Kristin and I traveled through nine Latin American countries before entering Peru. In those seven months, we met many tourists who had already been to Peru, and more than a few raved about hiking in Colca Canyon.
Honestly, I had never heard of this purported amazing trek in the deepest canyon in the world. I soon learned that Colca Canyon, at 4,160 meters (13,648 feet) from top to bottom, is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. However, there is no consensus on the “deepest” title, as there are a variety of methods to measure a canyon. There are a few canyons in the Himalayas and one other in Peru that some consider deeper. Regardless, Colca Canyon shot to the top of our list of must-see natural wonders.
When we finally arrived in the large city of Arequipa, the best launching point for excursions to the canyon, we made sure to arm ourselves with our traveling protectionist philosophy: low expectations. We were most disappointed when our expectations were built up by other tourists, travel companies, websites, and even government media. Either the travel destination/activity did not live up to the hype, or did not align with our personal preferences.
So, after four days of hiking in Colca Canyon, what is our honest opinion? How much does it matter if it is, or isn’t, the deepest canyon in the world? And most importantly, irrespective of the hype, how was the hiking?
We’ll let the photos do the talking and you can decide for yourself.
These highly terraced fields are below the town of Chivay, the last major settlement before the steep canyon walls make the area nearly inhospitable.
The switchbacks of the main trail are visible on the left side. There is an oasis along the bend in the river, where several sleeping cabins and grassy camp sites are available.
This is one of the more enjoyable camping spots that we’ve happened upon – flat, grassy, private, and with enormous flowers in full bloom.
This lush oasis was replete with small waterfalls and large banana trees, flourishing in a small pocket of an otherwise inhospitable desert.
Away from the oasis, we hiked among hardy desert vegetation.
This cactus had some serious self-defense issues.
The walls of Colca Canyon certainly are tall and steep. However, we often felt like we were hiking in a typical “V” shaped valley, as opposed to the more box-like shape of the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon is also much more colorful.
There are a few small communities within the steepest section of the canyon and the Catholic church remains at the center of village life.
Despite the harsh climate, forbidding landscape, and numerous pre-Incan ruins, village life still seemed vibrant.
Irrigation from distant glacier melt enables farming in small pockets of the canyon, where the land is relatively flat and receives sufficient sunlight. Farming and tourism are the main economic activities.
The trails were well defined and in relatively good condition. They have been used by locals and pack animals for more than half a millennium.
At the tourist spot of “Cruz del Condors,” several Andean condors reliably ride the updraft along the canyon’s steep walls in the morning, sometimes perching as close as 15 meters.
Watching wildlife wasn’t as satisfying with such a large crowd.
Local women sold hand-woven clothing to the busloads of tourists, many who rode up to 10 hours in one day just to get a glimpse of the condors and the valley.
This woman devised a simple method for carrying goods on her back, using only a small sheet and two knots. Backpacking in these areas has introduced us to different methods and ideas, some of which have been cultivated over hundreds of years. This was a good learning experience for me. In the U.S., I often find myself getting caught up in the excitement of the latest gear, and forget that our modern technologies are still completely foreign to many living in less developed countries.