Colca Canyon Trekking: Complete How to Without a Guide

Colca Canyon offers multi-day trekking in one of the world’s deepest gorges.  Located in southern Peru, this area offers challenging hikes with many route options.  There is no need to book an expensive tour as this trek can be done cheaply and easily using this detailed planning guide.

Colca Canyon is the third most visited area of Peru.  The vast majority of tourism is located in the town of Chivay, which acts as a hub for sightseeing tours.  A more rewarding way to seeing the canyon is on a multi day trek into the gorge.  Trekking options are readily available and start from the tiny and further village of Cabanaconde.

img_7253

1.) Things to Know Before Trekking Colca Canyon

  • There is no guide requirement for trekking in Colca Canyon.  The routes are easy to follow and can be done by anyone with basic hiking knowledge.
  • You are required to have a permit to hike in this park (explained below).
  • Trails are generally wide and stable, although many areas are very steep and tend to be covered in loose gravel.  Sturdy hiking shoes are recommended and trekking poles are helpful.
  • The sun can be strong in the canyon and there is a noticeable shortage of shade.  Starting early and bringing plenty of sun protection is essential.  The solar heat can make the long steep climbs even more difficult.
  • Elevations are no greater than 3,400 meters at their peak, which may or may not affect hikers depending on their acclimatization.
  • There are accommodations in the canyon, so there is no need to carry camping gear unless you plan on doing an alternate route.  Hotels in Cabanaconde will store excess luggage so only the essentials need to be carried on the hike.
  • It is possible to book your accommodations online before the trek if you know your route, or you can shown up and find a hotel on the fly if this is your style.  Obviously this is subject to availability and will be more difficult in the May through August peak season.  More on accommodations below.
  • There are no ATMs in Cabanaconde so bringing adequate cash is a requirement.
  • Depending on the time of year, natural water sources may be hard to find.  Bottled water is sold in all villages along the way.  Carrying water purification helps cut down on plastic consumption.
  • There may be mosquitoes in the base of the canyon near accommodations by the river.
  • Using maps.me offline GPS app will help with routes and trail directions.

img_7237

2.) Permit Requirement

Entering the Colca Canyon park area for trekking requires an official permit, which costs 70 soles face value and is valid for five days.  These are widely available in Cabanaconde at many small stores, even when the park office is closed.  We were able to purchase ours late in the evening upon arrival.  Alternatively, you can purchase a ticket from the person on duty along the trail.  On our trek, we encountered the officer as they arrived at their post just before 7:00am, meaning that anyone who passed before that time would not have been checked.  Judging by fresh footprints, there were a couple of people who got past without a ticket.  A French couple trying to get through beforehand didn’t make it in time and had to purchase tickets from the officer.  They were able to negotiate the price down to 70 soles for two tickets on the spot, so apparently the face value is just a suggestion.  We saw no other ticket checks beyond the initial descent.

img_7242

3.) Accommodations in Colca Canyon

There are several villages in the canyon which have accommodations available for trekkers.  The main towns visited are San Galle, San Juan de Chuccho and Llahuar, but there are also guesthouses in at least Malata, Cosñinhua (directly next to Malata) and the alternative destination of Tapay.  Many people choose to reserve their rooms online before the trek if they have a route pre-planned, although this isn’t always necessary.  We had a route direction but decided to hike until we were tired instead of choosing a hotel ahead of time.  We were able to book one on the spot during our early October visit, although we got the last room available at our particular guesthouse.

San Galle Oasis is by far the most touristy of the villages in the Canyon.  This is where virtually all tour groups and party goers end up.  It is located centrally so is easily linked into most two or three day treks.  As such, we completely avoided this town.  We chose a challenging 31 kilometer route which wrapped the entire valley (explained in detail later on), which put us in San Juan de Chuccho for our only night in the canyon.

