Cotahuasi Canyon is the mysterious big brother of the world-famous Colca Canyon. At approximately 3,354 metres deep it is the deepest canyon in the world - over twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. And with views stretching from snowy mountain peaks over 6,000 metres above sea level, down through ancient villages and cactus forest to the snaking Cotahuasi river, you cannot help but be overwhelmed by this spectacular natural reserve. So why, you may ask, is this place off the beaten track? Maybe it's the 10 hour night-bus from Arequipa that keeps the tourists at bay, or the absence of internet (and I mean complete absence - no wifi, no cyber cafes), but remoteness is precisely what gives this place its unique charm. Get used to saying good morning to almost everyone you pass on the street, and being engaged in lengthy conversations about life in your home country (without it being followed by a sales pitch). The entire reserve is free to enter, and hostels and restaurants, though basic, are extremely cheap. Make sure you bring plenty of cash, however, as there are NO ATM/CASH MACHINES in the entire region! There is also an abundance of locally-grown, organic fruits - custard apple, passion fruit, prickly pear, avocados, figs, guavas, grapes (and, inevitably, cheap homemade wine) - available on every street corner.
Various buses depart Arequipa around 4.30pm, arriving in Cotahuasi around 2.30am. At the time of writing there is only one hostel open 24 hours, and when we arrived there was a worker waiting for prospective customers at the bus station. If not, the illumined hostel sign is clearly visible up the hill opposite the bus station entrance.
There is a tourist information office in Cotahuasi where you can get a map and lots of advice, and locals are always happy to help with directions. We spent a week exploring the canyon and definitely could have spent another week there. I will give our trip itineraries as examples, just to give an idea of what is on offer. It’s worth checking your plans with the tourist office as all the information included here is subject to change (and my less-than-perfect memory). Itinerary 1: Camping on the Canyon Floor (2 nights)
Itinerary 1: Camping on the Canyon Floor (2 nights)
We found this hike to be a challenge because, though it is not particularly long or technically difficult, the heat was exhausting. The canyon floor is extremely hot and desert-like, with very little shade throughout the day, so make sure you take plenty of water or purifying solutions with you.
We set off from Cotahuasi around 8am and walked to Sipia Waterfall, a distance of 10km. It is a pleasant stroll down a dirt road, passing verdant organic farms with traditional stone walls, before it starts to get HOT! When you reach the spectacular 100-metre waterfall there are several viewing points, and there is also a shaded seating area, making this is a good place to break for lunch.
From Sipia you walk through the canyon for another 10km, passing traditional adobe houses and farms, until you reach the cactus forest, Judio Pampa. From Judio Pampa it is about another half-hour to where the road meets the river, a perfect spot for camping – look out for a sandy clearing on the riverbank. The nocturnal climate here is pleasant, so you don´t need particularly warm gear. It’s also an incredible spot for stargazing.
In the morning we set off to Quechualla, a remote pre-Incan village only accessible by foot (human or donkey). 8km from Judio Pampa the dirt road ends – this is also where the bus stop is – and from this point it is another 8km to Quechualla. You will traverse incredibly narrow rocky pathways which barely cling to the steep sides of the canyon, cross wooden footbridges and pass abandoned houses and ruins. The landscape here is foreboding – the rock towers above you and cacti silhouettes peer down menacingly. Once you reach Quechualla, however, it will feel like a tropical oasis. At only 1,600 metres above sea level, it is overflowing with figs, guavas, and avocados. The ancient stone and adobe constructions, fresh water gushing through canals and the shaded tranquility of this place will certainly rejuvenate your spirits for the return hike. If you want to stay a while there is apparently a hostel, food and water available in the village, or you can camp opposite the church. You can also walk on from here to Ushua, the lowest part of the canyon, but we chose to return to our riverside camping spot.
The next morning it is a short walk back to the bus stop at the end of the dirt road. When we arrived the bus was already there and it was bustling with passengers and people dropping off goods to be taken to Cotahuasi. The bus departs at 9am, and it is a two and a half hour ride back to the town, arriving in time for lunch. We headed straight to the little restaurant above the market, where the ladies offer fresh river trout in a delicious tomato and onion sauce. The dish is called “sudado de pescado”, which roughly translates as “sweaty fish” …don’t let this put you off though!
Itinerary 2: Living in Luxury on the Canyon Lip (2 nights)
Due to our lack of cold-weather gear required for camping at high altitude, we decided to head to Pampamarca (3,600 metres above sea level), as it is one of the only villages in this area where you can stay in a hostel. There are several day trips you can take, and the village itself is an old-fashioned gem, - far away from modern civilization, but with all the necessary conveniences (and nothing more!).
We took the bus to Pampamarca in the afternoon, and arrived in the village square around sunset, when we found it to be almost completely deserted. We decided to explore the curious winding passageways and houses, which are all built from natural local materials, including stone, adobe and eucalyptus wood (with the exception of the tin roofs). Even in the darkness it is absolutely enchanting. After a little while the place started to come alive, and it became apparent that the local tourist business owners were mostly our fellow passengers from the bus! We stayed at a cheap family guesthouse on the main square, and the owner allowed us to use our camping stove to prepare dinner in our room. A few of the village stores turn into basic restaurants at night, and soup is often the only option unless you request something else in advance.
