Located about 6 hours from Arequipa in the south of Peru, Colca Canyon is one of the deepest canyons in the world with the sides of the valley reaching 1000m above the river below. Within the canyon are a number of small villages, many of which are only accessible on foot which makes for a great adventure if you’re willing to hike into the canyon in order to stay overnight in one of the villages.
The jumping off point for the Colca Canyon is the small town of Cabanaconde which is located at the top of the cliff overlooking the canyon below — it’s a 6 hour drive from Arequipa and is accessible by regular public bus. All the towns in the Colca Canyon are on the opposite side of the canyon from Cabanaconde meaning if you want to visit them, you are going to have to hike down to the river and back up to your chosen village.
What are the options for trekking in Colca Canyon?
There are 2 main options for trekking the Colca Canyon. On your own or with a tour. If you take a tour from Arequipa, you will be given the option of 1 or 2 nights with costs ranging greatly, but nothing coming close to as cheap as doing it independently. Most people we saw in the Colca Canyon were on a tour, but we think it is unnecessary and too restrictive.So the second option is to do it all in your own. When you visit the Colca Canyon independently, you allow yourself to pick and choose the villages to visit based on what you want to see, how tired you are and other recommendations you might get while on the trail. It is slightly cheaper to do it independently, but the freedom you get is by far the biggest benefit. And honestly, it is not complicated to do on your own. The main thing people worry about is how to get to Colca Canyon.
How to get to Colca Canyon from Arequipa
The first thing you need to do is get a taxi from your guesthouse in Arequipa to the main bus station. There is only one bus station and it’s the same bus station as you arrived to Arequipa in. The cost of a taxi should be 7 soles, but this can vary depending on the type of car and the time of day.Buses at the time of writing depart Arequipa for Cabanaconde at 1am, 3:30am, 9:30am, 11am, 3pm and 7pm. The journey takes 6 hours, so you need to select a bus that will get you to Cabanaconde at a time that is suitable for you. If you want to trek immediately after arriving like we did, you have to catch the 3:30am bus because the 9:30am bus arrives too late to be able to trek to the bottom of the valley before it gets dark. We met a lot of people who caught the bus from Arequipa and stayed overnight in Cabanaconde first and this is a good idea if you have a lot of time.
The cost of the bus from Arequipa to Cabanaconde is 17 soles and there are multiple bus companies running along the route including Reyna, Andalucia & Señor de los Milagros.
What are the most popular routes?
Most people who trek independently in the Colca Canyon choose to trek for 3 days and 2 nights. The most popular villages for tour groups are San Juan and the oasis town of Sangalle, so you might want to skip those (although we really enjoyed San Juan). Most of the independent travellers we met decided to trek from Cabanaconde to Llahuar, which takes about 4 hours and is straight down the side of the valley. It’s brutal. At Llahuar there are 2 choices for accommodation. Virginia’s or Llahuar Lodge which are essentially the same price — 20 soles per person (only 15 at Virigina’s if you don’t use the hot springs). We stayed at Llahuar Lodge, but the food was awful so we’d recommend Virginia’s. The main reason independent trekkers come to Llahuar is to bathe in the hot springs. The springs are located right next to the raging river and are an awesome way to relax your stiff and tired muscles at the end of the day.After Llahuar, most trekkers we met either tried to go to Fure, an abandoned village with no guarantee of accommodation or the oasis town of Sangalle. Some people we met did trek all the way to Tapay as well and we think this is a great idea because Tapay doesn’t get so many visitors. It’s a long trek to Tapay from Llahuar, so allow about 8 hours inclusive of a stop for lunch at Malata. San Juan is 7 hours or slightly less if you’re fast. Sangalle is 5 hours or slightly less if you’re fast, but doesn’t include a stop for lunch because you actually bypass Malata.
Wherever you end up on night two, you have a hell of a hike up the mountain back to Cabanaconde. Either from San Juan or Sangalle, it’s up up up! If you’re coming from Tapay or Malata, it’s obviously even more difficult because you have to come down from a high elevation first before climbing up again. Allow at least 5 hours of punishment for this.
There are so many more options for trekking around the canyon and that’s the beauty of doing it independently. Make sure you grab a map at the tourist office in Arequipa and always have at least 2 litres of water per person at all times. Seriously. It can be brutally hot and you will be sweating profusely. Minimum of 2 litres!
The route we took
We caught the 3:30am bus from Arequipa and arrived at Cabanaconde at 9:30am. We had some breakfast at a local eatery and began to walk to Mirador San Miguel which is the starting point for the descent to San Juan. Unfortunately we took a wrong turn. We were supposed to follow the main road to Arequipa until the mirador, but we decided to take a short cut through the farms… Bad idea. We ended up taking one and a half hours climbing a massive hill filled with terraces before we got to the mirador. By the time we got there, we were so so tired and we hadn’t even started the trek.
From the mirador we took 5 hours to reach San Juan when most things we’d read say it takes 3 hours. We did walk quite slowly, but it was incredibly hot and we easily drank 4 litres of water between us. The final small ascent to Posada Roy was punishing.
