Hiking the Colca Canyon to the Valley of the Volcanoes, Peru (26-29 May)

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Looking back into the Rio Achacota valley and the Sabancaya volcano smoking on the right

The Colca Canyon is the second deepest in Peru at 3270m and is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. It is very wide with many different layers with very varied topography from active volcanoes over 6000m high to the white water of the Rio Colca itself.

Though most people choose to do guided group trips in the Colca Canyon, hiking the Canyon and indeed from there to the Valley of the Volcanoes solo and without a guide is very possible.

The main tourist routes in the Colca Canyon from Cabanaconde (the town where the majority of the Canyon trails start) looked easy to us, though this is just speculation as we chose to do something different. Those paths looked a bit dull with all the trekking tour groups treading the same routes in a long line. So after a bit of research and obtaining a contour map in Arequipa (the main entry town for the Canyon) we decided on a 3 to 7 day trek west from Cabanaconde in the Colca Canyon to Chacas or maybe Andagua in the Valley of the Volcanoes where there is night bus back to Arequipa.

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Colca Canyon

However, hiking off the tourist routes is not straight forward: The map we obtained “Canyon del Colca” a 1:100,000 scale contour map printed by Edicions El Lector, though undated proved to be truly ancient but nevertheless essential. Many marked paths are now roads (sometimes even paved!) and many paths no longer exist or follow different routes, but we supposed the mountains and valleys are still mostly the same!

Local advice along the way is also essential but not always very accurate: Some Spanish is required to enquire on a route to find out where it goes and if its currently passable. And a decent amount of skepticism is required when asking the time a route will take to hike!

We considered getting a guide (apparently found in villages for the following day if you ask) on some sections we thought looked tricky, but in the end we did the whole route solo due to (over?) confidence gained in conversations with locals!

Hiking this route could be tricky and it pays to be prepared: Sometimes the paths were confusing in their numerosity or nonexistence, and sometimes we needed to cross icy-cold rivers or tread carefully around the edge of recent landslides. We did also get lost on a couple of occasions, but our experience navigating in mountain terrain helped us get back on track! We were well acclimatised to the altitude, but the route does go to 5200m so be prepared to walk slowly and watch out for signs of altitude sickness. Also the depths of temperature at night surprised us after being at similar altitudes in Colombia without as much problem (for example; water even inside the tent freezing!) so try to be a bit more prepared than we were! And two days before we intended to set off, a big snow storm came over which everyone said was unusual for this time of year (dry season!). We were grateful that it cleared and we had perfect blue skies, though it led us to be flexible with plans just in case we had to head back.

Remoteness has its benefits though – we found ourselves walking nearly all the paths with only the company of the wildlife – bliss!

Day 1: Cabanaconde to Choco

Duration: By foot: 9+ hours or drive to Punte (bridge) (about 1/3 of the route) and by foot: 4-5 hours

Difficulty: Easy (but local advice on the initial route required)

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Track to Choco

A supply truck leaves from the main square of Cabanaconde to the bridge across Rio Colca every Wednesday and Friday at 0700 at the time of writing (but the schedule seems to change frequently so inquire at the shops on the square). We discovered later they are currently building a dirt track all the way to Choco so in future it may be possible to drive all the way – ask first!

Trusting the locals estimate of 8 hours to hike to Choco, we started our hike at 0600. The start of the trail is very hard to find without a more detailed map than we had as many trails to surrounding villages in Colca Canyon start in Cabanaconde. Ask locals for detailed directions if you want to hike, but watch out as their descriptions are not always so clear! We were lucky enough to find a local farmer while scouting out a route the previous day who used to be a guide. He spent more than half an hour describing the route to us!

The trail heads west out of the town: Follow the route to the Mirador Achachiwa which is signed from the square and ask locals to put you on the right trail head.

Follow the wide stony trail west, ignoring shoot-offs going off to the left, until it goes down to cross the small river in the valley. Once over this, ascend west-southwest towards the eucalyptus tree line. Some parts of the trail here may appear to be a small stream, but keep on it and you will reach two small pools on your right. Turn left uphill here and shortly you will reach a crossroads where you should turn right to take the path that goes between two hedges. The trail then meanders along west-northwest to eventually join the dirt track (still a footpath on our map) that the supply truck takes towards Choco. Turn left on the next junction (the right turn heads towards Llahuar).

We meandered a little uncertainly through the interesting and varied farmland of quinoa, potato, maize and barley until descending into the Colca Canyon. The trail traverses through some lovely countryside of the Colca Canyon which is seldom visited by tourists and friendly farmers offered help with directions.

