Between 2,500 and 3,500 metres from floor to rim, southern Peru’s Cotahuasi is one of the world’s deepest canyons. With amazing landscapes, waterfalls, natural hot springs and ancient terraces, the Cotahuasi Canyon is a hidden treasure that receives few tourists.
In April 2017 Cotahuasi Canyon seemed a distant, mysterious place off the beaten track. Upon hearing fellow Yes! Arequipa hostel guests Alli and Heather were going, I asked to join. Soon after, I was at Arequipa’s bus station buying a ticket to Cotahuasi Town, the La Unión Province capital and canyon gateway.
Day 0: Arequipa – Cotahuasi Village (overnight bus)
I caught the 7pm Reyna bus (30 soles; US$9). Other Arequipa-Cotahuasi services included Reyna’s 4:30pm and a 6pm Cromotex. I usually prefer day trips for the scenery but none to Cotahuasi existed. The overnight bus journey twice reaches over 4,700 metres in elevation.
My bus didn’t arrive to its scheduled destination. In fact, none this day did. Above Cotahuasi Town, a landslide had blocked the road and at 5am passengers emptied out to hike down the steep slope. Taxis waiting at the next switchback ferried us the final distance for 5 soles per seat.
Dawn brought a cacophony of bird sounds and soon illuminated a gorgeous green canyon, watered by a wet summer. Alli and Heather arrived later. Upon meeting at the town square, we drank a 3 sol (US$1) instant coffee from the only open café. Life in the Cotahuasi Canyon is unpretentious.
Tip: conversational Quechua or Spanish is recommended for independent visits here as little English is spoken.
Day 1: Cotahuasi – Alca – Cahuana – Luicho (natural hot springs) – Tomepampa – Cotahuasi
We came to the canyon without detailed plans. After finding the tourist office closed, a helpful man recommended hikes and attractions. He was the first of several kind locals.
On day 1 we caught a local bus (3 soles) east along the canyon floor to Alca via Tompepampa and Lucha. In Alca Heather and Alli chatted about hair with a girl in Spanish. Next, with directions from a police officer, we hiked up-canyon to Cahuana. Hundreds of steps and amazing views later, we had arrived.
Walking past flourishing small-scale agricultural crops and beautiful wildflowers, we tasted corn, green beans and broad beans. Other crops included quinoa, peas, wheat and an avocado-resembling pear. Losing our way at the top, we asked a lady for directions to Luicho. Following a road and tricky path down we made it. On the way, Heather spotted a snake.
Luicho is known for its thermal baths fed by natural hot springs, however, first priority was lunch. The restaurant before the bridge served delicious fried trout, fresh salad, chips and rice for only 10 soles, accompanied by 5-sol large beers.
Luicho’s thermal baths (3 soles) were quiet and we enjoyed the main pool almost to ourselves. Condors circling high above added to the occasion.
Outside Luicho taxi driver Milton picked us up. He provided a running commentary and briefly stopped for us see the Tompepampa colonial church. Locals joined our ride back to Cotahuasi where Milton searched accommodation for us. We ended up at Hostal Fani Luz (30 soles for a 3-bed room).
Realising I didn’t have my camera, the Hostal family’s son took me to a public phone where I called Milton. To great relief, the camera was in his taxi. It was Heather’s birthday and we celebrated over a meal and pisco sours at a restaurant. The celebrations continued back at our room with apple cake topped by a candle.
Day 2: Cotahuasi – Sipia Waterfall – Cotahuasi – Charcana
Things start early in Cotahuasi. We arrived to the bus station before 6:30am but the bus passing Sipia Waterfall had departed at 6. Instead, we negotiated for taxi to take us there (40 soles). Alighting on the road, a 700 metre walk brought us to the waterfall; the beautiful, powerful Sipia Waterfall.
Having such an untamed and spectacular sight to ourselves was surreal. Without barriers, we could get as close to the waterfall edge as we dared. Amongst the waterfall’s spray rainbows swirled. To the west, a viewpoint provided a broader perspective.
The moment the sun peaked over the horizon, hundreds of yellow butterflies awakened to enjoy the spring flowers. Other butterflies, cicadas, bees, wasps, dragonflies, grasshoppers and caterpillars joined them.
After breakfast at a nearby shelter we hiked back along the road past picturesque landscapes, picking and eating wild figs. By a bridge, I spotted the following bird:
Transport is infrequent and we were fortunate to catch a passing minibus back to Cotahuasi Town. On the way a tame parrot happily perched on a passenger’s cardboard box
In town, our 8 sol ‘menu of the day’ lunch consisted of a delicious and filling soup, quinoa stew and quinoa drink. Tourist information was now open. Along with confirming the 3pm bus time to Charcana, the woman gave us great advice: sit on the left hand side for best canyon views [if going from Charcana -> Cotahuasi Town, sit on the right].
