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A Big Canyon, Big Birds And A Slightly Too Big Hike

A big canyon, big birds and a slightly too big hike


Last time I just arrived in Arequipa after saying goodbye to the ocean for the next few months. My camp spot is really central and only a 10 minute walk to the central square. It isn’t much more than a campsite parking lot and on the other side of the wall is a big busy road but there are loads of fun people here. When I drive up there are five other overlanders parked there. We’re actually four vans of which three VWs with a rooftop tent and because the parking lot is pretty narrow we need to park behind each other and form a little van parade. I end up chatting with loads of people on the campsite that evening and don’t even make it to town.

Church front in Arequipa

The next morning while I’m having a chat with my neighbors I hear a “I know you”. It takes me a bit of time to recognize them but that’s because I’ve only seen them once and that was a very long time ago. I met this American couple when I crossed the border from Mexico to Guatemala back in November, almost seven months ago. That was the first ‘scary’ border crossing and I hadn’t had my Spanish courses yet so I was very happy to not be alone. After that I have not seen them anymore. This is definitely the longest time between meeting the same people again. Sadly they’re leaving already. They’ve been in Arequipa a few days and are getting to the end of their trip so they have no time to lose, but maybe I’ll see them in Cusco again. Now it’s time to head into town. Arequipa is a beautifully restored colonial town with views of snowy mountains and volcanoes everywhere. It is the second biggest city in Peru but not that well known. The central square is perfect for my favorite hobby: sit, read a book and watch people go by. Surprisingly there are no annoying people trying to sell you useless souvenirs, very peaceful. One of the main sites of Arequipa is the Santa Catalina monastery. It is a huge complex of over 20000 square meters that used to house some 450 nuns. The walls are painted bright red and blue. With the afternoon sun this is a photo paradise and I happily shoot away walking through all the hallways, courtyards, rooms and kitchens. Funnily the monastery was for nuns living in poverty and even though the beds are just a wooden plank the rooms are pretty huge and nicely decorated for being in poverty. At the end of the day at the supermarket I run into the Belgian/Swiss couple from the campsite who invite me over for dinner, sounds like a plan.

Santa Catalina Monastery

Because yesterday was Pentecost loads of stores and churches were closed. So I decide to stay another day to explore the city some more with actual people in it. The weather is great and there are plenty colonial churches, gates and other nice buildings. Sadly enough I can’t hang around much longer because I stayed in Lima longer than planned and I need to be in Cusco before my next visitor arrives.

Santa Catalina Monastery


Between Arequipa and Cusco is the Colca Canyon. With a depth of more than 3000m, it is the second deepest canyon in the world and more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. It is filled with Inca terraces and the hiking is supposed to be great with beautiful views of the mountains and if you’re lucky even condors. Sounds like a perfect stop for me. The one small (big) problem is that you have to drive over a 4870m high mountain pass. Another 170m higher than my current highest drive. Luckily when I look on the map the road doesn’t look very steep and is a main road. Much better than that last road I drove so high. Except that my map was wrong, correction, both my maps were wrong. This was no main road but a heavily used dirt road. While driving up I spot herds of llamas, alpacas and vicunas.  Even though vicunas look very friendly, this non-domesticated version of the llama is actually quite aggressive. However, there is no way to notice that because all of animals run away when I drive up before I can even take a picture. The van is also not having a great time. The engine is again heating up quicker than usual so it’s time for an inspection. I find out one of the nuts keeping my radiator fans in place is missing, nothing a good cable tie can’t fix. After that it’s easy going to the top of the almost 4900m tall pass. No reason to stop because, as always, it rains at the top of the mountain and I’m not sure if the engine will start again. When I finally get to the Colca Canyon it’s time for golden hour. The views are amazing and I’m not really getting anywhere, stopping the whole time for pictures. There’s a hostel near the beginning of the hike I want to do tomorrow with a camp spot in the parking lot. The kid at the reception is very confusing. After confirming multiple times that I can camp in my car in their parking lot he keeps asking me what kind of room I want. Luckily his brother shows up and clears everything up. (And no this time it was not a problem with my Spanish). The parking lot is full of thrash but I’ll only be sleeping here and it’s a safe spot when I’ll do my hike tomorrow.

