Most people take a tour from Arequipa to visit the Colca Canyon. It is however completely possible and surprising easy to visit on your own. Tours are dirt cheap, with some companies offering as little as 140 soles for 3 days/2 nights. While it’s a challenge to manage it much cheaper independently, I personally wouldn’t want to take these tours. We booked our return transport from Cabanaconde to Arequipa with Oasis Palmeras tour company. Not only were we overcharged, they didn’t even have room for us on their bus! They tried to put us on a bus going directly back to Arequipa. The reason we booked this transport was because they make stops at several interesting viewing points during the journey. We also stayed at their accommodation in the Oasis, which turned out to be dismal. There we witnessed the way they spoke to their own tour groups. The guides were either rude or completely nonchalant.
This unique landscape has more to offer beyond where the tours go, and we had more time to enjoy it. We spent 5 nights and 6 days. In reality, it was barely enough time to scratch the surface. Also, being the wet season, the weather was not always on our side. However there are many great reasons to go at this time. The canyon is lush and green, flowers are in bloom, the river is full and it’s quieter on the tourist front so you get a better taste of local life. The Colca Canyon is made of three main sections. The upper, middle and lower Canyon.
We didn’t have time to visit the upper canyon, which is less explored and may require lots of time, infrequent collectivos to get around and homestays with local families.
If you’re on a tour, you’ll visit the outskirts of Colca’s ‘hub’ but miss its pleasant centre, with its church and Plaza de Armas and a substantial fresh produce market running along Miguel Grau. There are plenty of transport options from Arequipa to Chivay, starting from 10 soles for a local bus. You can also transfer to/from Puno if you’re heading that way, and save on backtracking. Chivay is a good base for visiting other villages in the upper and middle canyon.
Yanque was our favourite town! It has the canyon’s prettiest church, a museum and the Chacapi thermal baths. We visited these rather than La Caldera in Chivay as they are a 10 minute walk from town and (we assumed) less touristy. We visited at 9:30am and had the place to ourselves. At 11am, as we were leaving, a bunch of tourist buses showed up!
A tour guide told us La Caldera is now too crowded to accommodate all the tours. We also saw more groups in the late afternoon when we were hiking to Uyo Uyo. If you want a local experience, Yanque is still the place. Finding a meal was a challenge. ‘Restaurants’ are family-run establishments serving simple fast food, usually fried chicken, ‘chaufa’ (chinese style noodles), rice and fries. We followed our noses to a door near the square where locals were gathering. A lone woman was fabulously multi-tasking, cooking up a fresh meal for every customer. I can’t tell you the name because it didn’t have one! 9 soles fed both of us.
Uyo Uyo Inca Ruins
These ruins, about a 30 minute walk from Yanque are the most impressive in the Canyon. From Yanque’s main square head north on Avenida San Antonio and keep following this road until it becomes a smaller track. Follow it until you reach stairs leading down to an orange bridge. Cross the bridge veer left on the path and then follow the signs (see above). You’ll pass through spectacular terraced farmland and soon reach a large building which is the ticket office. It was closed so we couldn’t pay the 8 soles. There was not a soul around.
Cabanaconde is the place to start trekking deep into the lower canyon. The town is tiny, quiet and traditional. We stayed at Pachamama Hostel, run by Jamaican born Manu, who is so helpful! It was one of our highlights, especially the delicious wood-fired pizzas we enjoyed in the lovely warm dining area, swapping stories with fellow travellers. Pachamama has a wealth of information on trekking routes, tours and transport on their website (they also give you the best map I’ve seen for the canyon). After Oasis Palmeras messed up our transport we booked a shuttle bus with them (40 soles) back to Arequipa. Mirador de Achachihua, a short walk from town, is a good place to spot Condors and also the start of the trek to Llure-fure and Llahuar.
Cruz del Condor
The tourist buses all visit between 8am and 10am, but you can easily avoid this time by taking a local bus or taxi from Cabanaconde or doing a combi-van/bike tour (book through Pachamama hostel). Condors are a little harder to spot this time of year, and often come out after the tourists leave. Though we saw them during our hike to Sangelle they were too far away for a decent photo.
Trekking to Sangelle ‘Oasis’
You can reach the Sangelle Oasis on a 2 hour trek from Cabanaconde (returning the same way). From the main square turn north along Grau. Continue straight until the road ends and then follow a track through farmland (there are arrows). Follow this for about 10 minutes and you’ll reach a Mirador (not sure of the name but you’ll see it), from here the trail down is very obvious. A popular route, called the ‘El Clasico’ trek (this is the one all the tours do) is via the towns of San Juan de Chuccho, Coshnirwa and Malata. Start at Mirador de San Miguel. Read the directions on Pachmama’s website. This will explain better than I can. This trek does a loop and returns via the first Mirador. We made a canine friend who guided us to Mirador San Miguel.
If you stay in Sangelle overnight avoid the lodge Paraiso Las Palmeras (owned by Oasis Palmeras) which is overpriced, poor quality and the food is terrible (it gave us the runs!). They always have plenty of guests from the tours, while the other lodges tend to miss out. All the accommodations are basic, but we accidentally ended up at Oasis Paraiso Ecolodge (Palmeras lost our booking, didn’t know who we were and sent us there!), which is run by a lovely family and I was wishing we booked there instead.