Posada Roy was amazing. The rooms we got had private hot water bathrooms and only cost 20 soles each. We could have got simpler rooms for 10 soles each. Dinner was 15 soles each and so so delicious. Chicken, soup, rice, dessert… Breakfast was 10 soles and consisted of pancakes and coffee. Water at Posada Roy is a rip off at 7 soles per litre. You’ll have no choice but to buy it there unless you are biggest tight arse going and you cart down an extra 5 litres from Cabanaconde to save a few soles. Just buy it at Roy’s and grit your teeth.From Roy’s (9am) we climbed for a couple of hours up to Cosñirhua and then along the flat road to Malata (11:13am) where we ate a fantastic but simple lunch at a random shop. At 12pm we continued our walk towards Llahuar and we basically didn’t stop walking for the next 4 hours until 4pm. In all it took us 7 hours from San Juan to Llahuar and it was honestly quite brutal. Lots of uphill at the start and lots of downhill at the end. The middle section was only a slight uphill, but it was in the blistering sun, so it just sapped all our energy. Thankfully the hot springs at Llahuar were totally worth it.
We stayed at Llahuar Lodge for 20 pesos per person which included a shared ice cold water bathroom and access to the hot springs down near the river. Dinner was 10 soles per person and was honestly very disappointing. Probably our least favourite meal in Peru, not that we’ve been too enamoured with the food in Peru anyway. Breakfast the next morning was 2 barely edible slabs of half cooked dough resembling pancakes. Really poor. There is one other accommodation option in Llahuar called Viriginia’s and we’d try that next time.
The next morning we slept in and instead of hiking up out of the canyon, we joined a couple of French girls we met and hiked up to the main road and waited for a bus. Yes! There is one bus per day which swings past the Llahuar turnoff at 12pm and costs 10 soles to Cabanaconde. The journey in itself is an awesome experience along an extremely narrow road which winds its way out of the canyon. Even though it sounds like a wimpy option (it is), it’s an option which gives you a different perspective of the canyon and a different adventure. I’d definitely do this again next time.
The bus will get you to Cabanaconde just in time to catch the 2pm Reyna bus back to Arequipa. There is also a bus at 1pm if you decide to walk up earlier.
What you need to bring
The key to trekking in the Colca Canyon is bringing as little stuff with you as possible. I brought:
- 1 x pair of trekking pants
- 1 x pair of shoes
- 1 x pair of thongs
- 1 x pair of socks
- 2 x underwear
- 1 x tshirt
- 1 x long sleeve tshirt
- 1 x set of winter pyjamas (not needed as lots of blankets provided)
- 1 x sunglasses
- 1 x deodorant
- 1 x towel
- 1 x sunscreen
- 1 x phone + charger
- Random crap in my day pack (like wallet and passport)
- 1 x small daypack
That’s it. Your clothes will get dirty in the Colca Canyon because it’s so dry and dusty, but if you had to bring a clean change of clothes with you for every single day, you’d end up carrying 5kg more than I did and I just don’t think the extra weight is worth it. Just go a little dirty for a couple of days and have a good old shower every night. It’s fine.
The cost of visiting the Colca Canyon independently vs with a tour is something most people consider. And honestly, it’s probably similar in terms of cost going with a tour (maybe slightly more expensive). We saw a two day tour for 150 soles which included pretty much everything except the national park entry fee & water. Here is what we paid per person for 3 days/2 nights:
- Bus Arequipa – Cabanaconde: 17 soles
- Bus Cabanaconde – Arequipa: 17 soles
- Cab hostel – Arequipa bus station: 3.5 soles
- Cab Arequipa bus station – hostel: 3.5 soles
- Bus Llahuar – Cabanaconde: 10 soles
- Accommodation @ Roy’s in San Juan: 20 soles
- Accommodation @ Llahuar Lodge: 20 soles
- Meals @ Roy’s: 25 soles
- Meals @ Llahuar Lodge: 18 soles
- Water: 14 soles
- Lunch @ Malata on day 2: 8 soles
- Breakfast on day 1 in Cabanaconde: 8 soles
- National park entry fee: 40 soles (should have been 70 but they sold us a Latino ticket)
Total: 204 soles
Total minus water & park entry to equate with tour: 150 soles
So if you do things like we did, you will basically get a 3 day trip to Colca Canyon for 150 soles per person.
So it’s absolutely clear. You do not need to buy a tour to visit Colca Canyon. In fact, I’d recommend against taking a tour. That way you’ll have the ultimate flexibility to see the valley the way you want and will avoid the worst of what mass tourism has to offer.
Colca Canyon is one of my favourite places in Peru. Let me know in the comments if you need more info!
2 replies on “Colca Canyon – Independent trekking guide”
Thank you for this excellent blog! We have been weighing our options for months, agonizing over whether to go to SanGalle or not. There are a few good reviews but mostly very bad. It does seem like the best way to get out of the canyon. With a filter and water purifier, should we be okay for locating potable water in the canyon? Also, what month did you go? Thanks!
Yeah, my advice would be to skip SanGalle. If you’re in the canyon for more than a couple of days, there’s no reason to go there.
As for water, there is plenty around and I’m sure you could purify it. But you’re still going to have to carry a bit with you after purifying it because I do recall one or two long stretches without water (mainly the walk into the Canyon and one section between towns). So yes, grab it and purify it when it’s in abundance. Or just pay a few bucks for the water at the guesthouses or shops.