We stumbled on Colibri Lodge which may be the only really nice hotel inside.  While we typically do not make hotel recommendations, this one ended up being our favorite from our five weeks in Peru, and one of the best we found in South America.  The incredibly friendly English and German speaking host built the guesthouse on his family land by hand with rocks from the gorge.  We got one of his brand new private rooms with bath, which included a really wonderful breakfast buffet, actual hot shower, strong wifi and an amazing view of the basalt column cliffs from the room.

img_7275-1

4.) Accommodations in Cabanaconde

There are a number of hotels in Cabanaconde, all of which can be easily booked online.  Most offer free luggage storage and include breakfast.  Many trekkers stay at the famous Pachamama Hostel, which provides detailed information about the treks.  We opted to stay at the nearby Hotel Arum Qurpawasi, which was half the price and still very comfortable.  We did eat dinner at Pachamama, which was decent but overpriced for the small size of the meal.  They also have detailed trekking maps for guests, although they cost 10 soles if you are staying elsewhere.

img_7238-1

5.) Colca Canyon Trekking Route Options

There are a few 2 day / 1 night and 3 day / 2 night “classic” trekking route options which most people choose in the canyon.  In addition, there are several ways to shorten or lengthen these routes with longer trekking days or by adding side treks to nearby villages.  Every option starts with a long and steep descent to the river and ends with an equally long and steep return to town.  The western part of the canyon including Llahuar and Belén is the least frequented portion of these main routes.

a.) Main villages:

Cabanaconde:  3,287 meters.  The starting point for trekkers.
Llahuar:  2,020 meters, westerly.  Has access to nearby hot springs.
San Galle Oasis:  2,100 meters, central.  Many hotels have swimming pools and music.
San Juan de Chuccho:  2,200 meters, easterly.  Local village with great views of the gorge.

b.) Secondary villages:

Malata:  2,600 meters.  Located along the main route with wide views of the canyon.
Tapay:  2,984 meters.  Located far above the main route with widest views of the valley.
Fure:  2,900 meters.  Far up an adjoining arm of the canyon, requires camping equipment.

img_7277

c.) Main trekking routes:

Western Loop: Cabanaconde > Llahuar > Belén > San Galle > Cabanaconde
This could be done over 2 days / 1 night or 3 days / 2 nights.  For 3 days, a night would be spent in both San Galle and Llahuar and the trip could be done clockwise or counterclockwise.  To complete in 2 days, a night would be spent in San Galle if trekking clockwise and Llahuar if trekking counterclockwise.  Total distance is 26.7 kilometers / 16 miles.

Full Loop: Cabanaconde > Llahuar > Belén > Malata > San Juan de Chuccho > Cabanaconde
This is typically done over 3 days / 2 nights but could be completed in 2 days / 1 night (explained below).  It could be done in either direction and would include a night in Llahuar and San Juan de Chuccho.  If trekking counterclockwise, you could opt to hike a little further than San Juan and stay in Malata which would shorten the second day.  Total distance is 31 kilometers / 18.6 miles.

Short Central: Cabanaconde > San Galle > Cabanaconde
This is usually a 2 day / 1 night choice but can also be done as a day trip.  It is the shortest distance option and includes only a steep descent and returning ascent.  For 2 days / 1 night, the night would be spent in San Galle.  Total distance is 11.5 kilometers / 6.9 miles.

Eastern Loop: Cabanaconde > San Juan de Chuccho > Malata > San Galle > Cabanaconde
This is the most popular 2 day / 1 night trek, although it can also be extended to 2 nights.  Most people descend through San Juan and stay a night at San Galle, although there is no reason it can’t be done in reverse with the night in San Juan.  Total distance of this route is 21.7 kilometers / 13 miles.