Once on the dirt road, we started our descent into some of the deepest parts of the Colca Canyon with views of the wild river below and snowcapped mountains in the distance. The road meanders lazily around but you can find short cuts down some the ridges. The view is amazing as the canyon walls close around you and the vegetation and geology changes. Condors may thermal high to keep you company while lizards escape behind rocks and you are surrounded by cacti and blooming wild flowers. It is a very different experience than the Oasis hike as the canyon here runs even deeper and it is seemingly untouched by the tourism in the rest of Colca.

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Humming bird restaurant on the trail to Choco

As we ran out of shortcuts to shorten our journey at about 3.5hours in, we started to realize that this trek could be hours longer than the locals said! Before we had time to contemplate a plan b, a pickup truck offered us a ride in the back to the bridge. Later we found out that they were government officials heading all the way to Choco! To our delight, we got some picture time at the new bridge built for the future dirt road all the way to Choco and continued with the truck up the other side of the valley as far as the under-construction road goes. We were fully expecting to walk this whole section (especially as we didn’t know how far the road went) so this was very fortunate indeed.

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Track to Choco

The grand scale and the incredible depth of the Colca Canyon stunned us as we carefully followed the small gradually ascending footpath, tightly hugging the walls of the canyon. Looking down, the Colca river continues to carve the canyon deeper, rushing down and turning green or brown in the changing light. There isn’t much vegetation here except on some abandoned Inca terraces. There are some traces of old Inca trails and lots of cacti and alien looking trees with few red or green leaves hanging on as a last goodbye to the wet season.

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Clothes line in our designated camping spot in Choco

The trail suddenly turned right and the greener Choco Canyon opened in front of our eyes. You can see some Inca terraces on the almost vertical slope opposite (those crazy Incas!) which later merged with other terraces currently in use by the Choco farmers. It is in this lusher canyon that we found the village of Choco (2473m) tucked away where the canyon splits into two, under the foothills of some awe-inspiring snowcapped mountains.

People in this remote town were very welcoming and helpful. We camped in the football field of the local school with access to the sink and toilet and could even dry our clothes on the goalposts! A local lady saw us setting up camp and give us some apples. The entire villages kids were very excited about these visiting “gringos” so it was hard finding some peace until the teacher eventually ordered them all to go home at dusk!

Day 2: Choco to Rio Achacota via Mina

Duration: 10 hours

Difficulty: Moderate – negotiating river crossings and small landslides

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Rio Chalza Valley

There are three routes to Chacas from Choco; the one via Mina up the Rio Chalza seemed to be the recommended route of most locals, another goes up the mountains more directly which not many seem to use, and the third bypasses the mountains and follows a river directly to Chacas. This last one is the least strenuous and does not require camping at altitudes (locals say it can be done in ten hours, but we couldn’t comment!)

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Bye bye, were leaving Choco…

Determined to see the mountains, we headed up towards Mina. The route gently climbs up an impressively narrow and deep river gorge, sometimes on the left, sometimes right of the river. A couple of the crossing points via rough stepping-stones are tricky and I had to change into my sandals and brave the fast flowing freezing cold water. The river attracts much wildlife including a family of green parrots having a morning bath, torrent ducks (which seem to enjoy swimming in the fastest flowing sections!), big humming birds hovering over the currents and two different types of dippers (small fat birds which take dips in the river to feed). Condors and eagles also frequent the sunny canyon walls.

Sometimes the path had been washed away by floods or covered by landslides and had been remade which made it sometimes unclear but there is no uncertainty of the general direction in this narrow, deep gorge. For us it was always possible to find a way even though it could be a bit concerning passing under some rather loose looking boulders overhanging above, or treading gently along a narrow scree ledge above the water. But its probably best to ask in Choco on the state of the path before setting off.

As the river valley comes to an end approaching some magnificent snow mountains, you can find Mina (~3600m) – a sleepy little agricultural village with families ready to host hikers for a rest after the five hour (supposedly the locals do it in 3!) hike from Choco. But we decided to press on to camp in the Rio Achacota valley which took us another five hours (but I was not feeling on top form so it may take others less). The trail starts from Mina (not before as is marked on our map) and locals will gladly point you in the right way. You could also hire guide in Mina.

The start of the climbing zigzagging trail is easy to follow but it then mingles in with multiple cattle tracks. Climbing and following the general bearing which our old trail map indicated on these intermittent paths, we arrived at the top of the ridge (~4600m) despite one small detour when we were tempted by a large but unmapped path! As we climbed up, alpine wild blossoms of the valley turn into an altiplano ecosystem where cactus and cushion plants dominate the landscape. We saw deer and condors with a range of snow peaks as our backdrop as we climbed. Nearer the top, you can even see Cabanaconde and the surrounding valley in the distance.

At the top of the ridge, the Rio Achacota valley revealed itself with a range of snow peaks including Cerro Cerani looming over it. There is an enclosure with a small hut inside near the river where we set up camp and took a much needed albeit cold rest before the bigger climb the next day.

