Dec 8, 2016

Cotahuasi Canyon - Lower Canyon

Cotahuasi Canyon

Rio Cotahuasi is, according to the accounts I've read, the deepest canyon in the world. I couldn't say for sure if this is absolutely true, but one thing I know... the Cotahuasi Canyon is a mighty crack in the earth! And you don't want to have to climb back out. 

the canyon just below Sipia Falls

The journey to get there, especially if you link this trip with the Colca, is equally challenging and well worth the effort. The Lower Canyon of the Cotahuasi is what most people come for and goes beyond words. It is epic in many ways.
Cotahuasi Canyon above 500 foot tall Sipia Falls

Our journey began (or continued) from the town of Aplao, one take out for the Colca. We took out 20 km's upstream of Aplao, but that's a different story. From Aplao we had quite the struggle just to find where the bus would pick us up to take us to Velinga, or if it would pick us up. In Peru, you know the bus is coming, you just don't know when. And when you have kayaks you hope it is a big bus and that your kayaks will fit! Usually they do. After arriving in Aplao we spent the night and the next morning learned one place to go to buy bus tickets to get to Velinga. Another constant in Peru is that you can't always trust the word you get from the locals so it is a safe measure to verify the info as rapidly as possible, in person is best. We were on a lengthy wild goose chase a fair bit of the day between buying lots of groceries (I estimated a week's worth by the end of our spree), watching movies, sleeping and general milling about. Going from place to place to place, we finally determined the place we needed to wait for the bus. After verifying this spot outside a tiny store front (not even a store you could walk in to) with the shop owner, we paid a taxi to bring us and the boats to said location and began hours of waiting. In common fashion the bus was late, almost 3 hours late. We were barely able to squeeze the kayaks in the bus, but figured it out and were on our way to Velinga!! and... some sleep along the way??

Sleep was tough, but there was some. I woke up several times looking out my window, only to see the canyon wall a mere foot or two from my face. Again, the driver knew right where to put the bus. This ride had more people and a Quechuan family with a new born. New born babies haven't learned how to "pop" their ears during elevation ascents and this baby was in agony, along with its family and us a little bit. I felt sorry for the child... and its family. Seemed they didn't have much of a choice, riding the bus. They did everything they could to soothe the baby, but it howled most of the ride. I would fall in and out of sleep, thankful when I forgot its screaming. Eventually they got off the bus. Mira and Pavlina took the entire back seat and were passed out. I couldn't quite get comfortable. We finally stopped somewhere about 3 am (I learned later) and vaguely remembered people getting off and the bus turning off. Wasn't sure what was happening, but I was fine with it. The vibration and rocking had stopped, no screaming baby, no spanish movie... just silence and stillness. I barely woke up enough to recall it happening, just enough awareness to know I could stretch out. Turns out we landed in a small mountain town, beautiful actually, named Alca (Quechuan for savage or barbarian). We slept til daylight. 

I got up at one point, confused and needing to go to the bathroom. Somehow we had been locked inside the passenger compartment of the bus. I guess I was okay with it and was sleep deprived enough that I didn't care, so I walked back to the back and got in the most comfortable and horizontal position I could and caught some Zzz's. Finally, sometime after 5am I got up and realized no one was on the bus but us, and one man at the front. I told Mira, to get him up (he spoke the best spanish). I knew we were behind schedule somehow. Turns out our bus driver was even kinder than many of the Peruvians I had already met. As we got up and started to put the pieces together it became apparent the driver had just decided to sleep in the front of the bus and not wake us up. He told us we were in Alca and the next bus we needed to catch was on the other side of the town square, over there. He helped us unload our kayaks in the early 50 degree morning, collected our money for the ride, then parked the bus and walked to his house for the rest of his "night's" sleep. We talked to our next bus driver (who was equally as kind) who helped us load boats and told us where we were going next. I'm still not sure of the next destination, but there was a bus station involved. Velinga, I think. Anyway, after we were loaded we immediately took off. Mira, Pavlina and I were the only people on the bus and we were the reason it was late. We drove for 2 or 3 hours through some beautiful canyon scenery and finally arrived at a small bus station in a small town (Velinga?). Because we had slept on the first bus, we wound up missing our morning bus to the put in and all the other morning buses that had already left the station. Our option was to wait for the afternoon bus to take us to our put in below 500 foot Sipia Falls, a couple hours away.

