Adventures in Peru - Down Canyon, High Plains Hike
By Vic Hanson
The beginning of April, I took Jen, a friend that I met while hiking the PCT last year, and her friend, Katie on one of my favorite hikes in the Cotahuasi Canyon area. I picked them up at the airport in Arequipa on Wednesday morning at about 7:00 and we left directly for Cotahuasi. It was a beautiful sunny morning in Arequipa, as usual, so I was hoping we would get a good view of the mountains on our way. The first part of the trip is on the Pan American Highway, which passes through the desert most of the time. After about and hour and 45 minutes, we left the Pan American and headed down into the Majes Valley. Here the road passes through a green valley, along side of the Majes River. The main crop there is rice, but there is also some corn and sugarcane. We had dropped down from about 8,000 feet at Arequipa, to just over 2,000 feet in the valley, so it was also nice and warm. About an hour later, we started the climb up to Chuquibamba, and were again back in desert conditions, except where there was irrigation.
Chuquibamba is at about 8,500 feet and sits on a ledge, at the base of the steep cliffs below the high plain. It is also the end of the paved road; from here there is a steep climb, on a rough gravel road, up to the high plains. About 45 minutes after leaving Chuquibamba, we arrived at the rim of the canyon and started across the plains. Normally this is where you get the first view of Nevado Coropuna, the highest volcano in Peru, at 21,079 feet. However this day we weren't able to see it, as the clouds had covered the mountain, as is often the case in the rainy season. We were instead greeted by a herd of llamas, and the gals were able to get some pictures of them.
I was a bit concerned about the road conditions due to the rain, and our first challenge came 45 minutes later, at the first river crossing. There is no bridge, because the river is just a wide shallow flow for nine months of the year. However during rainy season it can be a different story, as all the water comes down from the long side of Coropuna. My fears were confirmed when we got to the crossing, it was running fast, and higher than I had ever seen it before. I got out and looked at it, but couldn't really tell how deep it was. It usually rains in the afternoon so knew that it wouldn't help any to wait for it to go down, so decided to try crossing it. I chose what looked like the shallowest place and slowly started driving across. Fortunately the bottom of the river is hard and firm, we didn't hit any submerged rocks, and made it safely across.
From there our only problem was the occasional mud hole and ruts. We arrived at the base of Coropuna an hour later, finally getting a glimpse of it through the clouds. As the weather seemed to be clearing a little, we drove as close as possible, and parked just below 16,000 feet. Normally I can drive closer, but the road was soft from the rains. We hiked across a plain and started going up the rocky slope on the west end of the mountain. Despite not being used to the elevation, Jen and Katie were doing well, and we slowly made our way up to a little over 17,000 feet. It was getting time to get back on the road, as we still had a three-hour drive to Cotahuasi, so we reluctantly headed back to the car. It was a good thing we did, as it started to mist on the way, and we were getting chilly.
We had to stop once just before Cotahuasi, as Katie wasn't feeling good, not sure what the cause was, but she felt better after throwing up. We arrived in Cotahuasi just after dark; and after having a light dinner, got her and Jen checked into Hostel Chavez. We agreed to meet for breakfast at 6:15 and start our trek at about 7:00 am. When they met me in the morning, Jen said she had also gotten sick during the night, and hadn't gotten much sleep. Fortunately Katie was feeling much better. After breakfast we started hiking down the Canyon, with a goal of reaching the hot springs at Mayo, and spending the night there. Because of Jen's weak condition, we went slowly and she did OK. We did skip the side trip to Sipia Falls, to avoid the extra elevation gain coming back up, as well as to make sure we had sufficient time to get to the hot springs before dark.
We arrived there in good time, got our tents set up and then had dinner alongside of the pool. Jen and Katie were quite tired from their flights, the hiking at altitude, and their being sick, so they went to bed early. I soaked in the perfect temperature water for a while, and then went and explored a nearby trail that goes to Velinga, a village above us. Because we were down to around 5,000 feet, it was a nice warm evening, great for a night hike. In the morning, I woke up just as it was getting light, when I heard a pack train of burros going by. It was time to get up anyway, so we got up, had breakfast and packed up our tents, and got ready to continue to Quechualla, an hour and a half farther down canyon.
On the way to Quechualla, the trail goes by some extensive Wari ruins. The Wari were a pre-Inca culture, dating back about 1,000 years. We enjoyed exploring in the ruins, finding pottery pieces, and especially the bones and pieces of cloth from the burial site. Unfortunately, previous "explorers", had scattered everything all over outside of the cave, so we didn't get to see anything in its original location. After that, we took the new bridge and trail to Quechualla, while marveling at the old Inca trail clinging to the side of the canyon across the river. The bridge was just built about 5 years ago, before that time the old trail was still in use. I would love to go on the old trail, but it doesn't appear to be accessible, due to landslides that have wiped out the approach from both ends. I will have to explore more on a future trip to make sure.
After arriving in Quechualla, I went to find Julia, a woman I had met there previously. She has a couple of beds for rent (one of them being outside in a garden!), as well as to see if she could make us lunch. She was disappointed that we wouldn't be able to spend the night, but agreed to provide lunch, as well as a room to wait in. We spent some time there, eating the fresh grapes she gave us and then walked around the village and took some photos. It is a Peruvian custom to not invite guests into the kitchen to visit while preparing the meal, but in this case I knew her kitchen was also out in her courtyard, so we went there to talk to her while she was working. She soon put us to work, shelling the beans that would go into the soup. Of course we didn't know what we were doing; we thought we were all done when we had taken off the outer husk, but she showed us that there was another layer that had to be removed. There is no electricity in many of the remote villages here, so I requested vegetarian soup, not wanting to take a chance on anyone getting sick from the various meat jerkies that dry out in the open, covered with flies. The soup was delicious, with many things in it that none of us were familiar with, along with potatoes, a staple here.