Day 3: Rio Achacota to the foot of the Laguna Encante valley

Duration: 8 to 9 hours

Difficulty: Moderate/difficult – technical navigation and 5200m altitude reached

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Sabancaya volcano (most active in Peru)

We set off at 0700 as we needed to ascend from ~4300m to ~5200m then back to 4400m on the other side of the Cerro Cerani pass. Our water froze solid as we set off but luckily the path was heading towards the sunny side of the valley so there was much motivation to get there fast!

There are still cattle grazing at 5000m (purify your water as they graze upstream) and there are no clear footpaths as the cows reshape the rocky high mountain terrain as they wander around. We used the map to get our bearings and just picked the easiest looking route up towards the peaks. As we ascended past the multicoloured barren hills towards the looming snow capped peaks, views of the Colca Canyon started to reappear to our backs.

Hiking up to 5200 m pass

Hiking up to 5200 m pass

We could see some vicuña (wild llama) grazing on the hillsides in the distance. Always wary of us they would move away – clearly not aware that even if we wanted to get closer, the high altitude reduced us to a slow trudge with the minimum of deviations!

Our orientation was limited by the lack of a clear path and little detail on the map, so we were pleased to find our chosen route met up with a nice path up to the mountain pass at ~5200m where we finally got views of the Valley of the Volcanoes in the west as well as amazing views of the snow mountains in the east.

Cushion plants all around

Cushion plants all around

Walking down to the river was straightforward following a path which was mostly clear, but sometimes split up into multiple zigzags down some scree sections. But once down, things didn’t seem quite right – it turned out that we’d climbed the wrong pass according to the path marked on the map!!! It was all good though as we had rejoined the ongoing route at a high altitude meadow, we had just gone over a pass which went to the south instead of to the north of Cerro Cerani!

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Hiking down towards Valley of the Volcanoes

We made our way along a wide dirt road (also marked as a footpath on our map) passing vicuñas and viscachas (plump furry rabbit-like rodents) hopping around boulder fields and with an occasional condor cruising far above as we made our way towards our intended camping spot near the village of Umpallaca. However, the village turned out to be a long uninhabited ruin (did we mention the map was old!) so we settled for a nice spot near the road and river at the foot of the Laguna Encante valley with views of some snowcapped mountains one way and the Valley of the Volcanoes in the other.

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vicuña grazing at 4500+ masl

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Small Lake below 5200 m pass

We set up camp and started cooking, but my normally trusty Primus stove puttered out and wouldn’t restart. I figure it’s the “gasohol” (petrol with a small % of alcohol) I’m trying to run it on – the only liquid fuel available here. Petrol is the most horrid fuel as it stinks, is dangerously volatile and it seems that especially with alcohol added and at this altitude it burns very uncleanly and inefficiently and clogs the stove with soot. So dinner ended up being 2 very small cold sausages each, tomato paste and popcorn, with a little precious chocolate for desert!

Once the sun dipped below the mountains it became very cold so we retreated to the tent only to find Xiaoting’s sleeping mat had sprung a leak. Eventually giving up trying to sleep with the freezing jagged stones sticking in her, she squeezed into my sleeping bag – barely both covered it was a very cold and uncomfortable night but we both managed to sleep a little!

Day 4: The foot of Laguna Encante valley to Chacas

Duration: 5 hours

Difficulty: Easy

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Looking down at Chachas and valley of the volcanoes

After our disturbed night we woke to find our water frozen in the inside of our tent, it was COLD! Though the dawn light on the mountains across the Valley of the Volcanoes was beautiful we packed up in super quick time because we couldn’t cook breakfast and before we lost ALL the feeling in our fingers!

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Valley of the Volcanoes

Today was all downhill but the trails from the foot of Laguna Encante as shown on our map first took some finding. There is a little used trail which goes through the barren rocky terrain on the north side of the river and takes a more direct route compared to the new ascending and winding road. Then we had to take a small detour to find a place to cross a small but fast flowing river to then rejoin the dirt road which now replaces the two footpaths shown on our map.

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Viscacha enjoying the sun

As the track descended, it gave us amazing views of the big lake next to Chacas with its huge gravel inflow and the impressive Valley of the Volcanoes. Beneath a large snowcapped mountain lies a huge valley dotted with several perfectly shaped cinder-cones which are 200-300m high. About 200,000 years ago, these small volcanoes erupted when the lava fields were degassed – read more here.  The track does get a bit tedious however as it snakes back and forth without making much progress down towards Chacas below, so we sometimes cut the corner by making our own way though the rocks and cacti and later we found a couple of lovely but rarely used paths which saved us much time and allowed us to better enjoy the changing vegetation and views. Higher up, rock fields (complete with many viscachias) interspersed with grassland turns slowly into large cactus and many different flowering bushes carrying almost overwhelming scents and attracting buzzing bees.

