Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Cañon de Cotahuasi - Deepest Canyon in the World

Kara, Jess, and I at 13,000 feet, El Bosque de Piedras, Cañon de Cotahuasí
In the latest version of Lonely PLanet Peru, there are two or three pages devoted to Cañon de Colca, one of the deepest canyons in the world, the second deepest to be exact. What to do, where to stay and eat, and all the prices. They make it easy not to get lost...which is most of the fun. Just to enter the canyon, you need to pay a boleto tourismo, or a "tourism ticket," of S60 or S70 (roughly $28). That´s 3x our budget per person per day of ten dollars each. Ouch. All the tour agencies in Arequipa try to sell tourists and backpackers on the Colca Canyon and most foreigners and Peruvians alike take a tour or at least go solo to experience the canyon. I´m sure it´s amazing and it should be considering the cost to visit it. Peru is very good at realizing what gringos want to see and making them pay for it. It´s Capitalism! The canyon´s location, a three hour ride from Arequipa, makes it easily accessible as well.

There is another canyon mentioned in Lonely Planet, with only half a page devoted to it. El Cañon de Cotahuasí, the deepest canyon in the world. Twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. The book says a twelve hour, bumpy and uncomfortable overnight bus will get you there and only a handful of adventurous travelers go. Say No More. No boleto tourismo (not yet at least) and the traditional canyon culture that is untainted by mass tourism. We caught an overnight bus for S32, fairly comfortable until halfway through when the bus crests a high Andean pass upwards of 4,000 meters (around 13,000 feet above sea level). Dark, in the middle of the night, the bouncing bus felt like the moon rover. At one point, we hit a huge bump on the right side of the bus, immediately followed by a crater and bump on the left side sending the bus hurtling from side to side nearly tipping over, a few Peruanos screaming towards the front for the driver to take it easy, tranquilo. When locals scream and yell as the bus tips from side to side, you know it´s bad. I look out, as best I can, each side of the bus to see if there´s surrounding land or if we´re on the side of a mountain. I figure if there´s land, we can survive a tipped bus with only minor injuries. But if we´re on the side of the mountain, one of these craters could send us flying to a certain death. I think I saw land on both sides. 

We arrived in Cotahuasi before dawn and found a hostal to check into and go back to sleep. Most places with tourists, if you try to check-in before dawn, even one hour, they will charge you for an extra night. In Cotahuasi, we asked before agreeing to a room and the owner said, un regalo, "a gift." Untainted canyon hospitality. We fell asleep quickly, making up for the lack of sleep on the bus. 

It´s always interesting and a surprise to arrive somewhere at night, not sure what´s surrounding you. It is kind of like waking up on Christmas as a child to find a foot of snow where green grass had been the day before. I woke up and went to the sink on the roof of the hostal to fill our water bottles. Holy Mary, Mother of Jesus! We were in it. Huge green mountains surrounded the tiny town. Waterfalls cascaded from the unseen heavens above. Blue sky and sunshine lit the peaks miles in every direction. We are in the Temple of God, I thought to myself. Pachamamma, the heart of Mother Earth. Kara and Jess came up and we all began laughing. Look at where we are! This is our life right now. Every cell in my body is breathing, vibrating, smiling. We are alive, to the true meaning of the word. What have I done to deserve such blessedness? What have I done to deserve the woman next to me, beautiful and so full of love? I am overwhelmed by love and joy. 

We contain our excitement enough to wander the town, snapping photos off every five seconds. We find a tourist information office and stop in to ask about how to go about visiting the Catarata de Sipia, a waterfall, los pueblos de Velinga, Pampamarca, and the hot springs. We get maps and bus times and decide to take the 6:30 AM bus the next morning to the Sipia falls, then trek for three hours through the canyon to the village of Velinga and stay the night. For the rest of the day, we wander, catch a delicious lunch of rocotto relleno con pastel de papas, stuffed hot pepper with scalloped potatoes, a typical dish of the region. We make arrangements with our hostal to leave most of our stuff so we don´t have to hike with unnecessary gear. We will be back in a couple days. Again, in places where there´s hardly any tourism, you do not have to worry about people stealing you belongings. 