Both Jen and Katie were the adventuresome sorts (Jen had also hiked the AT and climbed Kilimanjaro), so they agreed to take a new route that I hadn't been on before, on our way up to Charcana. It was a steep trail, with about 5,000 feet of elevation gain in about five hours. We had been given varying estimates of how long it would take, but when we were approaching the longest estimate, with no sign of Picha, our goal, or a way out of what looked like a box canyon, I was beginning to get a bit worried. However, we soon went around a slight curve in the canyon, and there was a small village tucked against the base of the mountain. By this time, we could also see a trail that traversed around a ridge, which we hoped was our route to Charcana in the morning. It was looking like it could rain, so I asked around and a lady told me that we could sleep in the municipal building. It is a very small village, and the municipal building was correspondingly small, but we managed to fit all three of us on the floor. The lady's young daughter entertained us for over an hour as we got settled in and made dinner, during which time she kept demanding food, so we tried to teach her a few manners like "please" and "thank you".
In the morning, after about a 45-minute hike to get water, we had breakfast and started on the trail to Charcana. It was an easy hike compared to the hike up to Picha, and we enjoyed the scenery as we traversed around the mountain, high above the Cotahuasi River. We checked into the only hostel in Charcana, and then in the afternoon, hiked up a few more thousand feet to see some ancient stone paintings, as well as going above them to the high plain looking for a natural stone arch. We never found the arch, but we talked with a few people, and I think I have the directions to find it next time. We were treated to more great views and enjoyed the hike without our backpacks, returning in time to have dinner and go to bed early, knowing that we had another hard climb ahead of us the next day.
This hike was another climb up to the high plain, this time in a different direction, heading back towards Cotahuasi. Up until now, it hadn't rained on us, but that changed as we neared the top of our 3,000-foot climb up to the top of the canyon. The light rain didn't last long, and when we reached the plain at close to 14,000 feet, it looked like it was going to clear up. This was welcome news as we had about a five hour hike, going up to 14,500 feet, before we reached the next canyon and would be able to get down to a lower, and warmer elevation to spend the night. However the weather changes very rapidly up there; and we were soon hiking in the rain again. There isn't much up there except a few hardy families of llama herders, and we soon met a group of them. There was a small building that looked like a church, which had a covered entryway. We took a long break there, and by the time we had finished our cheese and bread, the rain had stopped and it started to clear up again.
After another rainy spell, we were starting to get a bit chilly, so were very glad to reach the other side of the plain and start heading down into a side canyon above Huarhua. We had to take a big jump across what normally is a small stream on our way down; but the rain had stopped and it was getting warmer, which was very good. At least everything was lush and green from the two months of rain, and we had no problem finding water to drink. We arrived in Huarhua while it was still light, but again decided to try to find at least a covered area to set up our tents. When we asked a few young children on the street about a place to stay, they told us that all the adults were gone, they had taken their high school aged kids to Cotahuasi to get them enrolled in school and the boarding house there. We kept looking around and soon found a young man who offered us a room to stay in. He said he was also a visitor in Huarhua, here from Lima to see his father, who had an extra room we could use.
The following day we were heading out of the village on what I knew was the correct trail, when two different people told us we were going the wrong way. It finally dawned on me that because I had told them we were going to Cotahuasi, they expected us to take the trail down to the bridge, where we could meet the 11:00 am combi, and get a ride in that back up to Cotahuasi. People here have trouble understanding that we like to hike just for fun! About 30 minutes later, I wasn't sure it was going to be fun, as we had to cross a river that was cascading down in a steep canyon. I was relieved to see the bridge was still there, but soon could see that the water was covering the trail on both sides of the bridge. The bridge was in a narrow flat spot with cascades above and below, not the best situation. I led the way and show the gals how to jump across from rock to rock, without getting water in my boots. They decided that was beyond their comfort level and chose to walk through the water instead.
From there it was another climb back up to get around a steep canyon wall, and then a long steep downhill back to the bridge in the next canyon. The Cotahuasi River flows through the large Cotahuasi Canyon, but there are many smaller side canyons and rivers that feed into the Cotahuasi. We were making good time, looking forward to roast chicken for a late lunch when we got back to Cotahuasi. That must have really inspired Katie, because she set a blistering pace for the last 1½ hours, and we arrived ahead of schedule. We had plenty of time to visit around Cotahuasi in the afternoon, and then drive to Luicho to enjoy a relaxing time in the hot springs there in the evening.
Our adventure wasn't quite over, as we discovered during a very muddy and slippery drive up out of Cotahuasi Canyon the next morning, during which time we were very thankful for four-wheel drive. Once on the high plain again, we came upon a large truck, blocking the road at a narrow stream crossing over a culvert. They were working on something under the cab, but the engine was still running, so I asked them if they could move enough to let us by. They said they had a fuel problem but it would be just a few minutes. That dragged out to 15 or so, and then the engine died! About that time a pickup came from the other direction, and was waiting on the other side of the truck. It was some friends of mine, so we talked about switching vehicles, but finally they got the truck running again and moved it out of our way.
Our main concern was getting Katie back to Arequipa in time for her flight to Lima in the evening, but we arrived there in plenty of time. After doing some tourist shopping, we headed off for the airport, only to find out that her flight was canceled due to foggy weather. Fortunately, they were able to book her on a flight the next day, and she only missed a day's sightseeing in Lima. I took them back to the airport in the morning, where Jen took her flight to Cusco to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, and Katie headed back to the U.S.
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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