It is also possible to include a visit to the Cruz del Condor overlook before or after hiking the canyon.  We did not visit any condor viewpoints but did see a couple flying overhead while trekking into the valley.

img_7236

6.) Our Challenging Alternative Trekking Itinerary

We chose to trek the full loop clockwise, starting with a descent into the canyon to the west towards Llahuar, passing Belén and Malata before climbing the cliff beyond San Juan de Chuccho and past the San Miguel viewpoint.  We had originally planned on doing the classic 3 day / 2 night 31 kilometer “full loop” and stopping in either Llahuar or Belén for the first night, but arrived earlier than expected so continued on.  We ended up going all the way to San Juan for the night and completing this trek in two days.

Trek Day 1: Cabanaconde to San Juan de Chuccho:

We started our trek at 6:45am from Cabanaconde.  The clockwise trail starts at the west end of town and follows the cliff edge towards the stunning Achachihua viewpoint where the ticket officer sits.  The trail fluctuates between flattish and very steep with switchbacks until it reaches the river.  From Cabaconde to the river took us 2 hours and 45 minutes.  At the base is a walking bridge which sits above a natural steam vent in the river.  Once at the bridge, there is another 15 minute walk to reach the turn to Llahuar, which is a short hike off the main trail.  The distance from Cabanaconde to the turn is 10.8 kilometers / 6.5 miles.  We got to this point before 10:00am and decided that it was too early to stop for the day.

The next portion is a steep one hour climb to Belén where we next planned to stop for the night, but we found that this village has no accommodations so continued on towards San Juan.  At this point the trail meets up with a dirt road which climbs gradually to the Apacheta viewpoint at 2,700 meters before taking a long mild descent to Malata.  Here we stopped for a really crappy lunch at one of the few shabby guesthouses before continuing on for the final hour to San Juan.  The last portion is another steep but blessedly shorter descent back towards the river.  The second portion distance from the turn to Llahur to San Juan de Chuccho is 11.5 kilometers / 6.9 miles which took us just under 4 hours.

Starting elevation:  3,287 meters / 10,784 feet in Cabanaconde
Lowest elevation:  2,100 meters / 6,890 feet after the initial descent
Mid-trek peak elevation:  2,700 meters / 8,858 feet at the Apacheta viewpoint
Ending elevation:  2,200 meters / 7,217 feet in San Juan
Day 1 total distance:  22.3 kilometers / 13.4 miles
Total time:  7 hours

img_7244

Trek Day 2: San Juan de Chuccho to Cabanaconde:

We took time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast at Colibri Lodge before we set out for the big climb back up the cliff face.  We got started on the hike at 7:30am for the 30 minute gentle descent to the river.  Once at the bridge, the trail begins the long and steep climb towards the Cabanaconde.  Despite our relatively early departure, the sun was already high and blazing hot overhead, making the already difficult climb a bit more excruciating.  Unlike our route down, this trail does not have any notable flat areas to recover from the climb and there is almost no shade.  It is understandable why many people choose to start at or before sunrise.

Just when we thought that the pain would never end, we would round what must be the final corner only to see many more turns ahead and realize that it would in fact go on forever.  We knew we were finally nearing the top when we started passing numerous trekking tour groups making their way into the canyon, which is something we never saw on the path towards Llahuar.  After 2.5 hours of non stop climbing, we finally reached the top and found another 30 minute walk back to town staring at us.

Starting elevation:  2,200 meters / 7,217 feet in San Juan
Mid-trek peak elevation:  3,400 meters / 11,155 feet at the San Miguel viewpoint
Ending elevation: 3,287 meters / 10,784 feet at Cabanaconde
Day 2 total distance:  8.7 kilometers / 5.2 miles
Total time:  3.5 hours

img_7247

7.) How to Get to Colca Canyon / Cabanaconde

Almost everyone who visits Colca Canyon is coming from Arequipa, although there are some public buses which go to Chivay from Juliaca and Puno as well.  Since you are trekking and not solely a sightseer, you will need to make it to Cabanaconde where the trails are located.  We prefer using public and local transport options instead of expensive tourist vehicles, which is the focus of this section.  If you are looking for plush sightseeing tours, or those with direct service from destinations other than Arequipa such as Cusco, you can look into the companies 4M Express and My Tour Peru Bus.  These cater to tourists and include lengthy tourist trap stops.

a.) From Arequipa:

There are two main options you can choose to reach Cabanaconde without a personal vehicle.  You can either take public transport (bus or collectivo) or a more expensive sightseeing bus (known in Arequipa as the “tourist bus” with a 3:00am departure) which will pick you up from your hotel and includes viewpoint stops along the route.  The “tourist” bus costs around 35 soles (booked through your hotel) while the direct public bus costs 22 soles.