The hour or so ride to the trail head of the waterfall is the most beautiful drive I´ve ever experienced. Weaving back and forth down switchbacks on a dirt road, the canyon stretching out in front of you around every bend. Small fincas growing vegetables and fruit on terraced fields and plateaus using the same landscape and irrigation techniques used by the Incas 500 years ago. The road passes over over the Cotahuasi river twice before arriving at the trail head. The bus, full of vibrantly dressed women in the traditional high Andes clothing with straw hats or bowler hats, colorful pieces of fabric on their backs to carry fruit and supplies or babies or both. Dark, furrowed creases through their faces, each one silently telling a different story of hard work and family in the canyon. We get off at the trail head, the bus continuing on, the men and women returning to their pueblos and fincas to continue working the Earth with stiff hands, smiles and missing teeth. 

The trail to the waterfall is easy and not far. The rushing water gets squeezed through a tight bottleneck in the  canyon and takes a violent drop throwing mist up through the lower canyon, a rainbow refracting in the rays of sunshine. We get trigger happy with our cameras, pictures from a distance, then close up, trying not to slip on the wet, smooth rocks to a quick death. When we hike back to the dirt road, Kara and I stop occasionally searching for rocks to bring back to our niece and nephew, rocks from the DEEPEST CANYON IN THE WORLD!

Deep in the canyon, the environment is desert. The towering peaks rising 10,000 feet around us turn from burnt orange and red to green the higher your eyes follow. Some waterfalls pour down the sides of the canyon, eroding away the path of least resistance, creating green veins of life in the middle of the red and orange cliffs with cactus clinging to any resemblance of flat ground. We hike down the same road that the bus travels, slowly winding and rising away from the river below. As we hike further up, the river takes on its    classic snake feature, meandering back and forth, looking effortless, yet one of the most powerful forces on Earth, carving out mountains, sanding stones smooth. 

Along the way, we pass through a couple of small fincas of tunas, a red fruit growing on cactus, maize morado, the purple sweet corn used to brew chicha, the sweet fermented drink common throughout Peru. Oranges, guayaba, chirimoya, and palta (avocados). Although the environment is desert canyon, waterfalls from the high fertile green peaks pours down the sides of the rock faces used for irrigating the orchards and fields. Not much has changed here since Inca times and before. Same fruit, same day to day work, even nearly the same buildings, created and put together from the canyon´s own stone. 

Past the fincas, we trek through el Bosque de Cactus Judiopampa, a forest of long spined cacti reaching fifteen to twenty feet in height. The road ends at a turn around where the bus goes no further. There are a couple of shacks with women cooking for people coming from and going to Velinga. We were told, at the end of the road there is a trail that leads to Velinga. We were not told that the trail descends precipitously down a cliff then precipitously back up another steep cliff. We had begun chewing coca leaves throughout  the three hour trek to help curb the effects of altitude sickness and fatigue. Coca leaves, contrary to the stance of the United States of America government, are not cocaine. Nothing close to it. The people of the high Andes have been chewing coca leaves for thousands of years. There is no "high" from chewing the leaves, only a reduction of high altitude symptoms and fatigue. To take coca leaves and produce the narcotic, cocaine, the leaves need to be soaked in kerosene until they turn into a brown mush, then they are mixed and soaked with sulfuric acids and petroleum or something similar. I can promise those who believe that the plant equals the drug, that I could take basil or daisies and soak them in kerosene, sulfuric acid and gasoline and create something that you could put up your nose and feel high, though I wouldn´t and 
wouldn´t recommend it. The U.S. government and the D.E.A. believe the best way to combat drugs, specifically cocaine, is to spray poisoness chemicals in the pristine high Andes of South America, specifically Bolivia, to eradicate the cultivation of the plant completely. Never mind that it´s considered sacred by the people, part of their cultural heritage, offered in ceremonies to Pachamamma, the Earth Goddess. None of this goes into consideration when a "developed" nation has a drug problem. Why don´t we combat the use of prescription drugs to mask the problems of a culture of consumption. We don´t exercise...so we take pills to lose weight. We can´t sleep or we´re depressed from genetic engineered plants or hormone induced meat, so we take pills. Pharmaceutical companies make millions of dollars making the general public believe they NEED this or that, never mind the side effects which are often more dangerous that the original problem. I´ve been through this before. We, as Americans, have our own cultural heritage and we would be damned if a foreign government came around and said guess what, we don´t want you doing this or that. It´s absurd. 

