100 miles northwest of Arequipa, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and volcanoes, lies the spectacular Colca Canyon. Carved by the mighty Rio Colca (Colca River), the valley is twice the depth of the Grand Canyon and one of the deepest canyons in the world.
Everything about Colca Canyon is extreme. Towering mountains, high altitude and giant birds all combine to remind you just how small you are.
For travellers visiting Arequipa, a trip to Colca Canyon shouldn’t be missed. The good news for backpackers is that there are plenty of ways to visit. From multi-day treks to quick whistle-stop tours, Colca Valley offers something for every type of traveller and budget!
A Guide to Colca Canyon, Peru
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Best Time to Visit Colca Canyon
You can visit Colca Canyon any time of year but the best months are May and June. During this time you’ll experience warm days and the nights won’t be too cold. Plant life will be plentiful after the rainy season and the condors, one of South America’s most amazing animals, will be taking to the skies once more.
Peru has two distinct seasons – wet and dry – but the elevation around Colca Canyon can make things a little unpredictable, especially in the shoulder season months of April and November. If you’re looking for a quieter trekking experience, consider visiting during this time.
Dry season is May-October. The dry season brings warm sunny days to Colca Canyon but at night, the temperature can drop well below freezing. Be prepared for both hot days and cold nights. Dry season also delivers a better chance of seeing the Andean Condor.
Rainy season is December-March. Visiting Colca Canyon in rainy season means you’re less likely to share the canyon with too many other people. If you’re hiking, accommodation is easy to secure and nights will be warmer. However, when it rains, it really rains – steep descents get much tougher. Visibility can also be poorer during the rainy season, so if you’re visiting on a day trip, you may not be able to appreciate the true scale of the canyon.
If you’re heading to Colca Canyon specifically to see condors, avoid the rainy season. Thanks to their immense size, condors can’t fly when wet – the added weight of the water on their massive wings makes them too heavy to get airborne. That’s why you often see condors on the ground with their wings spread facing the sun – they’re drying out!
How to Visit Colca Canyon
Colca Canyon is one of the most prominent tourist attractions from Arequipa. Due to its popularity, the canyon can feel busy – especially during high season. There will be large groups at most viewpoints and accommodation in and around the canyon can be difficult to get without planning ahead. Visit in low season if you want to avoid the majority of the crowds.
There are a number of ways to see and experience the canyon. From self-guided hikes to day trips in a minibus, there’s an option for every type of traveller no matter your budget or time constraints!
Organised Day Tour
The easiest way for backpackers to experience Colca Canyon is on an organised day trip from Arequipa. These tours leave super early (2-3 am) and whisk you to various viewpoints around the canyon – including the famous Cruz del Condor viewpoint.
While it’s not the most fun way to visit Colca Canyon, an organised tour is generally cheap and provides a good way to experience the area if you’re short on time. Most tours cost around 70-100 soles ($20-30USD) and take up the entire day – breakfast and lunch tend to be included. You’ll need to pay an entrance fee to the canyon on top. This is around 70 soles ($20USD) per person.
Independent Tour of Colca Canyon
Despite the obvious value for money offered by taking a tour, sometimes travellers want a bit more freedom. Even though there’s no significant saving, it’s nice 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, you’re going to have to travel via the town of Chivay and arrange your transport around the area from there. Read more about travelling to Colca Canyon independently below.
👉 Check Out – A DIY Trip to Chivay and the Colca Canyon.
Trekking in Colca Canyon
Another popular, and arguably better way to see the canyon is by trekking. The best treks are all multi-day and involve sleeping in small villages within the canyon en route. The trails are well-marked and easy to follow, so whether you want to visit independently or as part of a tour, there’s an option for you!
Organised treks into Colca Canyon offer very good value for money. Expect to spend 150-200 soles ($40-55USD) for a two-day-one-night adventure. These tours include a night staying in a basic homestay right in the heart of the canyon.
Be warned though – due to the steep, rugged terrain, trekking can be a challenge! There are several routes and tours you can take; each varies in difficulty but none are easy. Some special treks may include horse riding, detours to waterfalls or going in search of the source of the Amazon!
If doing the trek with a guide isn’t for you, it’s simple enough to do on your own. The trails are well-marked and appear on most map apps. You can also get paper maps with the different marked trails.