deep in Cotahuasi's Lower Canyon

Not much to see in Velinga. I milled around, ate chocolate and tried to stay cool. In hindsight it might have been cool to take a taxi to one of the hot springs, but at that point I was sleep deprived and ready to get on the water. Eventually our bus came and we were off! We were stoked and the bus aisle was lined with commercial fertilizer from some farmers. It took much longer than we had hoped as the bus was fairly close to the river above the falls, some sick looking continuous class V-V+. But then it took off going up some crazy switchbacks as it approached the falls, eventually switchbacking down again after dropping several farmers off with their supplies, and others (and their accoutrements). Eventually we made it back down to riverside and took that chance to put on. The bus driver wanted to keep going to a better spot, but Mira was like "HERE, bro." We unloaded and I got dressed and packed my boat faster than I ever had in my life. It was hot, we were in the blazing afternoon sun and the mosquitos were hungry. The water was such a welcome relief as were the bony rapids on the way to the first scout of the first class V, The Wall. We made a quick scout on a very loose scree slope to find a long hole-filled rapid with shallow jagged rocks. Portaging would take an hour, or more. We all ran it without problems. The only trouble I had was with the very first hole which I didn't even look at during the scout, the rest of the rapid looked so big! 

a scout of Cotahuasi's AimaƱa Canyon before the first descent   *

After that tensions eased and we fell into a comfortable rhythm before reaching our first camp at a massive ruins site!! One of the cool things about paddling through the deepest canyon in the world, the ruins are probably going to be the largest in the world, too. We made camp and had a great time hanging out. Made some food and eventually went to bed after dark. Someone else was out too as we saw their headlamp several hundred meters away. Turned out there was a trail that stretched most of the length of the canyon and they probably lived upstream and were walking home.

The next morning I got up at first light and began walking around the ruins of Toccecc. They stretched up and down the river for at least half a mile on both sides! It was such a powerful place I walked around for at least an hour and really... could've spent many days and weeks there. I just wanted to sit and feel the majesty flowing through this place. What the people must've felt when this place was thriving with indigenous tribes thousands of years ago. It completely goes beyond words and becomes a meditation, a silent agreement, an alignment, even beyond feelings. Although feelings and energy were the only things flowing through my body. Such inspiring and silencing power. I just wanted to just BE there. 

Of course there was the rest of the river to get through and I didn't want to keep our team waiting. As I came back from my morning stroll breakfast was cooking and the sun was rising. The Cotahuasi should be on everyone's bucket list. It's such a powerful place.

morning two, these cactus were 5 meters tall and the wall was massive

someone was living in these ruins, I can only imagine...

the grassy line is an old aquaduct, still functioning

so many amazing ruins in this place

As we pushed off from our first camp I couldn't help but feel overwhelming peace and alignment. The word enlightenment naturally comes to mind, but really the sense I had was one of merging with the power flowing through the place, and much less of a sense of a lesson or new perspective. Just agreement and alignment and... goodness. Such a wonderful sensation.

Day two was filled with unbelievable gorges, rock formations and... more ruins!!! We spent all day paddling and even stopped in a couple places to survey the grandeur of the people who had lived here before us.

From Toccecc, our first camp, there are supposed to be several different class V stretches through several different canyons; Cable Dancer, Meter Canyon, Centimeter Canyon, and Necktie Canyon respectively. This is a 9km stretch. At our low flow I didn't feel anything was really class V as we boat scouted the entire day up until the final big drop, where the shapely granite bedrock had begun to protrude. I guess we got caught up in the whitewater because I think we passed the ancient city of Marpa in Meter Canyon. Apparently the desert climate has preserved this ancient ruin site better than Machu Picchu. Worth a look if you're not digging the agua blanca too much! After this section it is another 9km to the confluence of the Maran.

more ruins on day two!!

