Photo essay: Hiking the Colca Canyon in Peru without a guide

If you’re visiting Peru and are looking for something cheaper, less touristy, and all-around more adventurous than Machu Picchu, then head to the village of Cabanaconde. It’s the entry point for a thrilling hike down Colca Canyon, a natural wonder that’s twice as deep as the Grand Canyon.

Best of all, you don’t need an expensive tour to experience Colca Canyon. We made the hike in one day– without a guide– during our round-the-world trip. Despite bringing only a sleeve of Oreo cookies and a liter of water, we survived to share our tips with other travelers!

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Going solo

Most foreigners make this trip via a van tour, which is the top activity pushed by local travel agencies and hotels. We’re glad we went on our own, since our local buses passed groups of vans parked at every designated ‘tourist lookout’ filled with vendors selling handicrafts. A self-guided hike is a little tricky but definitely more memorable– and much more affordable. When we went in 2009 a local bus ticket cost about $1.20.

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To get to Cabanaconde, you must first make your way to Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru.  You can splurge on a private tour or take the local bus; either way, it’s a winding, 6- to 8-hour journey up the mountains towards Colca Canyon.

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Reverse hiking

The Colca Canyon hike is the main attraction in Cabanaconde.  It’s the opposite of a normal hike– you start out at the top, which is about 11,000 feet above sea level, then you descend nearly a mile down, to about 6,500 feet. After resting at the “resort” (essentially a rustic restaurant and swimming pool) located at the bottom of the canyon, you turn around and ascend back up to the higher elevation.

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We made the return trip in one day, but many travelers spend the night at the bottom of the canyon. Having experienced a severe bout of motion sickness on the return hike, I’d recommend taking a longer rest than our paltry 45-minute break and bringing healthy snacks to keep your energy levels up.

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The hike may seem easy, particularly as you work your way down to the bottom, but be careful, the hike back up towards the top is relentless, given the altitude. And remember, there’s no quitting half way, once you make it down you have to get back up and out or you’ll be spending a long, cold night on the steep pathway!

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You will see an occasional hiker at Colca Canyon, but for the most part you will be on your own for the length of the trail. We did share the path with an occasional donkey, used to lug supplies (and people) up and down the canyon.

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The “Oasis”

Once you get to the bottom of the Colca Canyon hike you’ll find a restaurant with swimming pools, appropriately called the ‘Oasis’.  Be warned, however, as the restaurant has limited food options and no refrigerated beverages, so bring some cash and leave time to make it back up and out before nightfall.

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We arrived at an off time and the only dish available for lunch was not vegetarian. We settled for some warm soda and nibbled at the rest of our cookies. Not the best fuel for a strenuous hike.

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We didn’t have a chance to swim in the pool, since we wanted to finish the return hike before dusk, but it seemed like a popular spot to lounge.

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Winding trail

The path down Colca Canyon is narrow, covered in pebbles, and surrounded by steep fall-offs, adding to the excitement of the hike.

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We were treated to 360′ views of multi-colored mountains and valleys.

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At some points the trail dissolved into a series of boulders covered by slippery pebbles, which made it necessary to pay attention to every step.

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The rocky path was even more challenging on the way back up the canyon.

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Despite the grueling ascent back up the mountain, we’d recommend this hike to travelers who want to get away from the crowds of Machu Picchu. It’s a unique experience and one that costs very little without a tour.

Have you hiked Colca Canyon?

Share your experience by leaving a comment below!

About Jake Semmel

I'm a blogger and round the world traveler. I'm always on the lookout for new places to scuba dive, hike and ski.