In addition, there are two options for this route using public transport: direct transfer by bus (or collectivo) or indirectly heading to Chivay first and then connecting to Cabanaconde for the remaining portion.

Arequipa has the only public buses which travel direct to Cabanaconde, although these are limited.  All buses from Arequipa leave from the Terminal Terrestre, while collectivos meet across the street from the terminal on Av. Andres Avelino Caceras.  The direct bus departure times are 9:45am (Andalucia), 11:00am (Reyna), 2:00pm (Milagros), 1:00am (Reyna) and 3:30am (Milagros).  In addition, the companies Caminos del Inca and Transandinos go to Chivay.

We took the 11:00am direct bus to Cabanaconde which was sold out an hour ahead of time, so purchasing a ticket ahead is recommended.  This bus was the first we experienced in Peru (after almost a month) which wasn’t extremely nice.  In fact, it was rickety, straight out of the ’80s and had little leg room.  Every seat was full, and once it reached Chivay they packed the aisle with tons of locals for the trip to Cabanaconde and started door to door pick ups and drop offs.  In hindsight, the sightseeing bus may be worth the extra money for this 6.5 hour trip.

b.) From Puno / Juliaca / Cusco:

There are no direct public transport options from any of these cities that reach Cabanaconde.  There are options from the terminal in Juliaca and Puno which travel to Chivay, meaning that a connection would then be required.  If coming from Cusco, a further connection in Juliaca is necessary.

img_7246

8.) How to Get From Cabanaconde to Arequipa, Juliaca, Puno or Cusco

For whatever reason, bus service from Colca Canyon is terrible, crowded and has limited options.  This makes no sense seeing as how Chivay / Colca is the third most popular destination in the country, behind Cusco and Puno.  As mentioned, this is the only place in Peru with this problem while all other towns have numerous direct and comfortable buses to nearly everywhere.  Regardless, if you want plush sightseeing tours with direct service and don’t want much hassle, expensive tour and small group transfers out of Cabanaconde or Chivay are the only option.  If this is your preference, you can look into the companies 4M Express and My Tour Peru Bus, which will have the only direct options to cities other than Arequipa.  These cater to tourists and include lengthy tourist trap stops.  As mentioned, that is not our style so is not the focus of this section.

Getting out of Cabanaconde after the trek is difficult.  Most hikers opt to finish the trek and leave the same day.  There are a very limited number of buses which tend to fill up fast.  There is a conveniently timed 11:30am direct bus to Arequipa with Milagros company which most people find themselves on for one reason of another.  The vast majority of travelers go back through Arequipa regardless of their ultimate destination for lack of options, but that is not always necessary.

img_7278

a.) To Arequipa:

Take one of the direct buses from the square for 25 soles.  There is a 7:00am (Reyna), 9:00am (Andalucia), 11:30am (Milagros), 2:00pm (Reyna) and 10:00pm (Milagros).  If these are full, you will be able to stand in the aisle to reach Chivay (5 soles) and then transfer to another bus destined to Arequipa from that terminal.  There are tons of buses for Arequipa in Chivay, although they do oversell and allow people to pack into the aisle.  Trust us, you are going to want a seat.  Additionally, direct transfer collectivo cars and vans head to Arequipa from the front of the Chivay bus terminal when they find enough people to fill the seats.  Stand in front of the terminal for a few minutes and you will likely be asked to join a group heading in that direction.  This trip costs 25 soles and is said to take only three hours.

