Our journey started in Arequipa. A beautiful, white-stoned, historic area of Peru where we began our plans for Cotahuasi Canyon. The more I researched, the more I realized that this canyon was in fact the deepest in the world, but also not as popular as the more nearby, Colca Canyon. Colca was at one point the deepest canyon but was recently beat by some 500 feet in the past few years. The tourism and popularity however, has yet to switch over.
I purchased our bus tickets for the town of Cotahuasi with no map and hardly a plan. From what I discovered, we could visit a 556 foot waterfall (Sipia), a vineyard in the middle of the canyon (Velinga), and the deepest part of the canyon (Ushua) as well. It sounded pretty good to me, TomO as well.
The bus was said to take 10 hours. In reality, this ended up being more around 12. When the bus would break down, the drivers would get out and wildly smash whatever part of the engine that apparently needed a beating with some other metal object. When we were moving, I was attacked in the middle of the night by a falling plant from the storage area above. Even after finding salvation by storing the plant in the back of the bus, I was then continuously covered in the remaining dirt at every winding turn. This seemed to be the definition a South American bus.
We finally arrived in the small town of Cotahuasi at 4 a.m. We were able to sleep on the roof of a hostel for 5 soles ($1.80) for the next few hours to get some real sleep. What we awoke to, was an amazing sunrise in the world’s deepest canyon.
Instantly, we set out to find a tourist location to obtain a decent map of the canyon. We found no tourists and no real map. Just a cartoon picture of what some of the trails might look like and discovered that the real topographic maps could only be purchased in Lima or Cusco. ¨Well, better than nothing¨, I thought.
TomO and I set off for the canyon. We found some footpaths along the road and worked our way downhill. While checking to see if we were going the right direction, we were offered a ride to save about 2 hours of walking time. And with our day starting out late as it was, we jumped on the opportunity.
When they dropped us off, TomO and I spent another two hours of walking in complete solitude. This place was completely untouched by tourists. We crossed over a slightly shady bridge, and an hour later, we finally reached our first destination, La Catarata de Sipia.
The power of the water was overwhelming. As warned earlier about the misfortune of a French tourist, we kept our distance from the fall but continued to stare at it in awe. We spent no more than 30 minutes of wandering the area for the best view of the never ending waterfall into the deep abyss of the canyon.
We passed through the cactus forest of Judiopampa. Immense towers of cactus as far as the eye could see were scattered across the canyon for over a mile. Over 58 different species of cactus resided there. Though for the common gringo, it was quite hard to tell the difference between them. After another break in the hot sun, it was time to continue on.
Just before the sun began to recede over the great canyon wall, we reached our destination point, or so we thought. While talking with a local, we discovered that the area we choose to spent the night in was called Maya, a small town of another 8 people just below the vineyards of Velinga. The road we followed in was relatively new and not on the map that we had received. We were told that if we just follow the road in the morning, we would reach the deepest part of the canyon in about 4 hours.
When the morning came, we were both eager to get to our final destination of the canyon, Ushua. Before we headed into the canyon, we purchased our bus tickets to leave the town of Cotahuasi at 7 p.m. the following evening with the ultimate goal of leaving plenty of time for Macchu Picchu. We knew we wouldn´t have much time to wander around the canyon if we wanted to hike out the same way we came in for the following morning. From speaking to locals, I was told a caravan would be leaving at 9 am the following morning from Velinga for the farmers and that it would be possible for us to hitch a ride as well. l did not want to put our whole schedule in the faith of something that might not even be definite, but it was a nice option to think about.
TomO and I set off on the newly created road for no more than 15 minutes. It was then where the road ended and two trails began. We could see a bridge below us but with no safe way to walk to it. In front of us was complete crumbles of rock, looking very precarious if one were to slip. Also, the trail from the bridge seemed to dissipate straight up into the mountain into a road of nothing. Seeing broken down bridges like this before on our trek in and according to our cartoon map, it was far too early to cross the river and we should have been walking further away from the river.
I looked around and sighted another foot trail leading up hill towards the pueblo of Velinga, since we had already started off on the wrong road in the morning, I figured that there was the original road somewhere above us. I followed the also precarious footpath to the top of the first canyon rim.
When we made it to the top, I looked around at our options. We continued south on at first what seemed to be a highly used trail. Off in the distance, I could see another path leading up the next level of canyon. From the view below, this section appeared to flatten out at the top. It reminded me of the trek into the canyon as we were not along side of the river for the majority of the trek. I assumed that there was a road at the top of this pass that would then put us back on track and take us to Ushua.
