Visiting Peru’s Spectacular Cotahuasi Canyon

Alli, Joe and Heather in Cotahuasi Canyon (photo courtesy of Alli)

Alli, me and Heather in Cotahuasi Canyon (photo: Alli)

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.

Cotahuasi, La Union, Arequipa, Peru Perspective Map

Cotahuasi is in Arequipa Region’s La Unión Province.

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.

Cotahuasi Canyon Map Excerpt

Cotahuasi Canyon map excerpt featuring places visited on the trip including Cotahuasi, Luicho, Alca, Tompepampa, Sipia Waterfalls (Catarata de Sipia), Charcana and Quechualla

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.

Cotahuasi Town, enveloped by the imposing canyon

Cotahuasi Town, enveloped by the imposing canyon

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.

Road with many switchbacks going up canyon side

Road with many switchbacks traversing Cotahuasi canyon

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.

Panorama of Cotahuasi Canyon including the village of Alca on the canyon floor

Panorama of Cotahuasi Canyon including the village of Alca on the canyon floor; photo taken on our hike up to Cahuana

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.

Church at Cahuana, Cotahuasi Canyon

Cahuana’s rustic church

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.

The spectacular and powerful Sipia Waterfall

The spectacular and ferocious 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.

Pretending to dive into the waterfall

Pretending to dive into the waterfall

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.

Brown butterfly feeding on yellow flower adjacent Sipia Waterfall

Brown butterfly feeding on yellow flower adjacent the waterfall

Furry bee flying near pink flowers adjacent Sipia Falls

Furry bee flying around pink flowers adjacent Sipia Falls

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:

Bird at stream near bridge - photos taken only 8 seconds apart

Bird near bridge between Sipia Waterfall and Cotahuasi Town: photos taken only 8 seconds apart – can you spot the difference?

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].

Happy locals including man holding a giant pumpkin in a Cotahuasi Town shop

Happy locals in a Cotahuasi Town shop including a man holding a giant pumpkin

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.

Stupendous view of the canyon wall - the barely visible line going across the face is a road

A stupendous view of the canyon wall – the horizontal grey line hugging the wall face is a road

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.

Our lodging in Charcana: Hospedaje Samay Huasi; note the channel along the road

Our lodging in Charcana: Hospedaje Samay Huasi; note the gutter in the middle of the stone road

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.

Me and Alli on the Charcana-Quechualla hike; note the green canyon

Me and Alli on the Charcana to Quechualla hike; note how green the canyon is and the icecap on top of the mountain on the left

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.

Grave, trails, cacti, trails and snow-capped mountains on trek from Charcana to Quechualla

Cacti, wildflowers, a rustic grave, trails and snow-capped mountains on the trek from Charcana to Quechualla

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.

Map of hike from Charcana to Quechualla

Map of Charcana to Quechualla hike including an elevation profile showing the second half decline

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

Waiting for breakfast in Quechualla accommodation courtyard; note mud oven in left foreground, grape vine overhead and meat drying at right

Waiting for breakfast in our Quechualla accommodation’s courtyard; note mud oven in left foreground, grape vine overhead and meat drying at right

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.

Local with donkey at Quechualla with beautiful canyon view in background

Local with donkey at Quechualla with beautiful canyon view in background

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!

Landfalls and terraces on bus ride between Quechualla and Cotahuasi Town

Landfalls and pre-Incan terraces on bus ride between Quechualla and Cotahuasi Town

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.

Amazing Panorama of Cotahuasi Canyon

Amazing Panorama of Cotahuasi Canyon

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.

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