bottle and S10 for a 2.5 liter bottle. It was even S10 for a beer. Ouch!

The next morning we were smarter and started our hike out of the Colca Canyon at 5:30am. Even then, the hike is just wretched and you will sweat an insane amount and possibly want to lay down and cry. It took us nearly four hours to finally reach the top of the canyon, and it the weather was heating up at the end of it, even that early in the morning.

This is the worst part of the trails: stone stairs.

A big part of the trails down into the canyon and back up again look like this, and it’s the worst! Your muscles are already so exhausted, and having to lift your legs up at such uneven intervals and so constantly makes them give out even more. It got really disheartening at times to not be able to see the top, but we succeeded and it was a great feeling to finally be out of the canyon and head back into town. It wasn’t easy to get back though since we couldn’t find a clear path and ended up trekking through corn fields and hopping fences in people’s backyards.

We got back into Cabanaconde around 9:30am, bought tickets to return to Arequipa for 11:30am (S17 through Señor de los Milagros) and bought breakfast at a restaurant in the Plaza de Armas (S5). Final tip: do not take Milagros bus company, we stopped in the middle of nowhere and none of the drivers would tell us why. They locked the passengers in the bus cab and refused to answer anyone’s questions. We finally realized the bus must have broken down because they were pouring giant 2.5 liter bottles of water somewhere under the hood. After maybe 40 minutes, the drivers got back in the bus and drove off with the engine sounding very sick. The guy who was driving also decided it was better for the dying bus if he drove on the left side of the road and ignored the screams and poundings of the passengers yelling at him to drive in the right lane. I could constantly see an approaching car, bus, or big rig coming right for us, and then the driver would swerve out of the way at the last minute then go straight back into the left lane. It was a pretty terrifying two hour journey back to Arequipa, but we made it safe and sound with potentially a few more grey hairs from the experience.

In general, we are really glad we got to hike the Colca Canyon. It was exhausting and the return journey was quite scary, but now we know we can hike straight up a mountainside twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, so that’s pretty cool.

On: Buses

A common model of in-town bus.

Around Arequipa, my preferred method of transportation are my own two feet. My work is less than a ten minute walk away, downtown Arequipa is only twenty minutes away, and most of everyone we know lives somewhere in between. If we are going longer distances, or went grocery shopping and now can’t carry all the food back, then we take taxis. Yanahuara is such a safe neighborhood that we have never felt uncomfortable walking around, even at 4am (again, not recommended, but wholly possible). However, when we were in Cusco, we were living in the outskirts of town which was nowhere near walking-distance of downtown. Instead of taking an expensive taxi to and from downtown everyday, we got used to riding the buses.

It is a great idea to ask a local which bus is the right one to take to any given destination, because if you jump on the wrong one, you will end up really far away from where you meant to go and likely will have to flag down a taxi to take you to the right place. Some buses have where they are going painted on their sides, most just have a person standing in the doorway and shouting the street names at you. You have to learn which bus companies go to which districts via which paths.

As with the combis, the bus fee is usually not very clear. The posted prices are generally not the accepted ones, and be careful to give as exact change as possible since it’s common to not get any change back from the overworked doorman. You can flag down a bus at basically any point, but technically they are supposed to only stop at marked paraderos, or bus stops. You have to memorize your route and shout to the driver the stop before yours where exactly you need to get off, or else they might blow right past your stop. You either pay as you get off the bus, or if it’s really busy, the doorman will come to each person to take their fare and give you a little ticket to show you paid.

Sometimes you get in-route entertainment in the form of a person trying to sell the whole bus goods, magazines, or even their own CDs. We had one guy bring a portable amp onto the bus and play Christian pan-flute music for us, and then came around asking for money. You really don’t have to pay them seeing as how you didn’t ask them to try to sell you something.

Rush hour bus rides are miserable. There is generally only standing room available, and there are so many people stuffed into the buses that you are always getting elbowed in the face and people pressed against you and you have to breathe the same air someone else just exhaled since they don’t open up bus windows. It’s especially gross when people are coughing right in your face and there is nothing you can do about it. And then Peruvians like to blame illness on cold soda because drinking it warm is supposedly better for you.

Arequipa city tour bus.

Above we have another type of city bus which is much more favored by tourists. These tour buses are one way to explore the city and see the sights, if being removed from the local population or not having any adventures is your thing. There is one tourbus model that is even worse than this, at least tourists are forced to share the same air as the locals with the open-air buses. There are ones that are entirely enclosed, allowing the tourists to view the sights from above while enjoying being seated in an air-conditioned bus removed from all interaction with anyone who doesn’t speak your language. Honestly, the only reasons anyone should take these types of tours are if you have limited mobility, health issues, or unable to walk long distances. If you are in good health and have decent mobility in your legs and are seeking a guided tour of the city, at least take the walking tour.

The bus we took from Máncora back to Lima.

The third type of bus you will find in Peru are the long-distance buses, like the one above. They come in one- or two-level models, with the lower level having fewer seats and being more expensive. The bus company above (Etti) was terrible choice and not at all recommended. But there are many excellent bus companies that travel all over the country and into other countries as well that provide excellent service and security, and usually meals, too!

Like the country in general, the buses run on Peruvian time which means they will depart whenever and get to your destination whenever. There are always posted times for the bus schedules, but generally expect to leave anywhere between half an hour to two hours later and expect to arrive at the least an hour later (often 2-4 hours later). But definitely the most affordable way to travel about the country since planes are trains are incredibly expensive here!