The Cotahuasi Canyon

The Cotahuasi Canyon

If we tell you that the Cotahuasi Canyon in southern Peru is 1,850 metres (6,000 ft) deeper than the Grand Canyon, you’re no doubt surprised. But if we tell you that the Cotahuasi Canyon also happens to be the deepest canyon in the world, it’s now entered into that great “Must-See Places” pantheon in the sky. And with good reason.

On the journey to the canyon, one circles Peru’s third-highest peak, Coropuna, its set of three snow-capped incisors biting into lapis skies at nearly 6,500 metres. One crosses a lonely puna of high-altitude moorland, bereft of vegetation except for the ichu grass upon which occasional herds of alpacas and vicuñas munch furtively. Shallow rivers wind their way in inky-black volcanic beds across the landscape. The wind blows in gusts of dust which blind and confuse. The roads are of compacted earth and rocks, occasionally giving way to mud tracks. It takes nearly two hours by car to cross over from the last valley to the Cotahuasi watershed, and some ten hours to reach the canyon from Arequipa. Cotahuasi is the valley’s most important town. Its name comes from the Quechua words ‘cota’ (union) and ‘huasi’ (house): united house, or close-knit community.

One’s first impression of Cotahuasi is the landscape’s sheer scale. It rises up from its dim bottom, up through amphitheatres of terraces and hopscotch squares of fields, up through clutches of eucalyptus groves and necklaces of stone walls, up vertical cliffs stained unlikely colours by minerals, and finally up to the canyon’s rim where you stand, dumbstruck by its majesty. The difference in altitude is impossible to fathom, particularly for a US or European Tourist. After the desolation of the puna, the descent into the valley is like passing through a Gainsborough looking glass of bucolic life. A cascade tumbles from the mountain’s ribs, bringing fertility in its white wake, irrigating fields of corn, flowering potatoes, green shoots, rustling cane and grasses for lowing cows. Stone walls line the road and divide the fields, like a genealogical mausoleum, testament to each generation’s contribution to the land. Farmers plough their fields or lead their cows in dissembling squadrons down tracks. Old women totter with bundles of faggots for their fires. Children play in the lanes.

The Cotahuasi Canyon has been inhabited for generations, and was an important route linking the Pacific coast with the Inca capital of Cuzco in the highlands to the northwest. There are several ruins from the Wari culture, which flourished in the early centuries AD, and remnants of Inca road systems. The Spanish established their towns with their plazas, churches and municipal buildings, and brought their customs – nearly every town has a bullring. The settlements in the valley all come with chapels and bell towers, rectilinear cobbled streets, houses of adobe blocks, teeny doorways topped with wooden lintels, wonky balconies, lazing dogs and tenebrous shops where you’re never quite sure who might be lurking in the shadows or how long the merchandise has been on sale. The shops never have change and sell cigarettes in twos.

The main attraction in the Cotahuasi area is the Cataratas de Sipia, an impressive waterfall located in the heart of the canyon. The falls are very impressive as the Cotahuasi River plunges 150m through a very narrow gorge where the canyon is no more than 10 metres wide. However, more than just the falls, the entire setting is spectacular. The views from Sipia are wonderful, and climbing above the falls there is a superb view downriver. Although not at its deepest point, the canyon is still very deep and beautiful here, with the cliffs being many shades of reds, browns and greys. It is possible, although quite frightening, to walk right up to the edge of the cliff and look down over a vertical drop of several hundred metres. A few kilometres downstream, the Río Cotahuasi cuts its deepest swathe: 3,354 metres (11,000 ft) from tip to toe, no less. The cataracts are in part responsible for this extraordinary depth. Here, the roiling river has sheered through its bed, creating a canyon into which it plunges with a noise and energy that is hard to describe. Slightly further downstream, a lookout point provides a view of the first cataract plunging into the abyss. But beyond it is only your imagination, since to get too close to the edge in the squalling winds of the canyon would be tempting fate.

Sipia is a three-hour walk from Cotahuasi, mostly downhill. It is best to set off early in the morning if you are planning on returning the same day, as it gets very hot in the canyon. The return walk takes around 4 hours, as it is uphill.

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