Wrap Up: Colca Canyon and Misti Adventure, Peru
The question you may find yourself asking as you read these posts is, can I also do this? Our usual answer is – if we did it, why, sure you can, too! Sylvia and I are active and experienced hikers, but we are certainly not outdoor athletes. Anything we can do, the average able-bodied person of almost any age and fitness level can do.
HOWEVER…we did NOT finish Misti. So, the qualified answer in this case is…can you do Colca? Sure you can! Can you safely ATTEMPT Misti? Sure you can! Can you get all the way to the top of Misti?
Misti and Colca are two very different experiences. You don’t have to do both. We will deal with each separately…
Colca Canyon Logistics
Colca Canyon is reachable by bus from the City of Arequipa, though many prefer to stage out of the nearby town of Chivay. There is no absolute need to hire a guide to do this hike, as we did. But if you do attempt this hike yourself, make sure you are an experienced and completely self-sufficient hiker. Though it is not a dangerous hike, there are many things that can go wrong in Colca Canyon.
If you chose to go with a tour company, they will handle all the logistics including transportation for you. Our guide Eli was a great help. In our case, we were the entire tour group.
Most who hike Colca Canyon do not tent, you simply stay in small hostels along the way. We stayed at Roy’s, which is near the bridge across the Colca. There is another hostel a little further along named Gloria’s that is a little more popular. We could certainly recommend Roy’s. All of these places are a bit rustic…for example, they have rooms with running water (sometimes) but not hot water. And the rooms in Roy’s had no electricity. One of the other hostels had electricity but no windows or screens to keep the bugs out.
There are a variety of options in Sangalle, the Oasis. Most of these places gladly sell beer, wine and other drinks as well. Resupply is available here and at a number of other spots in the canyon, but one thing to keep in mind is…fresh water is not free here. You will pay for bottled water anywhere you go. If you carry a water filtration system, resupply directly from the river, passing streams or man-made aqueducts is quite possible. But I would advise treating all water, as this is an agricultural area.
All of the arrangements could be made yourself, if you know conversational Spanish. One thing to remember about Peru is that sometimes what you end up getting is not quite what you expect it to be.
It is our opinion that any reasonably fit person can attempt Colca Canyon. The downhill is very long and steep, but not unusually difficult. Footing is pretty good over most of it, except for one or two sections which are dicey. Generally, all the sections where the trail turns inward to follow the face of the cliff were rockier and more difficult, but there are also many well graded or sandy sections that were no trouble at all.
Most do this trek in two days, though the three-day option we did is common as well. Longer, more extensive explorations of the canyon are also possible. We would recommend the three-day if you have time; you will have more freedom explore the canyon floor (as we did.) Most who attempt the two-day option tend to be college-age, fit hikers, and they are forced to rush through. The first day on the two-day trek is a VERY long day, with the lunch stop mid-way being about where we stopped for the day.
Whatever the itinerary, you must climb out at the end. The ascent is three to four hours of continuous uphill. Generally it is done in the early morning hours, in darkness, from the ‘Oasis’ of Sangalle. Be aware that if you do this independently, a late start might lead to a heat emergency. Be prepared to execute an ‘alpine start’ at 5 am or earlier. Don’t let the sun catch you on the wall, because…
- There is almost no shade nor shelter
- There is no water
- There are no camps, villages etc until you reach the top
Also note that while this trail is normally VERY busy in the early morning hours, a late start might put you in the worst possible place at the worst possible time. A guide won’t allow this to happen. If you hike independently, don’t be that guy. Rescue services in Peru are not always available, and if they are, you may end up paying cash.
Oh, and remember to bring a headlamp. And spare batteries.
If you venture off the beaten path and explore deeper into the canyon, I would advise that you hire a guide. There are remote and dangerous sections of Colca Canyon, and our guide was of the opinion that it was not advisable for a hiker to attempt these unassisted. If you wish to explore these areas, do so with someone who knows the terrain and understands the risks.
Another thing to consider is the altitude. This may not be much of a factor hiking downhill, but when you come back up at the end of the trek, it definitely will be a factor. If you have hiked above 10,000 feet before it’s probably not going to be much of an issue, but if you haven’t, this isn’t the time and place to find out that you can’t handle it. Allow a few days in Arequipa to acclimate if you can. Sylvia and I had no issues whatsoever with altitude at Colca Canyon.
One last note is that if you have never hiked in an arid area before, it would be a good idea to do so before tackling Colca Canyon. And there is no better place to do so than the good old American Southwest. Prior to hiking Colca, I had done the Grand Canyon rim to rim, plus other hiking in the Canyonlands, Arches, Bryce and Zion Canyons, the Dakota Badlands, the Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains, Red Rock Canyon and outside Sedona. These experiences greatly helped with Colca. So, if you are thinking of doing this, my advice is…book a trip to Arizona or Utah. If you enjoy yourself there, you will LOVE Colca. And if you don’t…
By the way, our own impression is that while both are outstanding adventures, if we had to choose one or the other we would choose the Grand Canyon. It is wilder and more scenic. But we would really advise you to do both if you are up for it. Each is an outstanding experience in its own right.