The bus ride to Charcana was truly awe-inspiring with breath-taking landscapes and several high-gliding condors. The bus climbed up to the amazingly situated village of Andamarca and then kept going higher. I like to say we were within one metre of death 1,000 times – passing very close to edge canyon edge. The canyon has very little traffic – only one vehicle came the other way in the 3 hour journey. Towards journey end, the snow capped 6093 metre-high peak of Solimana became visible.
Video of the waterfall and butterflies and spectacular scenes from Cotahuasi-Charcana and Quechalla-Cotahuasi bus rides:
Arriving to the village of Charcana just before dark, a woman met the bus and led us to her accommodation: Hospedaje Samay Huasi (30 soles for a 3-bed room). 3,400 metres high, Charcana has cool evenings and picture-postcard canyon views. Dinner at a no-name restaurant consisted of fried chicken with chips and spaghetti. I had a slight digestion issue – perhaps from that morning’s wild figs. Tired, I crashed in bed just after 8pm.
Day 3: Charcana – Quechualla
Charcana lies on the canyon edge. After a basic breakfast at a great viewpoint, at 7:30am we started the epic 19km hike down to Quechualla.
A relatively flat first half preceded a steep second half descent that was accentuated by loose stones.
On the way we admired stunning Andes ranges, valleys, insects, agricultural terraces, cactus, flowers and birds including a condor, an eagle, two hummingbirds and a yellow bird with black and white wings. We also passed 4 basic cemeteries and a few waterfalls including one with dirty water.
The weather was good most of hike although it rained a few times and we heard thunder.
An exhausting hike, it was likely the hardest route I’ve ever done (although the Colca Canyon hike was a tougher experience). I was very happy to get down to the bottom.
After 7.5 hours and a ~1,700 metre drop in altitude we arrived to the subtropical oasis of Quechualla. My notes from the day read “likely went up and down almost 3km” although Maps.me shows only 1,841 metres of vertical change.
Quechualla village was a comparative paradise. Small-scale orchards contained fig, lúcuma, avocado, guava, papaya, grape, mango, citrus and apple trees and grape vines irrigated by the adjacent Cotahuasi River. Exhausted, I rested by a dirt soccer pitch while Alli and Heather found accommodation. For dinner we enjoyed a delicious soup followed by pork, chips, rice, salad, home-made wine, tea and Inca cola. The previous night’s meal in Charcana was far plainer – it’s amazing what altitude does to cuisine.
Day 4: Quechualla – Cotahuasi – bus back to Arequipa
Breakfast in Quechualla included lovely fresh orange juice, cinnamon flavoured black tea and a cheese roll.. Total cost for the room, dinner, breakfast, 3 small bottles of water and 3l bottle of Inka Cola was 125 soles – expensive for the canyon but still worth it.
Prior to 8:30 a man walked us down to the ‘terminal’ next to the river where we waited for bus to Cotahuasi. Arriving arrived after 9am, empty containers (and 2 gas bottles) sat on the bus’s roof. Cotahuasi market day was the day before (Wednesday) so these containers were likely from traders returning home from selling their produce. We grabbed seats on left for a better canyon view, and what a view it was!
The Quechuall-Cotahuasi journey provided stunning views of the canyon, pre-Columbian terraces, cactus forests, butterflies, condors, fields, landslides and a raging river. The journey is not for the faint-hearted with long parts of the journey on the canyon edge. On the way a man with bags of live guinea pigs (cuy) joined us.
The views feature at the end of this video:
Back in the Cotahuasi’s town centre we ate lunch at restaurant El Sabor De Mi Tierra (The Taste of My Land). I enjoyed tender cuy (35 soles) accompanied by potatoes, broad beans and onion salad while Ali and Heather ate trout (10 soles). Chicha morada (corn beverage) was complimentary.
Prior to leaving I took the chance to buy local produce including honey, cheese, mangos, dried figs and a home-made lúcuma ice cream. At the bus terminal we saw other foreigners for the only time in Cotahuasi: an interesting couple who used to work on the US Antarctic team.
Taking the 3:30pm Cromotex bus to Arequipa, we waited near the landslide before the crew repairing the road allowed us to pass. On the way we stopped in Chuquibamba for a break and before the police boarded in Aplao for an ID check. Wearing ear plugs helped greatly with sleep when Dumb & Dumber was blasting through the bus speakers. Arriving safely to Arequipa at 1am, our 4 day epic Cotahuasi adventure had ended.
The Cotahuasi Canyon was wonderful to visit and provided some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve every witnessed. However, it won’t suit everyone. If you are fit, adventurous, unfussy, time-flexible, unafraid of heights and know some Spanish or Quechua, I highly recommend including the Cotahuasi on your next Peru trip.