Adventures in Peru - Cotahuasi Adventure Festival
By Vic Hanson
Sunday through Tuesday was the 7th annual adventure festival here in Cotahuasi. I thought I might have to miss it because I was in Arequipa the week before that and had just bought a new (used) car. I hoped I could get it registered and be able to drive it in about five days, and I didn't think it wasn't worth taking the bus back to Cotahuasi and then back to Arequipa for that short time. But when I found out that it would take 10 days and that I could get a seat in a chartered bus, I decided to return to Cotahuasi. The bus was for the participants in the adventure festival, but James, the organizer, is a friend of mine and there was extra room, so I was able to ride with them.
The bus left Arequipa at 8:15 pm and arrived at the rim of Cotahuasi Canyon at about 6:00 am. We stopped there for about an hour while the downhill mountain bikers unloaded their bikes and got ready to ride down the foot trail to Cotahuasi. It is a steep and very rough trail that I have hiked before, and decided that there is no way I would try to bike it. However this group had their custom downhill only bikes and all the padding so were eager to start their adventure. We got some good views of Nevado Solimana while waiting and then watched them start down the side of the canyon. After they were out of sight, we headed down, arriving in the village at almost 8:30 am. I had gotten some sleep on the bus but not much, so was pretty tired.
On Monday morning we all got into two mini buses and headed down to Sipia Falls for rappelling and puenting, which I was told was like bungee jumping. The road ends at Sipia Bridge and from there we hiked 45 minutes to the falls. There was a team from Lima that set up a rappel off the cliff below the falls, and we watched a few guys rappel down and then climb back up using ascenders. Someone asked me if I was going to try it but I said I could rappel down but had never used ascenders, so wouldn't know how to get back up again. About that time I saw the Arequipa High Mountain Rescue Team setting an anchor on a couple of large boulders for another rope. It turned out that this one was for those who just wanted the thrill of going over the edge. They lowered you down and then pulled you back up again. I watched the first participant, a pretty young woman and thought that she was braver than I was. The more I watched, the more I decided that I wanted to do it as well, so I got in line. However as the person in front of me was being lowered down, James said that the time was up and we needed to get ready to leave for the puenting.
As the last person was being pulled up, one of the police asked me if I still wanted to do it so I said yes. I was a little nervous when I realized that they didn't double back the harness belt like I had learned to do in rock climbing, and more nervous when I saw that the single rope they were using wasn't anchored to anything on the other end! Normally there had been two of them lowering each person down into the canyon below the falls, but when it came time for me to go down, there was only one. And he was standing right on the edge of the canyon, with nothing anchoring him either. In spite of his assurance that everything was OK, I waited until a second person showed up to help him. We were lowered down to a lip on the canyon wall, into the spray of the nearby falls, and when ready were to give a signal to be pulled up. I was trying to remind myself that it was just like the rappelling I had done in California, but it did seem scarier knowing that there was a raging river below me rather than a solid landing spot. The only option was to go back up! When they got me back up to the top, Carmen decided she wanted to do it too, so I waited until she finished, and then hung around while they packed up to leave.
It dawned on me that the rescue team must do some practicing in the mountains, so as they were packing up I asked them if they ever practiced on Solimana or Coropuna, our two local 6,000-meter peaks. The captain said they would be returning in a couple of months to train on Coropuna and invited me to join them. As my new car is a 4x4 van, I offered to meet them and drive them to the mountain, hopefully in exchange for them teaching me some safety and rescue techniques. It's kind of strange here; the police usually travel by public transportation like everyone else, so I knew they would be returning by bus and needing some local transportation. On the ride back to Cotahuasi, I pointed out an ancient Inca trail to them, which climbs up the side of the canyon, from the river to the rim. A couple of them said they want to come back and explore that with me as well. They also invited me to visit them at their station when I am in Arequipa. This will be a very good contact as I hope to put on an adventure race here in the future and may need them to be on hand as a safety crew.