Most treks start from Cabanaconde, so you’ll need to make your way to the town before starting your hike into the canyon. From Arequipa, you can opt to use buses, collectivos or take the tourist shuttle which also stops at a couple of viewpoints along the way.
Direct buses to Cabanaconde are available from very early morning until around midday. It’s worth noting that if you arrive in Cabanaconde any later than midday, you won’t be able to start your trek until the following day unless you plan on walking well after dark, which isn’t advisable.
Colectivos leave Arequipa heading to Chivay from around 5:00 am and continue to do so all day. They leave as soon as they’re full. While they’re a few soles more expensive than buses, colectivos are much faster, completing the journey in around three and a half hours vs the five-plus hours the bus takes. Once in Chivay, you can get another colectivo to Cabanaconde. It’s worth noting that collectivos don’t tend to have much room for luggage. If possible, leave the bulk of your gear in Arequipa and pick it up when you return. You won’t make many friends if you try to drag a big backpack onto a minibus!
If you plan to spend the night in Cabanaconde before beginning your trek, Pachamama offers a nice backpacker vibe. You can store luggage here and they sell maps of the various Colca Canyon routes.
The most popular routes are two to three days in length but you can merge multiple trails for a longer adventure if you want to.
No matter which trek you opt for, you’ll find accommodation in small villages along the route – these may need to be booked in advance during high season (June-September) but for the rest of the year, you shouldn’t need to worry. Food is usually included in the price but the accommodation is basic. Reliable running water isn’t guaranteed and electricity may only be available for a few hours a day.
You should also be aware that the descent into the canyon and then the climb out are hard work. If you’re planning on tackling the Inca Trail or one of the other hikes to Machu Picchu, Colca Canyon acts as good practice. Bear in mind that you’ll need a good level of fitness to take on this challenge!
Colca Canyon Entrance Fee
There is a compulsory entrance fee of approx. 70 soles ($20USD) per person (for foreigners) to enter Colca Canyon. 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 to Bring on a Trip to Colca Canyon
- 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 conditions.
- Trekking boots or good walking shoes are a must for hiking in the canyon. If you’re on a day trip, a pair of comfortable sturdy shoes is more than enough.
- Trekking poles are great for hiking in Colca Canyon. (Trekking poles are frequently voted one of the best gifts for hikers!)
- If you plan to enter the hot springs, don’t forget to bring swimwear.
- Cash is king in Colca Canyon. Make sure you have plenty of small denomination notes for buying food and supplies during your visit.
- For hiking, a filtered water bottle will help you save a bit of money. However, water sources aren’t super plentiful along the trails, so you may decide to forgo one as you’ll have to buy bottled water either way.
- A power bank is a must if you’re relying on electronic devices. With intermittent electricity in the villages, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to charge anything without a power bank.
- Finally, make sure your camera or phone is fully charged, so you won’t miss snapping a shot of the almighty Condor!
Tips for Visiting Colca Canyon
- Acclimatise – The canyon’s rim is located at 3,000-4,000 metres above sea level, so you’ll need to acclimatise before taking on any real trekking to avoid altitude sickness. Make sure you’ve spent at least a few days getting used to being up this high before setting off to Colca Canyon.
- Pick the right route for you – There are several routes around Colca Canyon. Some are longer and more strenuous than others. Make sure you know what to expect from your chosen trek.
- Leave your luggage in Arequipa – You won’t want to trek with all your gear and there’s no point lugging everything on the bus to Cabanaconde to just leave it in a hostel there. Most hostels in Arequipa have luggage storage available. Sometimes you’ll need to pay for this, other times it’s free.
- Look up – Colca Canyon is one of the best places in the world to see condors. Keep your eyes on the skies!
Colca Canyon Visitors Guide – A Round-Up
Colca Canyon is a geological wonder and well worth the trip if you’re in Arequipa. Sure, it gets pretty busy at the viewpoints around the rim but you don’t have to wander far to drop the crowds. Even on an organised day trip, you’ll be given enough time at each spot to find some peace.
If you’re looking for more than a brief respite from other tourists, trekking could be the answer. Hikes into the canyon offer a chance to escape the crowds and get a more intimate experience with the natural world. Even during high season, the trails are long enough that most people can find a bubble of peace to walk in.
Whether you opt to hike or visit on a day trip, Colca Canyon is awe-inspiring!
Have you visited Colca Canyon in Peru? Let us know about your experience in the comments!