100 miles North West of Arequipa, Peru’s “Ciudad Blanca”, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and volcanoes lies the spectacular Colca Canyon. At 4,160 metres deep, it’s the second deepest canyon in the world, only surpassed by its big, Peruvian brother, Cotahuasi.
Everything about this place is extreme; the mountains; the altitude; the blistering heat of the day; the cold of the night; the giant birds; all combining to remind you just how small you really are.
For most travellers visiting Arequipa, their main aim while staying in the city is to organise a trip to Colca Canyon. The good news for backpackers is that there is a great deal of flexibility for those looking to visit this almighty canyon as well as tours to suit all budgets.
3 Ways to visit Colca Canyon!
An Organised Day Tour to Colca Canyon
A common way to get to Colca is with an organised day tour from Arequipa, which will pick you up VERY early in the morning (2-3am) and whisk you round in a minibus, stopping for the photos at all the best viewpoints, spotting condors, plenty of photo opportunities etc.
It’s all quite cheap too. We met several backpackers who had paid as little as 70 soles ($25 US) for a full day trip to the canyon, with the main sites, like the condors and volcanic hot springs included. (Not including the 70 Soles entrance ticket). Bargain! If you’re more adventurous and want to start trekking through the canyon itself though, then be prepared to pay a bit more…
An Organised 2 or 3 Tour to Colca Canyon
For travellers not keen on hiking, a full day tour is a good option as it is essentially a whistle-stop tour of Colca Canyon’s viewpoints. However, the most popular and recommended way to experience the canyon is on a 2 or 3 day trek.
The extra time allows you some quality time for hiking and appreciating the amazing views that abound in this incredible landscape. The 2-3 day tours are very well priced too. 2-Day Colca Canyon Treks usually cost $40-$50 US and include a night staying at a basic homestay in the heart of the canyon which is a really cool experience to be in the middle of nature.
Be warned though – due to the rugged, steep nature of the canyon, the trekking can be a challenge! On the first day, you will trek around 5-6 hours over undulating terrain (not so difficult) and the following day you will hike 2-hours directly up a mountain (to get out of the canyon) before you’ve earned your breakfast! Three day treks are a little more easy-going.
There are also a variety of special treks available which take you via alternative hiking routes or include horse riding, visiting waterfalls or even locating the source of the Amazon River!
Visiting Colca Canyon Independently
Despite the obvious value for money offered by the various tour companies, sometimes you just want a bit more freedom. Even though there’s no significant saving, you want to feel like you’re doing things on your own terms and not just being herded around like obedient foreign sheep! If you’re looking for a way to travel to Colca Canyon from Arequipa, independently (more or less) you’re going to have to travel via the town of Chivay. For more information, read our article – A DIY Trip to Chivay and the Colca Canyon.
Entrance fee to visit Colca Canyon
There is a compulsory entrance fee of 70 soles per person (for foreigners) to enter Colca Canyon (Approx. $20 US per person.) This is not usually included in the price of tours and is paid for separately upon arrival at the village of Yanque which is the gateway to the canyon. The ticket includes access to the Colca Canyon area including La Calera Thermal Baths, as well as the towns of Tapay, Cabanaconde and Chivay.
What you need to bring on a Colca Canyon trip?
First and foremost, allow yourself a couple of days to acclimatise in Arequipa.
- As Colca Canyon is located high in the mountains, you will need to bear in mind that the weather changes quickly. Wear layers to keep warm and remember a rain jacket in case of a downpour.
- Suncream and a hat are also recommended owing to the fluctuating temperature.
- Trekking boots are a must if you are doing a hiking centred tour, however, for those of you on a one day tour, any kind of sturdy shoes will be fine.
- If you are going to enter the hot springs, don’t forget to bring swimwear.
- Finally, make sure your camera or phone is fully charged so you won’t miss snapping a shot of the almighty Condor!
The Best 1 or 2-Day Tours to Colca Canyon
As we were short of time in the city, we headed out on a full day tour to Colca Canyon. We arranged our trip to Colca Canyon with the company, Arequipa Tour, who were excellent from the start! Prior to our departure date, we were given our full day itinerary and informed about the pick-up.
Arequipa Tour also run a variety of multi-day (2 or 3 day) hiking tours to Colca Canyon, which we’ve heard great things about. Depending on how much time you have, you might want to check out their various options.
Full Day Tour to Colca Canyon with Arequipa Tour
As Colca Canyon is located around a long drive from Arequipa, we would be leaving at the incredibly early time of 2.45 am to get the most out of the day. (Pick-up from your hostel is included if you are staying in the downtown area at no extra cost, which is a relief considering the early start time!)
We were picked up promptly at 2.45 am and piled onto our minibus. From there, we collected the other passengers from their respective hostels and hotels around the city. In total, there were 14 of us in the group.
After we all boarded the minibus, our guide Maria introduced herself and the driver. She did this first in Spanish and then in English for those of us whose Spanish still needs a little work! After she outlined the day’s itinerary, she bade us all goodnight and told us she would wake us for the first stop. Gratefully, we all sunk into the land of nod for a couple more hours.