Hiking Misti Volcano is a different, and in some ways more serious proposition than Colca Canyon. Tens of thousands hike Colca each year; far fewer attempt Misti, and of those that try, fewer still succeed. Though it is just outside the city of Arequipa and seems to loom just at hand, do not let this fool you…an attempt to summit this mountain is a serious undertaking, requiring entry into a very remote area, where one will experience conditions alien to most human beings. Think carefully before attempting this.
The most serious factor is the elevation. At over 19,000 feet, Misti doesn’t bring the hiker to what is properly known as the ‘death zone’ (typically understood to be above 8000 meters) but it is still well above where human beings were designed to function. Most people alive will never walk at that elevation except perhaps in the pressurized compartment of an airliner. Misti is one of the world’s highest non-technical ‘walkable’ peaks. Suffice it to say, this is not the place to begin your hiking career. If you have never hiked at elevation before, do NOT attempt this.
Another serious factor is exposure. Very little grows on the flanks of Misti; it is a cold, windswept place, and for much of the year the summit experiences freezing (and very often below zero) temperatures. Most expeditions will attempt to summit in the pre-dawn hours when the ash and scree are frozen and thus most stable for walking. Be prepared for strong winds, freezing temperatures and a wind chill below zero. If you are not properly dressed, or deal poorly with cold, best you avoid this place.
Also, be aware that while Misti has not experienced any significant eruptions in living memory, it IS still an active volcano. Volcanoes are inherently dangerous places. It is very unlikely to erupt without warning but…don’t take the place lightly. It is a smart idea to begin your volcano hiking career on a smaller, less active mountain. The Three Sisters peaks of Oregon would be a fine example.
With all the above said…there is no reason why any able-bodied person who has suitably prepared themselves cannot summit this mountain, or at least try. The hike itself, if done by one of the more established routes, is fairly straightforward. Most of it is on ash, some on scree…very little on bare rock. It’s a bit of a pain to walk up on, but the descent is in fact pretty easy…picture sliding down a hill of talcum powder. If there is no snow or ice on the summit, no technical gear is required. Even if there is snow a minimum of gear (crampons) would suffice, and the guides usually supply these and the expertise to use them. If you can handle the elevation and cold, you can do this mountain. All you need do is walk.
To prepare for Misti, at minimum you need a few days in Arequipa. A better bet is to do a challenging lower elevation hike like Colca Canyon first. Best case scenario is:
- A few days in Arequipa
- Do Colca Canyon or an equivalent hike first to prepare
- Have some prior experience hiking above 10,000 feet (preferably above 15,000)
- Do as much cardio preparation in advance as possible, fitness helps
One thing about elevation that mountain guides will tell you is…there really is no way to know how a person will handle it until they try. People in average shape often perform better than highly trained athletes. It’s sort of like combat…you can train for it, and the training gives you a better chance, but ultimately, there’s no substitute for the real thing. To find out how you will perform at elevation, you must perform at elevation.
It is our opinion that for a WELL PREPARED hiker, a summit ATTEMPT of Misti is safe to do. Note the word ‘attempt’…in other words, it won’t kill you to try, but if you start to feel bad, be prepared to turn back. It’s not going to get better the higher you go, it’s going to get worse.
This is exactly what happened to Sylvia and I in 2017. We made it up to base camp at 15,000 feet, but Sylvia felt awful and didn’t recover. We made the decision not to attempt the summit. I probably would have made it, but we go as a team and succeed or fail as one. I do not regret for one minute turning back, it was still an incredible experience. But just be prepared to do the same. Don’t become obsessed with the summit beyond all reason. A good mountaineer or hiker knows when its not there, it’s not there. Don’t be stubborn…be alive.
We would advise that unless you are a VERY experienced and self-sufficient hiker with considerable expertise at elevation and with route finding, do not try this independently. There is too much potential for things to go wrong, and if they do, it may be difficult to signal for help (to call for the car, our guide had to hike halfway across the mountain for a signal.) There is no exact trail…in good weather it’s pretty easy to see where you have to go, but on the other hand, it would be pretty easy to get mixed up and end up on the wrong side of the mountain. Some of the descent routes can be dangerous. There are some routes (those that face the city) where robberies have happened.
If you do hire a guide remember to tip them. If possible try to talk to the guide (rather than the travel agency) before the hike since that is the ONLY way to know EXACTLY what you need to bring and what to expect. And be advised that if you can’t make it to the top, it’s not your guide’s fault. You’ll pay the same either way, so…factor that into your decision making.
Here’s to the wonderful people that made this adventure possible…the travel company, Angelito our guide for Misti, Esteban the driver, AKA the Mad Max of Peru, and most of all Eli our guide from Colca, the only person from the expedition to actually make it to the summit of Misti this trip.
And we’d like to also thank Misti and Colca Canyon for the great challenge they presented, and will likely always present as long as there are men and women with the will to climb them.
Brian and Sylvia would like to the following:
- Peru Adventures Tours
- Elida Mendoza, Guide
- Esteban our driver
- Angelito our Guide for Misti
- La Casa de Roy Lodge in Colca Canyon
Planning your own adventure? For info on our visits to Peru and the Central Andes, or hiking in general, please send us an email and we’ll be happy to advise!