Peru Trekking – Cotahuasi Canyon

This expedition explores the wild, remote region of the Andes mountain range around Cotahuasi in southern Peru. Below Cotahuasi the river flows though the deepest canyon in the world. Although the canyon has been run by a handful of extreme rafting / kayaking expeditions, this is a little trekked area with few organised expeditions. Traversing the deepest canyon in the world (3354 m – 160m deeper than the nearby Colca Canyon), sometimes crossing the river using harnesses on cable crossings and over rustic but sturdy suspension bridges, will take ten days. Trekking through this impressive gorge a lot of time will be spent in unknown isolation with chances to see ancient civilisation, including evidence of past occupations, amphitheatres and the burial sites of the lost city of Marpa. The headwaters of the River Cotahuasi have their source in the Cordillera de Huanzo, a remote and very rarely visited part of the Peruvian Andes in the extreme north west of the Department of Arequipa, and discharge some 300km later into the Pacific Ocean as the River Ocoña. Although the Cotahuasi region was declared a Zona Reserva Turistica in 1988 very little was known about the area and even less about the canyon until a kayak / raft expedition first ran it in 1994. In pre-Colombian times the canyon was a more travelled route; an Inca road ran through most of the length and many sections still remain, as well as agricultural terracing and ruins. This Inca road may well have been based on routes previously built and used by the Huari culture from 600-1000AD.

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Peru Trekking Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Arequipa

Arrive in Arequipa (2,300m) where we will rendezvous with our expedition leader and transfer to our hotel. Arequipa is Peru’s second city, set in a beautiful desert valley dominated by volcanoes. It is also known as “The White City” as much of the city is built from a white volcanic rock known locally as “sillar”, giving it a distinctive atmosphere. The historic centre has been declared a UNESCO heritage site and contains many fine colonial buildings and churches. Of particular interest are the Santa Catalina convent (a beautiful “mini-city” shut off from the outside world until the 1970s) and the Andean Sanctuaries Museum (containing frozen Inca human sacrifices discovered on nearby volcanoes by National Geographic expeditions).

Day 2: Arequipa

Leaving early, we set off into the spectacular mountain scenery around Arequipa. Our route initially follows the Pan American highway through the desert, then inland following the Majes river valley (well known for the production of wine and pisco, Peru’s national drink) before climbing towards the Andean mountains. We climb steeply to reach the high altiplano passing close to the mighty glacier covered flanks of Coropuna (at 6,425m the highest peak in southern Peru) and Solimana volcanoes. The road reaches around 4750m in the highest section before dropping steeply to the village of Cotahuasi. Despite the bleak and hostile terrain, some interesting high altitude plants and wildlife species can be found in this region: the domestic South American llamas and alpacas are commonly seen grazing and with luck we will also see their beautiful and much rarer wild cousin – the vicuña.

Day 3: Cotahuasi 

Cotahuasi is the main centre for exploring the network of valleys and canyons that contain the headwaters of the River Cotahuasi. A short drive takes us to the nearby highland village of Pampamarca and a chance to visit the bizarre rock formations at Huito and the Uskune waterfall.. We return via the thermal baths at Luicho, an opportunity to soak and relax before beginning our trek through the canyon! Andean condors are present in the whole Cotahuasi region and with luck we will be able to spot one of these majestic birds (with a potential wingspan of over 3m!) soaring gracefully on thermals.

Day 4: Sipia Waterfall

Below Cotahuasi the river, of the same name, has carved out the deepest canyon in the world. A short drive takes us closer to the start of the canyon at Sipia Bridge where we enter a wild rocky world only accessible by foot or raft/kayak. A short walk brings us to the Sipia waterfall, where the entire river plunges spectacularly over 100m into a narrow fissure. From here the trail climbs before traversing along a narrow trail cut out of the canyon wall in places (not for vertigo sufferers!) to reach the small citrus growing village of Chaupo some 3 hours below Sipia. From Chaupo the trail levels and continues through giant cacti forests before passing below the hamlet of Velinga to our riverside camp at Mayu. A small thermal pool here gives us a chance to relax tired legs.

Day 5: Quechualla

Below Mayu we continue deeper into the canyon, at times following remains of the original pre-Colombian trail and passing the archaeological site of Huaña, consisting of the remains of storehouses & agricultural terraces that once lined this route in ancient times. Beyond Quechualla we continue to reach the side valley of Uswa, the deepest point of the whole canyon. Quechualla itself is a pretty little hamlet with its streets covered in vines; grapes and wines are grown and produced here in season. From Quechualla the trail climbs for several hours out of the canyon to reach the small highland village of Huachuy, at 3,200m the highest point of the trek.

Day 6 – 7: Estacion – Marpa

The next day is the longest and toughest day of our trek (approx 10-12 hours). We continue through the rugged scenery along the canyon’s rim to reach an abandoned mining camp on a ridge at Estacion. From here the trail begins a long steep rocky descent back down into the canyon to reach the ruins of Marpa. We camp below the site by the river.

Day 8: Marpa 

Today is a well deserved rest day, where we can explore the ruins of Marpa. These are by far the largest in the canyon; it is possible the site once covered an area similar in size to Machu Picchu. Probably dating initially from the Huari period, extensive areas of terracing as well as residential areas cover the steep canyon walls on both sides of the river, showing that the ability to plan and build cities on steep mountainsides was not confined to the Incas! We spend a day here to relax and explore this impressive site more thoroughly. Unlike Machu Picchu, the lost city of Marpa sees few visitors due to its inaccessible location and we can explore the terraced fields, amphitheatres and burial sites (Chulpas) in relative peace.

Day 9 – 11: Marpa

Below Marpa the canyon is hardly known except to a few river runners; the route continues beneath rocky walls, with sections of the original trail and archaeological remains showing that it was once an important route in pre-Colombian times.

Day 12: Chaucalla

On day 12, the rivers Marán and Chachas join the Cotahuasi in quick succession to form the River Ocoña, which continues to the Pacific Ocean ; near the second confluence is the village of Chaucalla (900m). Below here the canyon starts to open out and we have finally reached the Andean foothills and lowlands. We spend the final night of the trek at Barrera.

Day 13: Pan American Highway

In Barrera we meet our transport for a full day’s drive following a rough road down the Ocoña River valley to meet the Pan American highway; which takes us through Peru’s rugged desert coastal plain before climbing into the mountains back to Arequipa.

Day 14: 

For those of you wishing to spend a few extra days in Lima, Pioneer are happy to organise hotel accommodation.

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Pioneer Expeditions
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  • Duration14 days / 13 nights
  • Price£1,950
    Excluding international flights.
  • Tailormade DeparturesApr - Dec

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