So...from the end of the road, we started down the steep trail, crossing the tributary heading towards el río Cotahuasi, then back up the steep switchbacks to the pueblo. My right knee had been flaring up in a bit of pain during our hike down from Kuélap near Chachapoyas a month ago, and it was flaring up again after three hours of trekking. It´s nothing serious I´m sure, just that we have not been doing that many long treks on this trip and my muscles have been tight from so many long bus rides. What it comes down to is that I need to stretch more. Period. After an hour hiking up the cliff face we reached the pueblo of Velinga, wondering if we were in the right place of if we´d stumbled upon the ruins of an ancient village. Not a soul seemed to be around. The stone buildings had no roofs and weeds and trees and maïze were growing from their sunlit centers. Finally we saw a man bringing his donkeys down the mountain and asked where the Hostal Velinga was. He told us to head to the center of town. 

We found the hostal and were greeted by the wife of Ignacio. She showed us our room where we quickly collapsed onto the beds (surprisingly the bed was one of the most comfortable beds and pillows our whole trip). Starving, after only eating a banana and some bread during our four hour trek, we asked if there was lunch (this was around 2:30 PM). She said no (even though they knew we were coming), but dinner would be around 5 PM. Sleep it is! We all took a nap for a couple hours until dinner was ready. It was a delicious hot soup with quinoa and locally grown potatoes, carrots, squash, and peas with a hock of beef made the same way as it´s always been since Inca times. Our plate was rice with a squash based stew. My body needed it. A cup of hot tea to finish dinner off and we were feeling alive again. I asked Ignacio how old the village was and he said it´s been around since well before the Spanish colonized Perú. A few of the homes had solar panels for light and Ignacio´s home/hostal had the only satellite powered phone, the only contact with outside Perú in the village. Other than these two modern advances, the village has largely been untouched and unchanged in 500 years. Spanish is their second language as well as ours. Quechúa, the language of the Incas is their first and still spoken throughout Perú, Bolivia, and Ecuador in indigenous populations. They cook over an open fire. They work in the same terraced fields as their Inca ancestors did before them. We stayed up for a bit chatting away with Ignacio and his wife about tourism in el cañon de Cotahuasi, the good and bad effects of it. He loves the simple life of Velinga. Most people live simply off what they grow, selling any surplus fruit and veggies in Cotahuasi when they can. "Simplify! Simplify! Simplify!" as Thoreau put it so wisely in Walden. (Ignacio is in the 2010 Perú Lonely Planet. Backpackers and trekkers can rent a gas stove from him and camp down by the river for S10 a night. The hostal has been up and coming since the last edition was published) 

We woke up around 7 to the sun lighting up the canyon like Nature´s cathedral. We thanked Ignacio and his wife and they gave us some avocados, guayabas, and chirimoyas as gifts for our hike back to where the road begins. We snacked on the fruit while waiting for the bus back to Cotahuasi. Two and a half hours later, we were back, laughing and smiling and overjoyed by the beauty that surrounded us. 

At 4 PM we took the two hour bus to Pampamarca, a town tucked on a plateau higher in the canyon. From Pampamarca, we could take a trek up some more steep switchback trails to 13,000 ft to see el Bosque de Piedras Hulto, a series of eroded rock formations overlooking the canyon which locals have likened to mystical figures. We arrived in Pampamarca after dark, found a room and made guacamole sandwiches and spent some time in our freezing cold room writing in our journals before bed. 

My alarm rang on my watch at 4:50 AM. Our plan was to leave around 5 for the two hour, mas o menus, hike to the rock forest in the hope of seeing Andean Condors around 7 or 8 when the sun hits the canyon and creates thermals for the condors to make their rise. We packed our bags with water, coca leaves, bread, avocados, binoculars (Thank you German guy who accidentally left his nice binocs in Iquitos, which I found) and of course our battery-charged cameras. Out the door just after five, it was dark for our first hour or so before the still cloudy skies turned from black to dark blue. We walked up the road until a sign post marked the beginning of the trail. It said, El Bosque de Piedras, 3km, max altuda 4000 meters asl (+13,000 ft). This would be the highest hike I´ve ever done. From the trail, there is a split and we stayed to the right thanks to some information from a French girl who we met the night before. There is no mark to stay right and the real trail is thinner and looks less used. Had we not met the backpacking chica we would have stayed on the larger trail, never reached the rock forest or ruins and hiked for seven hours. (A guy from Poland we met did just that, seven hours to nowhere)