Another hour of hiking went by and we were just seconds away from the top of our goal. I took my last few steps to the top to discover that we are now at the peak of a extremely high and uninhabited mountain. No way would there be a road around here. Yet, as we peered down below, we could still see a path taking us in this continuous direction. What we also could see was a clear-as-day trail on the other side of the river. No sense in turning back now.
TomO and I took turns sliding down the chaucy gulley. I would work my way down the crumbling rock a few hundred feet until I could find a location safe from any falling rock that TomO would generate on his descent. Once we finally made it down this part, we realize that the challenge was still not over. We were still in fact, on top of a giant plateau.
Again, I found my familiar river-left trail and curiously continued to find its end to the other side of the river. But the trail had begun to become rather steep and technical. So technical, that I found myself giving TomO a bit of climbing technique advice as we slowly worked our way along the path to somewhere.
We finally made it to a shorter part of the plateau where we decided it would be easiest and less time consuming if we just climbed and jumped down the drop and lowered the packs down on a 15 foot utility cord I had handy in my bag. TomO and I sat in the shade of the plateau and ate some of our apples we had packed for our morning snack. While we sat there, he told me that the hike we completed was probably one of the craziest things he´s ever done. I couldn´t recollect far back enough to say the same but nevertheless, unfortunately the mountain pass we made was about to become the second craziest thing young TomO has ever done.
In search of my path, I quickly discovered that the end of the road was indeed here. It appeared to be that over the years of the use of this trail, the canyon walls had eroded into a sharp cliff off into the river leaving us at the end of our path thus far. With two options in hand, I decided that it would be indeed safer for two river guides to cross the Cotahuasi River rather than to try and make it back up the same pass we had just completed.
We picked a first spot in the river to attempt to forge. In an attempt to keep all of my things dry, I changed into my bathing suit and jumped into the icy cold water. I quickly realized that this was not where we were going to be able to make our pass while keeping ourselves safe and our gear dry. So from that point, I put back on my socks, boots, and back pack and proceeded to hike back upstream in my bathing suit in search of our safest area to pass. No one was in the canyon anyways.
The first part of the pass involved TomO and I just getting our backpacks onto the first rock of many. We decided that since TomO was taller, it would be easier for him to complete the next step. He swam to the next rock and from here, I lightened the loads and we made about fourteen passes of gear from one rock to the next using a carabiner and my oh-so-handy 15 foot utility cord.
Once we gathered all of our gear onto the closest rocks, I swam over to TomO to make the next step in our plan. It required swimming through some decent currents to eddies, throwing bags from rock to rock, leap-frogging while taking turns holding packs, and finally jumping from rock to rock to make it to shore. We made our first successful pass with my water proof bag containing our passports, camp stove, and other essentials. Below us, was a class II-III rapid waiting for us to slip up.
The more I studied the rapid and the more passes we made, the more I began to feel to truly know the river. I learned where each important rock was placed under the water. I used them to my benefit to enter the river, keep myself more elevated in a current to make a pass, or to thrust myself from one eddy to begin my swim to the next eddy. But no matter how much understanding I had, it was only a matter of time before the cold water and exhaustion began to take over TomO and myself.
As we worked, I looked again downstream. The sun was once again making its way to the other side of the canyon walls and time was beginning to run out. ¨TomO, if one of us should miss an eddy, it´s really important you swim to river-right. Got it?¨
Not five minutes later did I turn around to see poor TomO attempting to save his river walking stick before surrendering it to save himself from swimming down the more treacherous part of the rapid. Luckily, he swam away from the crux of the rapid in the utmost nick of time. Knowing that this was a 100% full team challenge, I watched Tom make his way back up the river to assist me with the next pass.
The shadow of the sunset began to creep closer to our forging area. We both were becoming more and more cold and exhausted by the minute. Left on the furthest rock, was the tent and the two nearly empty backpacks. All of our passes had lead up to this final moment of passing the heaviest and bulkiest gear. All I could really say to poor shivering TomO was that this was his training for the Seals. I had put him in this situation and now it was time for me to get him out of it.
I swam out to the tall rock, where it was my task to cling on to the tiny crimp holds above and hoist myself onto the boulder. I lowered the bags to the next rock and met TomO half way where he sat in the water as I leap frogged around him to the next boulder. He made the pass of the first pack and I threw it onto the next rock.
