Arequipa & The Colca Canyon: Two-Day Hike In The World’s Second Deepest Canyon

So far we had discovered Peru by air, sea and sand; now we would do so by land. Following a day in Arequipa, we put on our hiking boots for a two-day trek in the world’s second deepest canyon.

After exploring Peru’s Pacific Coast, we boarded the night bus from Nazca to Arequipa. We arrived in Arequipa around sunrise, fresh as a daisy thanks to the comfortable cama option on the bus. Our Hostal Bubamara allowed us to check in early. We had breakfast at the rooftop terrace with a great view of El Misti, Arequipa’s active volcano.

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Fed and fueled, we went for a free walking tour in downtown Arequipa. The tour leaves from the beautiful Plaza de Armas. First stop was Iglesia de La Compania and its attached cloisters. Shopping and history go hand in hand here, as the cloisters house boutique shops and restaurants.

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Another remarkable stop was the San Camilo Food Market, popular with locals. The market has a varied supply to say the least. In addition to the typical fruit juices and traditional clothing, you’ll find lama fetuses in the witchcraft corner.

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We followed our guide’s recommendation to visit the Museo Santuarios Andinos. The museum is the current residence of Juanita, a 500 year-old child mummy. She had the honor to be offered to the Inca gods at the age of twelve. In return she got an eternal life after death, inside of a temperature-controlled glass case. The museum tells the story of her final journey, illustrated by objects from Inca culture.

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Strange but true, we left the museum with quite an appetite. We had a delicious three-course lunch in traditional Zig Zag restaurant. Which might not have been the best idea, since we had a cooking class planned just two hours later.

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We walked it off in the colorful Monasterio de Santa Catalina. The Monasterio is like a city within the city, so you better take your time to explore. Since we only had one day in Arequipa, our schedule was tight. After a quick tour of the Monasterio, we headed to our cooking class.

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The setting for our cooking class with Peruvian Cooking Experience was the sunny courtyard of Casa de Avila. We prepared a three-course menu of Andean specialties, with rocoto relleno as the main course. These Peruvian peppers are stuffed with a mix of cheese and meat, and typically served with pastel de papas – the Peruvian version of gratin dauphinois. After a double three-course menu in less than four hours, we felt equally stuffed.

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After the cooking, we got down to business. We enrolled in a pisco lecture, which covered both a pisco tasting and preparing a pisco sour. Never before had I taken such detailed notes in class. I took them back home, together with two bottles of pisco.

The following morning, we left at 3 AM for Cabanaconde. This little touristy hub serves as the base point for the Colca Canyon trekking. We arranged minivan transport from Arequipa through the Pachamama Hostel in Cabanaconde. After a bumpy four-hour ride, we made a stop at Cruz del Condor. This viewpoint is a great spot to see giant Andean condors fly over the canyon.

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A short drive later, we were dropped at the Pachamama Hostel. We left our suitcases at the hostel and started working our way out of town, to the trailhead of the Colca Canyon trekking. Or at least that’s what we thought. After some back and forth past the trailhead, we finally saw our destination emerge. Despite our hesitant start, we choose to do the trekking without a guide and in two days rather than three. In less than 24 hours, we would hike all the way down and back up to green oasis Sangalle.

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As we were not prepared to sleep under the stars, we started descending at a steady pace. The first two hours, it was all downhill with beautiful vistas of the canyon. To my surprise, we hardly ran into a soul. We soon learned that we were just running behind the crowds.

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The downhill part came to an end when we reached the bridge over the Colca river. Here, the rocky mountain ridge gives way to a lush green valley. Even more than the flat road, the shade was highly appreciated. Peruvian winter feels like a good Belgian summer. Many hikers who opted for the three-day trekking called it a day in San Juan de Chuccho, a little ‘town’ made up of a couple of guesthouses.

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But not us! We had three hours of hiking left to reach Sangalle – and about the same number of daylight hours. The road was winding up and down until it was only winding up. Our efforts were rewarded with ice cold water from an improvised shop against the ridge.

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We next passed through Cosñirhua, set against terraced fields dating back to Inca times. We had a hard time finding our way out of the tiny town, much to the amusement of local construction workers.

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Once we made it back on track, Sangalle was looming around the corner. We got a room in the first guesthouse we ran into, desperate to exchange our hiking boots for a happy hour drink. Despite the big crowds, the accommodation managed to stay surprisingly basic – no electricity in the room, no hot water and no wifi. This paved the way for an early night, which we wouldn’t regret the following morning.

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Because the real challenge lay ahead. We had a climb of 1,100 meters to complete before 9:30 AM, when our bus to Puno would depart from Cabanaconde. Our alarms went off at 4:30. By 5 AM, we were trying to navigate the complete darkness with our cell phone lights.

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Dawn revealed that we were far from the only ones on this early adventure. Reason being that once the sun gets out, the steep climb against the mountain ridge becomes unbearable. The path was covered by a chain of tourists, guides and mules carrying luggage. As time went by, mules started carrying tourists.

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We ended up completing the climb in less than three hours, well in time for the next part of our Peruvian adventure: Lake Titicaca.