pottery fragments inside ruins near El Bosque de Piedras
Up, and further up we strode. The sun´s rays lit the tops of our mountain but the clouds lingered if not grew in the area of sky they covered. Maybe the skies wouldn´t clear. Near the top, Jessica spotted a pile of rocks with an opening, the rocks clearly placed by humans precariously on the side of a cliff. Inside to our amazement were human bones. This was an ancient burial mound! The bones spread out, no longer in their proper alignment had at least two sets of human remains, two skulls with their craniums cracked open, either from their death (possible sacrifice to Pachamamma) or from the rocky grave collapsing throughout time. This was amazing. Another mound up the trail had a crushed skull in it as well, weeds of tall grass growing from the open crater. The trail split, left going up to the rock forest, right to what looked like more ruins. We explored the ruins, stone circles which once must have been dwellings. How old must these have been?! High grasses and bushes obscured most of the ancient village on the side of the cliff. Who lived here? When? We found pottery shards, red and broken. None that we found bore markings of advanced civilizations. I found an intact handle of a clay vessel. I felt like Indiana Jones (Kara is laughing when she´ll read this). I wish I had the means of carbon dating the pottery or the bones. What secrets lie beneath these stones? Above 12,500 feet and the energy of this place was surging through my blood. Sure, others had been here before but not many. It felt like it was our discovery. 

From the ruins, we hit the main trail again and climbed the last leg to the sandy rock forest. The rocks, eroded pointed cones, dominated the upper portion of the mountain. By 8 in the morning, the sun´s power burnt away the clouds and we had a million dollar view. Fertile green fields terraced the steep slopes of the valley and canyon below. Along the southern horizon, the top layer of the deepest canyon in the world was lined with snow capped volcanoes and mountains, topping out about 6000 meters. We were the only people there. It was as if the entire canyon was our personal playground. My camera kept saying its battery was dead but I knew if was just the cold and the altitude. A little time in a warm pocket and it was full again. We had breakfast at 13,000 feet of bread and avocados. Nothing could make this morning any better. 

We were wrong. Looking down the trail towards the ruins we had just explored, three condors rose from the canyon beyond, wings spread, rising on the morning thermals as the rocks heated and warmed in the sun. Camera in one hand, binoculars in the other. This was our dream come true. These birds are sacred to the indigenous of the Andes, their feathers used by shamans and healers in traditional ceremonies. What the jaguar is in spiritual power to the people of the Amazon, the condor is to the high Andes. One of the majestic birds took a turn on his wings and flew right over my head, not 10 feet above me. I could feel the air pass over its wings. My camera clicked at the perfect moment and I had my picture. All around us was pure, untainted beauty. Sacred. I could cry describing it. No picture will do it justice (especially from my camera). I am at peace. 

We hiked back down, much quicker and easier on the lungs. Returning to our hostal (i.e. a woman´s house) we ate a huge lunch, so filling, so delicious, afterwards taking a nice three hour nap. We deserved it. Outside our hospedaje, there´s a volleyball net set up. The woman who runs the hospedaje/hostal asked us at lunch if we wanted to play later. We said of course, thinking it was going to be a friendly game of back and forth. After our nap, Rufina, the woman, knocks on our door and says Vamos a jugar volley! We head outside and it´s Kara, Jess, myself, and a local teenager against two men, a woman, and our cute hostal owner. She asks what we´re playing for? A bottle of soda? They wanted to make stakes for the game! We said we´d just play for fun. One of the women had clearly played organized ball before. She´s spiking and serving hard. They weren´t screwing around! Ha! So we play a match of three games and end up winning the second and third to take the match. By the second game, the rain had started and we were getting wet in the only clothes we brought and it´s FREEZING in the evening and at night. Everything else was in Cotahuasi. But the game was an unexpected competitive volleyball, a wonderful surprise. I loved it. 

It´s bitterly cold here at night. I don´t know what temperature it may be but it rains in the afternoon and evening so it can´t be below freezing but it´s awful close. Even when it is warm and sunny outside, it´s cold and dark indoors. Kara and I are splitting a single bed. S10 per bed (not per head) the way it should be makes this the cheapest place we´ve stayed yet, slightly less than $2 per person. But being frugal has its ups and downs, strikes and gutters, as the Dude says. The bed is small....and cold. I move a lot in my sleep, roll from side to side, normally not a problem...when it´s warmer. But the wool blankets tend to move with me pulling them (accidentally!!) from Kara. We both haven´t slept well here. 

