Cotahuasi, the hidden jewel of Arequipa, Peru

0, Arequipa, Peru
A smile welcomes you to Cotahuasi.

In its deepest stretch, at a spot called Ninochaca, near a town called Quechualla, the canyon plunges down 3,535 meters, 235 meters deeper than the Colca Canyon and nearly 2,000 meters deeper than the Grand Canyon in the United States.

The Cotahuasi River flows solemnly, unruffled, through the world’s deepest canyon. From this vantage point, the only way to explore the river is with kayaks and inflatable rafts, and thanks to the reports of those original adventurers that the Cotahuasi Canyon became known to the outside world. Years later, in 1988, the canyon was to be declared a tourist reserve.

Access, Arequipa, Peru
Church bell tower in the district of Toro.

Getting to Cotahuasi involves a long but spectacular journey which starts out from the city of Arequipa. To reach the valley, the traveler first passes through the towns of Sihuas and Corire in the heart of the fertile Majes Valley, and from there, start the ascent to the picturesque village of Chuquibamba.

Chuquibamba is surrounded by fields bursting with spring blooms amidst superb pre-Inca terracing. Nearby are vendors selling popsicles made from ice from the volcano glacier. Although it sounds hard to believe, the ice used to make the local homemade sweet ices are brought every morning from the slopes of Mount Coropuna.

And it is to Coropuna that we head as we leave Chuquibamba. A dizzying ascent takes us up to a vast Andean plain, the puna dominated by the apu mountain spirits. To our right, rears Mount Coropuna, which towers nearly 6,500 meters. This is the land of the huemal deer, condors and vicuñas, and is also home to peasant farming communities involved in herding camelids and planting coca leaves, the native mashua and highland grains.

From here, we start the dramatic descent to the valley. A few minutes after having head off down the winding road, we spot the town of Cotahuasi, its corrugated iron roofs glittering amongst fields of corn and wildflowers. But it looks deceptively close: it will take us another hour to motor down the 25 kilometers of curves along a road that winds around the mountains like a paper streamer.

A united community, Arequipa, Peru
A breath-taking view. Working in a mind-boggling spot, Casabonne gets a new angle of the Sipia waterfall.

Cotahuasi, our destination, is a small and hospitable Andean town that has preserved that colonial air that many cities in the Andes have long since lost. Perched at a altitude of 2,613 meters, the town enjoys a dry and pleasant climate for most of the year, with breezy nights and light summer rains.

"You can grow anything you like here," says Don José, the owner of a 300-year-old colonial mansion which he now runs as a hotel. And it’s the plain truth. One only has to venture a few minutes out of town to be struck by the beauty of the windswept quinoa fields. The native Andean grain is destined for Japan thanks to a novel export experiment started up in the valley a few years ago.

Cotahuasi, its venerable church whose immaculate white façade outshines everything around it, lies on the left bank of the river by the slopes of Mount Huinao, its guardian mountain. Its name stems from the Quechua terms cota (union) and huasi (house), highlighting the communal nature of its inhabitants since time immemorial. The narrow, cobbled lanes are lined with centuries-old houses featuring the typical local wooden balconies and wrought iron padlocks.

In the evenings, the streets fill with vendors who hawk sweet boiled corn with fresh cheese and kebab-like anticuchos in smoking braziers. Every Sunday morning, Cotahuasi’s main drag, Jirón Arequipa, is literally turned into a street market. Brightly-colored stalls selling fruit, vegetables, clothing and cassettes take up every available inch of the street, making life tough for the few cars, tractors and buses arriving from Arequipa at midday every day.

Attractions’s church
Tomepampa’s church brightens at dawn. Built in white granite stone, it is one of the prettiest temples in the valley.

The Cotahuasi Valley is without a doubt an attraction in itself. Whether taking the trail downstream along the river or the road that climbs up the valley, the traveler will find dozens of interesting spots, and a thousand postcard scenes brought to life, just the click of a camera shutter away.
We set off on a trip to the lower reaches of the valley. A road in a good state of repair takes us for a few kilometers through planted fields before petering out at the foot of a hanging bridge. This is the start of a hiking circuit to the Sipia waterfalls, the Cotahuasi Canyon and the villages which lie further down the valley.

A 9 km walk down a well-marked path (stones are used as signposts) take us to an area where the tumbling and crystal-clear river literally disappears into the earth in a deafening spectacle which will leave even the most hardened traveler shaken. This is the famous Sipia waterfalls, a 150 meter drop crowned by an eternal rainbow which make the hike and effort worth the while.

From here, the route continues on through villages such as Chaupo, Velinga and Quechualla (famous for its terracing and efficient irrigation systems that enabled the local inhabitants to develop a wide variety of crops in extremely arid land. Quechualla is also the starting point to visit the Wari archaeological sites of Huña, Maucallaqta and Marpa.

The experts believe that in pre-Hispanic times a road linked the Pacific coast with Cuzco, the capital of the Inca empire, the Tawantinsuyo. Much of this route ran through the Cotahuasi canyon and the valley itself. The remains of this road -traces of terraces, tambo rest-houses and extraordinarily well-preserved stretches of road- can still be visited today.
So if you’re an adventurer and lover of nature in its most pristine state, get your backpack ready for a trip to the fabulous Cotahuasi Valley. You won’t regret it. Jocha Canyon, in the district of Huaynacotas - Peru
The Jocha Canyon, in the district of Huaynacotas, a tributary stream that flows into the Cotahuasi River.