Forget about the famous Cañon de Colca, forget about the Grand Canyon… the deepest canyon in the world is in Cotahuasi! A place protected from mass tourism with gorgeous, varied and surprising landscapes, nice little villages and friendly inhabitants. Definitely one of my biggest crush in this trip!
From Arequipa to Cotahuasi
Wednesday 25th July 2018
A bit annoyed by the mass of tourists in Arequipa, I chose not to go now to the Colca Canyon, which everyone was talking about and which seemed to be THE place to go in the region. There is no doubt about its beauty but I know well how I am and doubt I would have appreciated it if it was overcrowded! On the contrary, I was told at the Peruvian tourism office about the Cotahuasi Canyon. I did some researches on the web and it looked like a much less touristic place, more preserved and as beautiful, if not even more… I didn’t need more to be convinced!
I then spent a quiet day optimising my bag for the coming days and buying some food reserves for the hikes. I went to the terminal in the afternoon, where I bought the last place for the only bus going to Cotahuasi at night. Last seat… did it mean that there were more tourists than I thought?
After a few hours waiting, I got the answer: the bus was full of Peruvians but not a single “gringo”! I would probably not go unnoticed there 😉 The night in the bus was particularly difficult; I almost didn’t sleep at all. Was it for the almost full moon?
(Too) early morning arrival
Thursday 26th July 2018
We arrived at 4 a.m. in Cotahuasi. I was feeling out of sync after this bad night and didn’t feel like waiting for sunrise at the terminal; I then decided to get some sleep in the first hostel I found, facing the terminal. At least it was opened at this early time, but it was expensive, the owner wasn’t everything but friendly and the hostel wasn’t worth its price. It’s really because I needed to get some rest!
I woke up around 11 a.m. and went to the city centre to look for another hostel that would be more accessible. I set up at the hostel Alcala, a basic but central hostel, which was much more in my budget. I then went to get some information about the sites to visit in the surroundings so to organize my stay in the region. I first went to a souvenir and wine shop saying “tourist information”, almost facing my hostel.
Milky, the owner, was a small and very enthusiast man, obviously in love with his region. He bombarded me with information that I then went to complete at the tourism office (editor’s note, I noticed in the statistic book that the last visitors who signed it were Peruvians who came on the 19th of July, which says a lot about the crowd that comes to this place!). The man working there gave me all the precious and necessary details (local buses times etc.) and helped me to refine my program, which was now absolutely optimized.
I then went to get some lunch in a small restaurant that would become my HQ. The courtyard was nice and shady, the soups and meals were fresh and delicious; I immediately loved it. I got to know the lady with who I was sharing the table during my lunch: Jolly, a woman about 50 years old who owned a farm on the heights of Cotahuasi and a house with a garden in the village. She invited me to visit her after lunch but I unfortunately didn’t find her house. But I was not worried; Cotahuasi is not big and I was sure I would cross her again.
After this generous lunch, I headed to a lagoon located close the village; which I finished exploring at the same time. Colourful and very nice, surrounded by green mountains… I was already feeling well here. The access to the lagoon was quick and easy, a perfect stroll given my big tiredness. And already this tranquillity that was nice after these few days in Arequipa…
I came back at the end of the afternoon, enjoying the golden light illuminating the surrounding fields. There was a local celebration with bands and dancers in the village so I stopped to look at it. I got to know Laura and Maruya on the occasion, two nice Peruvians with who I talked for a while as we were served the traditional chicha (local beverage made out of fermented corn).
I then had the intention to go to bed early and get some rest for the following days that would be intense, but my bedroom neighbour unfortunately left his TV on all night long! And as the room walls were very thin, I could hear everything as if I were in the same room…
Vendredi 27 juillet
I left at dawn after this painful night to go to Sipia Waterfalls with the first local minibus, leaving at 5.30. It was full; people seem to be early birds here! I managed to catch a glimpse on the sunrise and the first rays of sunlight while the bus was driving down through the canyon.
About 45 minutes later, the bus dropped me off at the waterfall entrance, which could be accessed (for free) after a 20-minute walk a small path. The landscapes were amazing and I was just starting to understand what would wait for me over the coming days. I admired the waterfall, impressive for its size and strength, and went a bit further on the heights to admire the sun arriving on the canyon’s red and golden rocks. A perfect moment of contemplation, with such tranquillity…
I only saw two small groups passing in 3 hours. The second one was a family of Peruvians on holidays in the region, which offered me to drive me back to Cotahuasi. It was one trip less to pays and they were adorable!
Back to the village at the end of the morning, I did a short nap, which was necessary after this bad night, and went back to my favourite restaurant for lunch. I then prepared my bag and went to the terminal, where I unfortunately had to wait longer than expected. My bus going to the village of Charcana was indeed not at 2.30 but at 4 p.m. I could have done another nap, too bad!