...and the steps in the rock walls #incasmart

ashes to ashes... the walls continue to crumble, covering ancient artwork

more art I found along the way

as we paddle away from one of the most incredible places I've ever been

lunch stop on day two

The Cotahuasi in some ways is like the Grand Canyon of the Colorado back in the states. It is such a powerful place and there are so many places within the canyon to stop and look around to find things, to inspire and align oneself. The whitewater in Cotahuasi is really just a fun bonus. It's really quality in here too, but... a luxurious bonus in a magical land. As a good friend of mine once said, "the Grand Canyon is the best hiking trip you'll ever do, and the way you get to all the trailheads is with a raft!" I couldn't agree more, Kyle. Couldn't agree more.

The Cotahuasi goes through so many different layers of rock on its way to the sea. It's so great. I don't how to say it better than that. You will be happy and content by the time you reach the take out, I don't know how you couldn't be. As we continued downstream on day two we got into a rhythm again of boat scouting our way through the tighter parts. The Cotahuasi is continuous the entire way with very very few pools. It was fun blasting downstream and there are many many rapids as it tumbles over the ancient rockfall. 

I was in the lead toward the end of the day and the last big rapid made me pause, abruptly! From river level, the current just seemed to squeeze together as it dropped down through the myriad of shallow boulders. There were a few offset holes and an undercut wall. After a quick scout (our second of the trip) I ran first followed shortly by the Czechs. Love those Czechs. After this rapid, we found another big ruin site and made camp. The Cotahuasi is just the best!

day two: the last big rapid

we camped just downstream on river right

Camp two held some surprises. And it was surprising to me to figure out there is a trail from the bottom of the canyon all the way to Sipia Falls. My guess at that distance, 150km. There are aqueducts galore as well. Camp two had interesting relics like broken pottery and such things as in tact house structures. There were collapsed walls and larger housing developments covered in the rubble of significant rock fall over the centuries. It has been interesting to read about how these civilizations thrived in such an inhospitable desert. 

can you make out the old houses among the rubble?

Some of the surprises came as I climbed to the top of the elaborate ruins to find human remains. I guessed that many moons ago the more recent locals had exhumed the graves of the long gone tribesmen, looking for gold, artifacts and such. There were many and the bones left behind didn't quite resemble what I thought bones would look like in person. They had been laying in the sun and elements for many moons though. I gave a soft prayer, thought of the spirits that may still roam this place and continued on my discovery.

remains of mummy wrappings, still?

so many bones


running water was a thing back then

a great place to camp and explore

an old house in camp two

so much cool stuff to discover among the debris

night shots are tits
By this point we had eaten so much of our food (still amazing to me) we wanted to make a push to get out on day three. I imagine we left many things unseen, but what we had found were some of the best finds, you know. So we woke at first light, along with the mosquitos, packed quickly (we had to walk back and forth as we ate our breakfast), and were off. As we paddled and finally left the last of the gorges the valley began to open up. 

We wanted to beat the upstream winds which was good cause for an early departure, but we weren't quite sure where to get out. We were thinking below the Maran confluence, but I think the very informative map I scanned at the Velinga bus station was wrong how it labeled the downstream tribs of the Maran and Chichas. We passed the obvious confluence coming in on river left (Chichas?) with a nice road bridge directly upstream (as my intuition was screaming) and town of Chaucalla? thinking we still had a few km's to go before the Maran and then a few more km's before getting out and a ride to the town of Iquipi. We never found the confluence we were looking for and began thinking that last one was the Maran. After this main confluence on the left the roads basically disappeared along with most of the civilization. From here it was 25-30 km's of increasing head winds and a crazy myriad of braided channels and fishing gear posted up in the river bed to catch the river shrimp (camarones) the Cotahuasi is famous for.