img_7279

b.) To Puno / Juliaca:

Since we had already come from Arequipa and were ultimately headed towards Cusco, we did not wish to backtrack all the way.  To get to Juliaca or the slightly further Puno, you first must take the previously mentioned bus towards Chivay / Arequipa.  Interestingly, they oversell this bus only for the trip to Chivay, but once beyond that town you will have to have a seat assignment to stay on board.  We did not manage to get seats following our trek so had to get off in Chivay.  Our standing room only bus left late and made a grueling number of stops to pick up and drop off people along the way.  We managed to make the one hour trip in a solid two hours.  This prevented us from even considering the option of a private tourist van towards Puno (most of which leave between 1:00 and 1:30pm) without staying a night in the horrible town of Chivay.

If you are trying to get to Puno or Juliaca using local transport, you will need to do something more complicated which includes a roadside connection in Cañahuas.  You must first take a bus destined for Arequipa, whether from Cabanaconde or Chivay.  On the way is a police toll booth in an area called Cañahuas or Pati Wasi (also spelled Patihuasi).  There is no town there, just a few restaurants and bathrooms on the side of the highway.  This is where the road coming from Colca Canyon meets the road between Arequipa and Juliaca.

We took another standing room only bus from Chivay bound for Arequipa (10 soles without a seat) for over two hours and hopped out at Cañahuas by the toll booth.  There was a policeman there who helped us flag down a bus heading towards Juliaca and Puno.  This portion of the trip was around 4 hours and cost 15 soles (with seats).  Total cost to reach Juliaca / Puno: 30 soles.

img_7280

c.) To Cusco:

To reach Cusco, simply follow any of the previous steps to Juliaca.  Once at that terminal, there are dozens of bus companies which make the trip to Cusco.  We arrived in Juliaca at 9:30pm and saw many overnight sleeper bus departure options.  We wanted a shower and a real bed so decided to stay a night at a nearby hotel, but it would have been easy to hop on one and arrive there by morning.  We took a 10:00am bus the next day with Powers company for 20 soles which took 7 hours.

img_7243

9.) What to Pack for Trekking in Colca Canyon

During daytime, it is typically warm so t-shirt with shorts or hiking pants are all you will want.  The sun is intense and there is little shade during the day, so adequate sun cover and protection is necessary.  It tends to get chilly at night, so having additional layers and jacket will help with comfort.  In the December to March rainy season, it could be essential to also carry a poncho or raincoat.

Depending on your accommodation, electricity may not be available so charging batteries and carrying a re-charger could be important.  In addition, there are no ATMs in Cabanaconde so bringing adequate cash is a requirement.  In an attempt to cut down on plastic consumption, we don’t buy bottled water and instead carry a Sawyer water filter.  We made sure to stock up with plenty before our hikes, but were able to filter tap water in some villages.  Water purification tablets are available in Arequipa.

  • Warm jacket or rain jacket
  • Trekking clothes
  • Warm clothes for night
  • Hiking boots & socks
  • Sandals
  • Backpack
  • Snacks
  • Water filter
  • Reusable water bottles
  • Camera
  • Re-charger
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat for sun cover
  • Toiletries
  • Cash
  • Sun screen
  • Bug spray

Optional:

  • Hiking poles
  • Book or E-reader
  • Head phones

img_7255


If you like hiking, you will love these other amazing locations in South America:


Think preparing for long term travel is hard?  It’s not with this step by step planning guide.  The most difficult part of the journey is carrying your life on your back, but this doesn’t have to hurt if you believe in minimalist packing.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Oh My! This looks amazing. I absolutely love hiking and this is being added to my bucket list for sure. Thanks for sharing such a helpful plan!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the kind words. Always appreciated and we are glad the information was useful. We greatly enjoyed trekking Colca Canyon and certainly recommend a trip to Peru.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. fakeflamenco says:

    Wow, you’ve written an entire guide book on the subject. Nicely done! Rebecca

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s