A rustic night
Charcana is a little village located 3 400 m above sea level (Cotahuasi is 2 600 m high), which can be accessed after a two-hour bus trip on mountain roads, on the side of the mountains. Just doing this impressive trip is worth it. I arrived at nightfall in Charcana, where I found an accommodation close to the main square. Even at night, the village was full of charm, with its cobblestone streets and cob houses (as everywhere in the region).
My room was rustic to say the least, with old beds with too soft mattresses and no running water on the tap, but whatever. It would be perfect for one night and there were enough blankets so not to suffer from the cold. I went to bed at 7 p.m., in prevision of an early morning wake-up.
Walking with the cactus
Saturday 28th July 2018
This time not disturbed at all by the neighbourhood, I slept like a baby and woke up feeling ready for a great hiking day. I had planned on going down to the village of Quechualla, located almost at the deepest point of the canyon, about 1 600 above sea level.
I started around 6 o’clock as the sun was rising, first illuminating the snowy summits in the background and then little by little the path I was walking on. The light was simply superb and I was discovering progressively the landscapes around me: I was surrounded by cactus and cultivated terraces; on my left the first rays of sun were lighting up the canyon below behind me was the village of Charcana, overlooked by other snowy summits… I didn’t know where to look at.
The hike went on for about ten kilometres almost at the same altitude, still surrounded by cactus and vegetation chancing depending on the side of the mountains, and still with this stunning view over the canyon. I then reached the hamlet of Picha, where I found again cultivated terraces and met some farmers with their donkeys, looking quite surprised to see me there.
When real fun begins
The most “sportive” part then started as the twelve remaining kilometres were mainly descent (imagine going from 3 200 m to 1 600 m high in such a short distance!). It was challenging for the knees but the views were still rewarding. The path became more stonier over the slope and the views when getting closer to the canyon kept on delighting me. The rocks had unimaginable colours, going from grey to intense red, while the river was flowing below, surrounded by greenery.
I arrived at 3 p.m. in Quechualla, a true oasis where blossom figs, vineyards and all kind of fruits. About ten families live there, including one offering a much more welcoming accommodation than the one of Charcana. The beds were new, the view from the balcony was superb, I could take a shower (a cold one but it was more than welcome after these 22 km of hike) and the owners were very nice. I had to share my bedroom with some corn drying on the floor but I found it quite funny, this was so typical!
I must have been the first vegetarian that the owner met because she asked me looking worried if I could eat chicken, and finally served me an omelette… containing ham! Luckily there were beans and rice to compensate 😉 I also tasted a small glass of local wine. It was particularly sweet and made me think about fortified wine that would be served as an aperitif. It was surprising but particularly tasty!
Up to the Bosque de Cactus
Dimanche 29 juillet 2018
Once again I went to bed like very early (18.30) and woke up at dawn, heading to the Bosque de Cactus, literally “cactus forest”, located 1à km further in the canyon. The owner of the hostel came to me until the end of the village and I then went on alone. The first rays of sun were starting to lighten up the heights of the canyon, in which I was walking quite fast. The only bus to come back to Cotahuasi would indeed come around 8.30/9 a.m. and I couldn’t miss given the small amount of cars passing on this road!
The rocks surrounding me were spectacular and I was once again delighted. As I got closer to the bosque, there was already a lot of cactus. Once arrived, the name of “cactus forest” got meaning: I was completely surrounded on all sides! One would think this was the Far West, but it was still Peru!
After taking once again too many pictures, I took my bus, which enabled me to finish exploring the canyon. I lack of superlatives to describe it but this road on the side of the rocks was simply incredible and I couldn’t get bored of these landscapes!
Reunion and changing plans
Back to Cotahuasi, I went back to the hostel where I had let part of my stuff, and went back to my favourite restaurant. It was not as calm as usually as it was the day of celebration for the homeland and the parade in Lima was on the screens. I had the pleasure to meet again Jolly (I told you, I was sure I would see her again sooner or later!), which then showed me her garden. A little piece of heaven with trees full of avocados, oranges, lemons and other marvels that grow so well in the region – and still, it was winter so there were no more figs! I came back with a bag full of products, such a precious gift…
I had initially planned to get some rest in the thermal baths of Luicho but Jolly confirmed my fears: Sunday/ Fiestas de la Patria + beginning of winter holidays in Peru = probably a lot of people in the baths, which were not ideal conditions for me! Therefore, I decided to go to Pampamarca at the end of the afternoon, another village located 3 400 m high, where I had planned to go on the following morning. Sleeping there would give me more time to hike there so it was finally a better plan.
I then came back to the hostel to prepare my bag again and leave my room. The hostel owner was not there and I needed to let part of my stuff but luckily he was Jolly’s cousin! I came to see her again and let her my bag, which she would bring to him later on. So lovely…
Some solidarity lesson
I caught my bus around 4 p.m. and started the ascent to the village, admiring the road for the whole trip. We had to stop for a while to help a pick-up that had run out of petrol: they filled a traffic cone with gas from the bus and put it on the pick-up using a bottle of coke cut to use as a funnel… no problem, only solutions! I had also seen the bus driver helping a man who had run out of battery on the way to Charcana so mutual assistance really looked like a key here.