The next morning we packed a day bag and hiked to Huito Stone Forest, around 4,000 metres above sea level. It is a short steep hike (around 1.5 hours), clearly marked from the road. The views from the top are absolutely mind-blowing: the snow-capped Andes stretching off into the distance, the contrast between the upper and lower parts of the valley, the beautiful intricate patterns of the ancient farmland, and the river we were so familiar with from our previous hike now so far below us. Not to mention the bizarre rock formations that make up the stone forest – it looks like something from a cartoon. We stopped here for lunch, after much pondering about where exactly was the best place to sit, as the different views were all so amazing.
We then hiked back down to Pampamarca and set off for the thermal baths. The route is not obvious and there are several forks and turns, so we asked people for directions along the way, including a policeman, a group of children and some farmers. We were advised it would take around 45 minutes, but in reality it was much more than this – probably around 1.5 hours – with a steep ascent and descent. The baths are almost at the bottom of the canyon, near the river, and become obvious when you get close. There is a rectangular concrete swimming bath, and a more natural-shaped bath that leads into the cave from which the thermal spring originates. When we arrived there were children playing and people washing, so this is not a secluded spot, but it was a very welcome experience after all our hiking (and lack of washing).
When our fingerprints were thoroughly shriveled we hiked back to Pampamarca and had chicken soup at the main restaurant on the square. We were concerned it wouldn’t be filling enough but it certainly was – and delicious – with lots of pasta and good-quality meat. The next morning we took the bus back to Cotahuasi at around 8am, but again if we had more time we definitely would have spent longer in this friendly little village, and the beautiful section of the canyon in which it is nestled.
Arequipa on a Shoestring
After spending a week in a remote canyon with not even one bar of wifi signal, it was definitely time to hit the city. Arequipa, also known as the White City due to the colour of the volcanic rock many of its buildings are constructed from, is a tranquil, modern, stylish city. With its beautiful main plaza, wide cobbled streets and plethora of trendy shops and bars, you can be forgiven for thinking you are in Spain rather than Peru. There are a thousand and one things to see and do in Arequipa, many of them already extensively covered online, so I will stick to what I know best – getting the most while spending the least.
Arequipa is perfectly situated in an epic landscape of volcanoes and canyons, 3 hours from the coast, and only a night bus ride away from Lima or Cusco. A huge range of bus companies operate these routes, and though Cruz del Sur is recommended, you should always make sure you keep your valuables LITERALLY on your person. Speaking from experience, having your bag next to your feet is no challenge for a professional pickpocket.
If you travel by bus you will arrive at one of two main terminals (they are next to each other) and it is just a short walk over a bridge to the main road. From here you can catch a minibus into town – ask for Plaza de Armas – and they will drop you a few blocks away, as minibuses are not permitted in the city centre. It is strongly advised not to use taxis due to their involvement in a high number of tourist robberies. If absolutely unavoidable, use the taxi firm which operates from inside the bus station carpark. Another reason to get used to the minibus service is that it is a simple flat rate of 80 centavos for any journey. Or even cheaper, the city is small enough that you can walk just about anywhere!
Arequipa has an excellent farmers market, Mercado San Camilo, right in the middle of town. It is very well stocked with everything from whole foods to smoothies to hot tamales. For a cheap and filling meal head upstairs for a “menu” – a soup, main course and drink – for around 5 soles. I personally recommend Adobo (marinated pork in a creamy tomato sauce) and Estofado de Pollo (traditional Peruvian chicken stew). A little higher up the price range but definitely worth trying is Ceviche, a delicious Peruvian dish of raw fish and onions marinated in lime juice, served with toasted maize and sweet potato. There are a few cevicherias on the ground floor – the busier stalls giving out free tasters are probably your safest bet.
For a really cheap snack you can get a papa rellena (deep-fried, meat-and-veg-filled, mashed potato ball) just outside the market for 1 sol. The best ones are perfectly round, served hot with mayonnaise and a bit of “picante” (spicy sauce). On a hot day you can cool off with a Peruvian ice cream – look out for the red “Artika” ice-cream carts, which sell traditional Queso Helado (cream cheese ice-cream with cinnamon) and a huge variety of exotically-flavoured ice lollies, including lúcuma, coconut, and the mysterious “Sabor de la Selva”(Jungle Flavour). If you are a Nestlé boycotter, avoid the yellow “D´Anafria” ice-cream carts, as they are a very well-disguised franchise. Perhaps the boycott (due to Nestlé products causing the unnecessary death and suffering of babies in the developing world) has a lot of supporters in Peru!
For a really cheap night´s sleep, head west of Calle Jerusalén. There are a few budget hospedajes (family-run guesthouses) in this area, including Hospedaje America on a street named Peral. At 15 soles for a double room I would be willing to put up with almost anything, but our room was actually quite charming, with high ceilings and a balcony. Security was pretty questionable, however, as was their claim to hot water 24hrs.
If you are looking for a more comfortable stay, try Posada de Cacique on Calle Jerusalén. Here you will find beautifully decorated rooms with huge windows, cable TV, hot showers, great wifi, a kitchen and a large roof terrace. We paid 50 soles for a quiet double room (not facing the road) with a private bathroom.
Finally, I must give a mention to the host of this blog – Conde Travel. A true family business operating throughout southern Peru, Conde Travel offer a genuine Quechuan experience as well as an excellent selection of tour packages. Luis and his team will make you feel like part of the family, teach you about their customs and traditions, and most importantly make you laugh! Whether you are looking for a Cusco city tour, white-knuckle mountain biking, or an epic jungle trek to Machu Picchu, make Conde Travel your companion at: www.condetraveladventures.com/en