We then hiked back to the buses and then drove to the large concrete bridge where the puenting was to be done (puenting is literally bridging, in Spanish-English). As the team was getting set up, I kept waiting for the rubber bungee cords, but all they were using was climbing ropes. I don't know if this is done in the U.S. and elsewhere, but I soon learned that puenting is not bungee jumping, it is jumping off of a bridge using just climbing ropes. They anchored three ropes on the concrete railing on one side of the bridge, ran them under the bridge and up to the railing on the other side, and then pulled them tight. There they are tied to the participant's body harness, like bungee jumpers use. The jumper hangs on to the rail and pushes off backwards while the rope pendulums away and down from the bridge. I was on the side she jumped from so couldn't see if there was a jerk when she got to the bottom of the swing or not. It did look like she almost hit the old suspension bridge along side of the new bridge, as she pendulumed back up the first time. When she stopped swinging, they threw her a rope as she hung above the middle of the river, which she caught on the 3rd try, and then pulled her over to the shore. One more person did it as well. I tried watching from the other side this time, but it all happened so fast I still couldn't see how it really went.
There was supposed to be rock climbing that afternoon at 5:00, but they didn't start setting up the artificial wall until about 5:30. No OSHA here, they set up regular construction scaffolding four levels high without bothering to anchor it at all, and it was sitting on grass, not concrete. By the time they got it anchored, and the wall attached to the scaffolding, it was too late to do any more that evening.
The next day we went river rafting but it was on a very tame section of the Cotahuasi River. It was my first time for river rafting so I was fine that there wasn't much white water. I got in the raft with the Rescue Police, and we took off without any instructions. Fortunately "Adelante" (forward) and "Detras" (backward), along with "Izquiera" (left side) were easy to understand, as the one who was steering called out the commands. I could also see what the guy in front of me was doing so I knew that "Alto" meant to stop paddling. However I never did figure out if they were saying "alto" which means "up", as in raise your paddle out of the water, or if it was the Spanish pronunciation of "Halt" (the "H" is silent in Spanish). There were also three guys who had kayaks who enjoyed playing around in the water. Then I heard the command to "Attack" and I thought it meant to paddle hard so we could pass the raft nearest us, but I soon learned that it mean to splash water on them with our paddles!
Back in Cotahuasi they had finished setting up the climbing wall, so I gave that a couple of tries. It has been way too long since I have climbed; I had a sore arm already (old age I guess), and that was aggravated by a couple of climbs, so haven't done any more. My fingers also had no strength in them; fortunately the holds were mostly large, except for one little one near the top.
The last event was the downhill bike race, which drew quite a crowd of onlookers. As if it wasn't hard enough keeping the kids off the end of the course, which included a jump right where the crowd was, there were a couple of burros on the course higher up. Everyone made it down safely though and seemed to enjoy it. I later challenged the downhillers to a hill climb, but they didn't accept the challenge.
Most of the group left on Tuesday night but a few stayed to see more of Cotahuasi. Carmen and Alex were two who stayed, and they wanted to do some hiking, so I took them up above the city to see some ancient ruins. In my element, I finally got to shine and many times had to wait for them to catch up, as neither of them were used to hiking or the altitude. There are both in their 20s but I didn't tease them too much! I did take them on an old trail that is in poor condition and hard to follow at times, but other than going slow, they did fine and said they enjoyed it.
In all it was a fun, though short time, and other than the delay with the climbing wall, went fairly smoothly. The local residents especially enjoyed watching the "locos" doing crazy things. The following three days are the anniversary celebration for the city so the streets have been full of people, parades and bands. Fortunately I live on the edge of town so the late night activities don't keep me awake.
Vic Hanson is the founder of Adventure Cotahuasi Tours, which offers pre-planned and custom adventure travel tours in Cotahuasi Canyon and other areas of Peru.
If you are interested in your own adventure in Peru, check us out!
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