After a couple of hours, I woke to Maria announcing that we would shortly be stopping at a viewpoint high in the mountains. We departed the minibus and I was amazed to see that the ground was covered in snow!
We took in the views of the volcanoes in front of us and tried to warm up. I hadn’t prepared for this kind of weather in Peru! After a few minutes to take pictures and admire the view, we headed back to the minibus which would be taking us to our breakfast spot.
We arrived in the village of Yanque and Maria gathered money for our canyon entrance tickets (not included in the tour price). Foreigners pay 70 soles per person to enter Colca Canyon.
A Veritable Breakfast Feast!
After the tickets had been purchased, we made our way into the restaurant. Breakfast was a veritable feast, with everything from juice, coffee, fruit, yoghurt, cheese, ham and bread! Eggs could be added for an extra 2 soles and there was even coca tea available for those suffering from the effects of the altitude.
After we had stuffed ourselves full, we headed into the town. The locals were out in force, selling handmade clothing and approaching tourists for alpaca photographs. As somebody who loves llamas and alpacas, I just couldn’t resist!
The Cross of the Condor Mirador
After breakfast, Maria informed us we would be making our way to The Cross of the Condor Mirador. This viewpoint gives way to some spectacular views of the Canyon and also increases visitor chances of seeing the mighty Condor fly over the landscape. The journey was meant to be another hour and a half but after only 45 minutes of travel, our van pulled over.
Maria gleefully announced to the passengers that there were a number of Condors on a nearby cliff and that we would be stopping here to see them.
The Andean Condor is the second largest flying bird in the world and considering their size, they aren’t the easiest bird to spot in their natural environment. This is because they are an endangered species, with fewer than 1500 left in the wild. As we tiptoed out of the minibus, not wanting to disturb them, we were greeted by no fewer than five Condors!
We spent a good while looking up at them in awe and willing them to take flight. After around twenty minutes, they did just that and it was a truly spectacular sight. No longer having anything left to marvel at, we continued on to The Cross of the Condor viewpoint.
Maria informed us that we would only be spending around 40 minutes here owing to the unexpected stop earlier. This wasn’t an issue for anyone though as we were all feeling very lucky and privileged to have seen the Condors earlier in the day.
During the rainy season (which it was at the time of our visit) it is much harder to see the Condor. This is partly because they are so large and heavy, they struggle to fly when wet.
After arriving at The Cross, we took in the sights of Colca Canyon in all its glory. It is a truly stunning landscape which beggars belief. As I sat looking over the gaping valley in front of me, I suddenly felt very small.
The Calera Thermal Baths (Hot Springs)
Sadly, as we on a day trip only, the time soon rolled around for us to head back to the bus. We had a choice of activities for the next part of the day. There was the adventurous option of a zip-lining experience through the Canyon or alternatively a visit to the natural hot springs, known as the Calera Thermal Baths in the town of Chivay. The vast majority of people opted for the hot springs and we stayed at this location for around an hour, to give the driver a chance to catch up on sleep.
Feeling refreshed but hungry, we emerged from the hot springs and got back into the minibus for our food stop. Lunch was a buffet, full of traditional Peruvian cuisine. There was loads of variety which made it a great option for vegetarians and vegans too.
All of the food was delicious and I am not ashamed to admit that I went up for second helpings. After I had managed to cram in a final dessert, we were promptly herded back to the bus… a storm was on the horizon.
The Long Way Back to Arequipa
Our itinerary had dictated that the journey back to Arequipa would be broken up by a stop at a Natural Reserve, home to a large population of Vicuñas (a mammal similar to alpacas and llamas). However, as we made our way up and back through the mountains, it became apparent that this may not be possible.
As we reached the highest point in the mountains, the clouds drew in and the storm really began to get fierce. The mist was shrouding any of the views and it quickly became impossible to see more than a metre in front of the windscreen. Luckily, we had a very capable driver because I wouldn’t have wanted just anyone transporting me about in that weather!
The mist and sleet meant that it took nearly treble the time to pass through the mountains and there was little improvement once we started to descend. With the rain still hammering down, and not a Vicuña in sight, we headed back to Arequipa, slowly but safely.
A Day Well Spent!
I had a great time visiting Colca Canyon with Arequipa Tour. Our guide Maria was enthusiastic and professional from the start of the day until the very end. Thanks to her keen photography skills, we were able to get some great pictures in and around the Canyon too!
Although I would suggest that a two or three-day trekking experience would allow you to fully experience the Canyon, the full day trip is a great option if you have limited time. The long journey means a very early morning but Arequipa Tour took care of all of our needs and made our visit to Colca an easy and worthwhile trip.
The food provided was great and there were options to suit all dietary requirements. I also enjoyed how visitors can customise the tour to their own interests, either with a break in the hot springs or something more adrenaline pinching with the zip line.
Although a Colca Canyon Day Trip is a really long day which starts early, I would urge everyone to schedule this natural wonder into their Peru itinerary, no matter how many days you have in your Peru itinerary!
The landscape of the canyon is truly breathtaking and the local communities are intriguing in their own right. The majestic flight of the Condor is something that has to be experienced first hand and sadly, the opportunity to see this in person may not always be there!