Colca Canyon

Hike day! I haven’t been hiking for a while and this canyon looks awesome. I’m so excited. The popular hike is here from town down to a little oasis at the bottom of the canyon 1100m below. From there I can hike the same way back or if I’m making good progress I can loop a circle back. It might be a bit of a long hike so I head out early. Good call because I get to walk the first 2 km three times. Turns out that the ticket I bought yesterday for the canyon road checkpoints is also needed to be allowed to hike. Not that this is mentioned on either the ticket, by the people where you buy the ticket or in any of my travel guides. Perfect way to start the day grumpy. After the checkpoint it’s steep down to the oasis, very steep. I walk the 1100m height difference in only 4km. That’s an average grade of more than 25% and it is all loose rocks so no time to enjoy the view. When I’m finally at the bottom of the canyon it’s not too late yet and the canyon is so steep that there isn’t really a nice spot to hang out on the river.  If I walk the same way back the hike will be some 16km with 1300 height meters. Or I can cross the river, go up to a village on the other side, cross the river again and go back up from there. On my map that seems to make the hike 20km with 1600 height meters. Sounds doable and fun to me. So I cross and start heading up the other side. It’s pretty hot but luckily this trail is used for organised hikes too, so there are loads of ladies with donkeys selling drinks. A bit later I meet some tourists  heading the opposite direction that ask me how far I’m hiking today. I tell them I’m heading back to Cabanaconde. They ask me if I’m doing the full loop, because that’s a 2 to 3 day hike. I say I’m not doing the full loop, just up to the next bridge and back up. Turns out that is the full loop and they’re already on their second day of their hike. Mmm well, my map that has been very accurate on the way down says it’s not that far and tourists are always slow and unfit so I’m probably fine. Right here is where my map stops being accurate. Especially around the villages I keep ending up in the farm fields or behind the houses. Also those few steep parts down and back up to get across rivers weren’t in my map either. So I’m only taking a short lunch break and keep walking. In the last village I ask one of the local ladies how far it still is. She says only another two hours. It’s only 2 now and it gets dark at six so I should be fine. But the path keeps looping extra and not going down to the river. Once it does go down I can see the trail on the other side of the canyon and that does not look fun: very steep and it does not look at all like the lines on my map. Going back is further than continuing (I hope…) so I just keep going. On the steepest bit I get overtaken by an old lady on a donkey who was selling the drinks earlier. The path is too steep for the donkey to carry her so she needs to walk too. We chat about the trail (and my trip) and it looks like the trail is still very long, but this is good a good distraction. She clearly is more used to the altitude than I am because I’m having a hard time keeping up. Once the trail flattens a bit again she continues with her donkey. The last bit of the hike I get the same nice late sun views as yesterday so I can use taking photos as an excuse to rest. Finally after 9.5 hours and 30km of hiking with 2200m height difference I make it back to my van. This was the most tiring hike I have ever done but it was great. The only thing I can do now is eat a bit and then just sleep.

Colca Canyon hike

Cruz del Condor

I want to see more of the canyon but I’m too tired from yesterdays hike to walk so I’ll do some car touring stopping at all the viewpoints I can find. At one of the viewpoints you can see condors in the early morning gliding along the cliffs on the hot air. I missed them this morning because I was still asleep but it looks like a good bush camp spot so I stop for lunch to check it out. While I’m sitting here a Polish couple with a VW van stop by and one of the German VW couples from Arequipa stop here for lunch too. VW meetup! They leave in the evening while I stay here for the condors tomorrow. It starts getting really windy and really cold, so I decide to move to an abandoned parking lot nearby. No nice views but I won’t be freezing my ass off.

Colca Canyon

Aguas Calientes

The next morning I head back to the viewpoint at 8 and I’m lucky. There are plenty of condors flying by real close.  It’s still really cold and I have a long drive to go so after snapping a couple hundred pictures in half an hour it’s time to leave. According to all my map apps there are two mean roads from here to Cusco and the drive should take me some 7 hours. Quite a bit longer than I would normally drive but there aren’t really any good camp options along the way. So driving it is. As you would expect based on my story this of course wasn’t the main road. It was a tiny tiny dirt road filled with holes. The parts that were better where covered in construction sites. Ow and of course the road did go over 4800m again. So at 14:00 I was at a town where I had planned to be at 11. Now my GPS says Cusco is another 6. So nope, no Cusco today. There is one camp spot at some local spa. It’s about half way between here and Cusco and then another half an hour to the east. So I guess I’ll head there. When I make it to the Spa it’s already past 5 and it’s getting dark. I’m very tired and that’s where the fun starts. Camping only costs 10 soles but I only have a 100 bill and the guy doesn’t have change for that. So I’m going to have to hunt for loose coins in the van. I drive my van into the fence and park it. I can’t find enough change so I’ll have to try and break the bill at the little shop across the street. But when I want to go there I can’t find my car keys anywhere. I’m in my car and I have not been outside of my car since I parked it here. I spend half an hour looking for them (they have to be somewhere in the van). Eventually I find it in my laundry where I guess they fell when I was checking my dirty clothes for extra coins. So now time to change the money. Of course the lady will only accept the 100 bill if I spend at least 50 at here store so I’ll buy some beers. I can always use beers. When I want to pay, the lady randomly decides she wants a deposit for the bottles. Not that I can bring them back because I’m only staying for a day. She adds a decent amount to my bill but I’m too tired to argue. Back at the spa I try to ask the guy where the toilets are. Sadly for me the Spanish word for toilets (banos) also means bath so the guy keeps explaining me what the spa options are. I try a few times more including gestures and sound effects but no success. I give up and look for a tree instead. Time to sleep.

Colca Canyon condors

I wake up at six when the night guard is knocking on my window. For whatever reason he decided he wants to say goodbye to me before he leaves. Well thanks for that! With daylight I finally find the toilets but I need to pay another 1 sol for that. No problem but it would be nice if they would actually clean the toilets. Or you know what, flushing would be enough so that not all toilets have some present floating in them from yesterday’s guests. Time to get out of here and head to Cusco, where I’ll have my next visitor!


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