flats, baby

a nice day hut fishermen use to rest and store gear and things

A half hour after passing that confluence (which must've been the Maran) we resided to the fact we were going to paddle all the way to Iquipi. We were stoked on the adventure part of that decision, as we all felt a bit lost out there among the endless gravel bars, channels and fishermen. It truly was a surreal landscape. As the km's ticked by (170km's from Velinga to Iquipi) we would pass fisherman and their dogs every so often. I was out in the lead at one point during the afternoon and wandered down a series of channels, obviously channelizing into something very manmade. As I paddled past a father and son deep in a big set of traps, I waved and said hello. The father smiled, but the son had a worried look on his face and as I paddled past he turned quickly to his father with a fearful look on his face. I wondered what kind of trap I was about to get myself into. In a short amount of time I realized it was time to get out. With no eddies whatsoever I grabbed onto some rocks and was able to pull myself and boat out of the channel just before dropping into the perfect shrimp cachement. Had I floated into the thing I'm sure I would've drowned. After that I kept a keener eye out where I was going, but there were so many more traps and close calls I knew it had to be about time to get out and Iquipi must be near. It was kind of amazing the fishery they had transformed the river into. There were also massive jetties along river left which allowed these channels to flow with more water and subsequently produce more shrimp.

look out kids, it's a shrimp trap

a massive set of shrimp traps

Eventually, Mira was told by some fishermen we were at the best place to get out to get to Iquipi. We could see a town from the river and had glimpses of this town for the past 20-30 minutes. Finally, with this advice, we climbed out and scrambled up to the top of the jetty, battling the wind with our loaded kayaks and soaking wet gear. As we changed into dryer clothes and sorted our plan the fishermen told us to wait there as they crossed the river to come to us. A surreal scene, indeed. We were in the middle of the valley on the jetty. On the right was the river and the valley walls were the sites of gold mining activity. On the left side was agriculture and many trees and shrubs. About a mile away as the crow flew and on the other side of the valley was the town of Iquipi. It was going to be a very long walk with our kayaks in the wind and so Mira, after the fishermen got up to us, went with them to find a taxi. Eventually we got picked up and to our amusement (and parr for the course for this epic trip), were driven straight into the town square where the annual Camarones Festival was just getting underway!!! It was about 5 in the afternoon and we had just become the local celebrities somehow. Immediately we were whisked into the town hall, fed platefuls of fresh camarones and ceviche as locals came in one after the other to take pictures with us. We ate it all and helped them continue in the celebration! Such a good time. 

the children of Iquipi

our fun, self-designated "host" for the evening, Carlos

yes, it's a statue of a shrimp in the town square

a local who had begun his celebrating much earlier in the day, posing with Pavlina

As we realized this was probably the best turn of events we could have hoped for, Mira, Pavlina and I settled in to the fun of the evening before the bus would roll through town and take us back to Arequipa. They had an epic sound system set up blasting great music, by the time we had arrived. Carlos served us Pisco pretty much nonstop into the evening and as it got later (of course the bus was late) the band finally came out on stage ready to rock the whole town! Man, if you aren't in love with Peru by now I don't know what to say.

These adventures seemed to be rewarded by really fun festivals and people as we finished each one. I couldn't have been more happy. The bus finally rolled through town about 10pm. As we scrambled to get our kayaks in, it was obvious the thing was pretty full. Once it stopped we started to load our boats, but pretty quickly it became obvious... the boats weren't going to fit inside. And the driver wasn't going to let us strap them to the roof without a rack on top. Shit.

We worked on a couple leads to no avail. As we're sitting there two girls walked by looking at us. I jumped up and followed, asking them if they might be going to Arequipa in the morning because we were looking for a ride. Surprisingly, they said they could give us a ride. Score!! I got a number and we were ready to leave the next morning at 4!

After "sleeping" in the worst hostel I've ever slept in we were outside waiting at quarter til. Wouldn't you know it... a pretty black Toyota Hilux rolled up. Double score. We loaded up and were on the way to the next major town where we caught a ride on a combi and were back in Arequipa around noon!! Sometimes, as this trip has proven over and over, just when you think it isn't going to work out... try. Again. The extra effort always pays dividends of richer rewards and greater satisfaction of a job well earned. Beyond stoked to get these two rivers and to get to paddle with new friends I'll be linking up with in Ecuador. It's been a hell of a trip so far and I can't wait to see what the next month and a half hold as I leave for Ecuador in the morning. Cheer y'all.

la iglesia en Iquipi

sunset from Iquipi

this kid was playing soccer with an empty two-liter bottle as the band rocked

high above Cotahuasi Canyon

so majestic