We arrived in the village, I found a place to stay for the night and went to bed as soon as possible. It was not the best mattress on earth but it would be fine for one night!
Up to the Bosque de Piedras
Monday 20th July 2018
Once again I woke up very early (I was getting used to it now!) and left to the Bosque de Piedras, a “forest of stones” located 4 000 m high. The ascent was not as hard as I feared (3 km to climb from 3 400 to 4 000 m high) and I made it in one hour to the top, where the sun was already waiting for me. I was amazed; the rock formations, of a stunning white grey colour were standing all around me and the panorama was breath-taking: snowy summits on the background, green canyons on the second plan and the village of Pampamarcan and all its colourful terraces around.
I stayed almost two hours there to explore the place, take pictures and admire the landscapes, before slowly going down. I was surrounded by purple flowers which name I ignore and by vira-vira, a plan of altitude that I found a lot in Bolivia and is delicious when you take it as an infusion.
The Uskuñe Mirador
Once back to the village, I still had some time left to go to the Uskuñe Mirador, a viewpoint located 1 km from the village. It was another enchantment; I was walking along small stonewalls closing the fields in terraces, still with a wonderful view from all sides. The panorama once on the mirador was also amazing, with a stunning view over the Uskuñe waterfall below.
An epic trip back to Cotahuasi
I filled my eyes with these amazing landscapes for the last time and came back to the village, where I took the bus at midday to go down to Cotahuasi. The bus got progressively full and I did the whole trip sitting on one of the numerous bag of food charged by the locals, catching myself as I could in the never-ending curves. I was a bit chocked to see that young people did not even let their seats to people much older that came in the bus during the trip.
I was quite relieved to arrive in Cotahuasi after this uncomfortable trip (and most of all with an unbearable music which I can’t get used to, quite similar to the Bolivian one), even if the beautiful landscapes had saved me.
I had one last lunch in my HQ, then some rest, yoga and a short night before leaving this wonderful region.
On the road to Arequipa
Tuesday 31st July 2018
I had chosen to come back to Arequipa during the day so to see the scenery, which Milky had praised me so much. I can’t regret it indeed; there were landscapes to admire all the way long. Once we had left the canyon, we crossed vast areas of pampa with snowy volcanoes on both sides as well as lamas and alpacas all around.
I changed my bus in Chuquibamba, from where then started completely different landscapes: rocks with orange colors and surprising shapes, vast green valleys in the middle and then the huge copper mines when getting closer to Arequipa. I had a nice neighbour but too chatty to my taste and the trip was quite long, but it was still worth it!
Back to Arequipa, I came back to the hostel where I had let part of my stuff, had a short night there and it was already time to leave, heading to a new volunteering experience!
To be continued…
Bus Arequipa – Cotahuasi: 35 soles – 9,20€, about 9h night bus trip
Local minibuses locaux from Cotahuasi to the different neighbour: from 4 to 8 soles, 1,05 to 2,10€ per trip
Bus Cotahuasi – Chuquibamba: 20 soles – 5,26€, about 4h bus trip
Bus Chuquibamba – Arequipa: 20 soles – 5,26€, about 5h bus trip
Hostal Aymaña in Cotahuasi, face to the terminal: 40 soles – 10,52€ per night. Don’t go there, it’s not worth the price!
Hostal Alcala in Cotahuasi: 15 soles – 3,95€ per night in a single room/ Basic hostel, without wifi. The rooms are separated by very thin walls so you can hear every noise made by neighbours. Showers are hot and with good pressure.
Hospedaje Suma Huasi in Charcana: 10 soles – 2,63€ per night. Rustic room and old beds. There are toilets but no water on the tap.
Hospedaje Las Viñas in Quechualla: 15 soles – 3,95€ per night. Single room with new beds and a beautiful view from the balcony. The owners are very nice and cook your dinner in the evening (7 soles for one meal). Cold water in the shower but it’s not a problem given the temperature outside.
Casa de huespedes in Pampamarca: 15 soles – 3,95€ per night (price to negociate). Go to ask for a room to the owner of the only shop in the village (on the main square where the bus stops). The beds are quite old and the bathroom is rustic.
Food & Beverage
Restaurant “Quechualla” in Cotahuasi: 7 soles – 1,84€ for one menu including a soup, main meal, beverage and sometimes a desert. The restaurant has a nice and shady courtyard, and the soup and meals are delicious.
All the entrances of the sites mentioned in this post are free!
The hike between Charcana and Quechualla can be done with the app Maps.me, the whole path is on it. You’ll need between 8 and 10h depending your rhythm, how many breaks you do and how much you stop to take pictures 😉