Two more times, I swam back to the main storage boulder and retrieved the last two items, passing them to Tom and carefully stacking them on top of one another. Tom swam to the next spot where I again climbed the rock, tossed an item to him, swam to the next set up spot, made the pass, put the pack on the following rock and finally swam back to repeat this step another two more final times.
After about 15 passes and 4 hours later, we some how made it to the other side of the river with 100% of our belongings dry. We ran over to the sunlight to warm our shivering (yet still slightly burnt) bodies and instantly put on our warm and dry clothes. Completely elated that we actually accomplished this ridiculous task we had created for ourselves.
¨That, was the craziest thing I´ve ever done¨, TomO again confesses to me.
Not five minutes after we dressed and repacked, we saw 3 locals returning home from their own journey to Quechualla, the little town we hoped to see that day. We decided it was a good idea to just follow them back to the area of Velinga where we would prepare to hike out for the next day. The walk back to the bridge we thought was no longer in use took less than an hour. Our entire day´s adventure was created with one wrong turn. Though, I still can´t say that I regret it.
When we made it back to Maya, we were greeted by a very welcoming man who invited us to stay at his vineyard for the evening. He assured us that there was sure to be a van in the morning which we could take back to the town of Cotahuasi. After filtering some water from a nearby waterfall, we decided that we would take him up on his hospitality.
His name is Aldo. We later learned that Aldo is in fact the governor of Velinga and Quechualla. The district has about 30 people residing there and it is Aldo´s job to make sure that all of the funding made by the other district governor working in Lima is put to good use through the construction of new roads (such as the one being made in Maya), bridges, and other such topics. Aldo and his father Ernesto invited us for dinner in their home along with some freshly bottled red wine from their vineyard. What might have been more exciting is that we learned that the trail we had chosen was one of the original Inca Trail pathways leading down into the canyon (completely explains the frightening erosion). Anyways, enjoying their company and learning much about the history and governmental system of Peru was all too perfect of a way to end our day´s nearly catastrophic journey.
I only wish I could say that the adventure stops there.
The next morning, TomO and I prepared for our ascent back out of the canyon. In the morning, he barely touched his oatmeal that I had prepared for him. I knew it wasn´t his first choice of meals but I urged him to eat it being that there was still a chance we would have to make a multi-hour hike out of the canyon and that he would need all of the energy he could get. Poor TomO had been getting nosebleeds the past two days and I was too goal and schedule driven to actually recognize the signs. I thought he was just getting them from the dry weather of the desert-like atmosphere. In reality, it was altitude sickness.
Tom was able to make his way up to the bus stop but was extremely drained. Thankfully, the van did arrive and we were able to get the bumpiest evacuation ride out of the canyon back to the main town two and a half hours later. When I got him out of the van and onto the curb he was just seconds away from passing out when locals came up to me and gave me a bottle of some strange topical astringent to apply to his face and neck. It helped him stay to and regain more of his consciousness.
A few hours later, I was able to find TomO a bed to rest in. He was practically passed out in the streets before I begged a hotel to let us use a room for a few hours. Here TomO was able to rest before our bus back down to Arequipa. I wandered the streets of Cotahuasi meeting locals of all ages, and soaked in the little time I had left in town.
When the sunset came, I carried the both bags to the bus stop and found some fine convenient store owners who let me keep the bags there while I collected and assisted Tom. This time thankfully, there were no falling plants or broken down buses. The morning we returned to Arequipa, I set up a secluded spot in the bus station for Tom to rest while I took a taxi back to our first hostel to collect the last bit of our things in storage. We made it all the way to Puno by early afternoon.
So now I sit here in Puno, a town just on the rim of Lake Titicaca, the world´s highest navigable lake by boats. I agree, not the best place to recover from altitude sickness, but thankfully I can say that Tom is near back to full recovery.
We took an extra day to relax We walked around town and I even made some friends with some French-Canadians! Today, we make our move to spend the night on the Islas de Uros; man-made floating islands still inhabited by indigenous people.
And so it is here I must leave you hanging until my next update. In conclusion, I´ll leave you with two thoughts…
Thought Number One:
Even though we make wrong turns sometimes, they will always bring us to a new and sometimes highly unexpected challenges we may overcome.
Thought Number Two:
Make sure you recognize the signs of altitude sickness. It´s real.
Til next time, amigos.