From above, Chachas signaled one small step towards “civilization” with a modern looking square and even a bull fighting ring. But in reality, the town still runs at a very rural pace. When we arrived just before noon, there was only one restaurant open and the only shop in town opens at random hours. Based on our research online, there’s suppose to be a 1300 daily bus to Andagua but it seems that buses now run only at 0200 and 0800 in the morning on some days (as a local put it: “it all depends”!). After asking around, someone in the square offered us a ride to Andagua at 1700 in a supply truck. As the major path (~5 hours) to Andagua was flooded and as we did not fancy the alternative ~6 hour walk on dirt roads, we decided to wait. But of course, things run on Peru time here: After the driver manually filled up the tank with 5 buckets of diesel, loaded the back with squeaking guinea pigs and potatoes at 1730, the truck was parked up very neatly as if to stay for a while! We joined the locals indulging in the main entertainment in town – sitting on a bench chatting! In fact, the most active resident in town was an old man slowly walking around town all day with the help of two sticks. Getting cold as the sun set, we eventually retreated to the cab to keep warm.

At last, at 2245, a mere 5.75hrs after we were told we’d leave, and almost 12hrs from when we got into town, the two drivers appeared. They at least now agreed we could join them for their entire trip to Arequipa, not just to Andagua which saved us a night in hostel and a night bus the following day. So with the three of us uncomfortably crammed into the two passenger seats we set off on the supposed 12hr trip – gulp.

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Uh oh, no suspension!

As we left, it turned out that even the normal road out of town over the big gravel lake inflow was flooded and it would have been a very long walk out indeed, so perhaps the wait was worth it…? But the truck ride was not without incident – one of the leaf suspensions came apart on the rough dirt mountain road (which also accounted for our exceedingly numb bums). I think we all actually appreciated the break and after a long period of some dodgy jacking, the jack placed scarily on some rocks to raise it further, whacking the suspension with a spanner, and cutting up an inner-tube with my old Swiss Army penknife (Christmas present when I was about 8!) and by the light of my head-torch to tie the suspension back together, the truck was fixed.

After another 4hr bus ride from where we were dropped off, we were finally back in Arequipa at noon – so at least this uncomfortable ride saved us a days travel!

Other Activities

As well as the trail, these are our highlights not to be missed:

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    Vultures get a good view of the tourists at Cruz del Condor!

    Close condor encounters at Cruz del Condor: It may be busy with tourists early in the morning, but it is indescribably magic to have these vast creatures flying by so close you can almost touch them. Tours operate, but we just took the 0700 Reyna bus from Cabanaconde and then caught the Milagros (Chivay to Cabanaconde) bus (~0900-0930) going back which worked out perfectly for timing on that particular day. We could watch 10 condors take advantage of the morning thermals going up the cliff face to leave their nests before cruising off to find food. Following advice, we also highly recommend finding a clear spot on one of the two lower viewing areas for a chance of really close encounter!

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    Colca Canyon terraces

    Day hike between Coporaque to Yangue: This takes you through some beautiful rural landscape in the Colca Canyon on an easy trail and allows you a panoramic view of layered canyon terraces against snow-mountain back-drops almost all the way. The great news is for such an easy trail, it hardly gets any tourists! I started from Chivay: there are regular mini-buses leaving Chivay near the main square and it only takes 1.5 soles and around 15 mins to get to Coporaque (a sleepy canyon town). Ask around in Coporaque for the trail start and locals are extremely helpful with directions. Once you are on the trail, it is signed all the way to Yangue. The trail takes you past three ruins: an interesting cliff tomb, San Antonio and Oyu Oyu. From Oyu Oyu, you can hike down to a bridge that crosses the river to Yanque where you can get a mini-bus back to Chivay. The whole hike takes 3-4 hours and you can also hike from Chivay to Coporaque which adds another hour although you will be sharing the track with passing mini-buses.

  • Delicious Peruvian homemade food at Cabanita’s Place in Cabanaconde: Instead of paying a fortune for pizzas and pastas at your hostel in Cabanaconde, try this local gem! The owner Senora Gladis Feria speaks fluent English and is extremely friendly. She loves cooking and used to own a small Peruvian restaurant in Washington DC, USA. She moved back to her hometown recently but can’t give up what she loves – cooking great food and sharing it with others! She cooks everything in her restaurant with extreme care and changes the menu all the time. We ate three meals there and every dish was different and delicious! A set lunch menu cost 6 soles and a set dinner menu costs 7. You can taste her dedication to cooking Peruvian food in all her dishes! A must try for all those who visit Cabanaconde.
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Giant Hummingbird

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Local wares for sale at the 4800m pass from Ariquipa to Chivay