Sleep or no sleep, or bad sleep, hasn´t thwarted us from rising early to get a head start on a beautiful hike or trek. This morning we left at 7 to hike down to some thermal baths flowing from the depths of the mountain. we asked some locals for directions (there´s two ways of getting there) and everyone seems to give the longer, harder and safer way of getting there. The faster, easier way is supposed to be very narrow at points, on the side of a cliff, and dangerous. Faster AND dangerous you say?! We´ll take that one! We were supposed to take the trail towards el Mirador de Oskune, a lookout over a beautiful waterfall. Where the trail splits, we should stay left and follow (i.e. find your way from there). Something about a canal, then down, down, down. So we head out down the trail and find what seems to be the split in the trail on the left. We start up this narrow rarely used trail bushwhacking through the brush and avoiding cacti. This doesn´t seem to be right but someone told us something along the likes of "up and over." This must be the up. We eventually reached a stone road. Not so much a road you could put a truck on (you couldn´t) but enough for a family and four donkeys hauling concrete bags to their fields to build a stone shelter or terraced wall. We had inadvertently 1: not found the right split in the trail and 2: somehow bushwhacked our way up a steep hill to the harder, longer way to the hot springs. Oh well. The hike down into the canyon was beautiful none the less. Every hillside had new or ancient terraced fields. Wildflowers of every color dotted the landscape and wouldn´t you know it, another condor walking from its cold slumber flew right over our heads! 

We kept heading down and more down until we could see the thermal pools below along side the río Pampamarca. We could see the steam rising from the confluence of the hot spring water hitting the raging river. Down the last set of switchbacks and we arrived to find a boy of nine years named Ricardo already soaking and swimming in the warm thermal water. We chatted and found out that Ricardo is from Pampamarca and he usually comes down to the springs every Saturday. Nine years old! Down a canyon 1-2 hours on his own. Can you imagine this in the States? We´ve become very conservative about the level of independence we give our children. I can remember taking my bike with my brother and best friend Jimmy on weekends down into the woods behind our housing development to explore the creek., the old snapping turtle pond with the rope swing and the abandoned farm house with the broken windows and a hole in the floor between the kitchen and the master bedroom (Of course we went in!). We would just tell our parents that we were heading into the woods. No cell phones, no parent-teacher chaperon. As long as we were home for dinner with our hands washed, all was O.K. It´s not the same now. At least here in Perú, in the deepest canyon in the world, that nine year old independence still thrives. 

The water was not as hot as we expected. It was more like a warm bath. But I hadn´t showered since Arequipa, at least a week ago (the shower water in the canyon is mind numbing!) and this seemed like heaven. We massaged our aching muscles and my aching knee (it´s getting better). Ricardo told us that the spring is heated from a volcano further up and beyond the rock forest where we were the day before. The distance through the mountain gives the water some time to cool down a bit. We spent a couple hours relaxing in the water, complacent with the fact that we would not be making it back to Pampamarca for the noon bus back to Cotahuasi. One more night it is! We snacked on some cookies and Ricardo pulled out a bag of tostadas, toasted corn kernels (delicious) and was generous to share some with the group of gringos. We promised him when we get back to town we´d buy him a couple snacks at the tienda. 

We headed out, slightly cleaner than we had arrived, Ricardo as our guide taking us back the easier, faster, more dangerous way. We passed through fertile and vivid green terraced fields before hugging rocks on the side of a cliff (the dangerous part) next to the amazing and impressive irrigation canal bringing water from streams and waterfalls further up the mountain down and around the cliffs to the fields below. You read about ancient irrigation techniques of the Incas at Macchu Picchu, or the Chachapoyas at Kuélap but you SEE it here. It´s honestly amazing. Reading about it does no justice. 

Our trail led us almost right to the lookout of Oskuné waterfall, only one more incredibly beautiful landscape scene in the most beautiful place I´ve ever experienced. We made it back to Pampamarca and had a typical dish of chicken, boiled potatoes, choclo corn on the cob, a larger kernel of corn commonly used as a base for ceviché, and some beans in a pod. We planned on catching the 6:30 AM bus the following morning back to Cotahuasi to see if we could bargain the price of renting horses for the day to take us to some other hot springs of Luicho and Lucha, upriver from Cotahuasi near the pueblos of Tomepampa and Alca. But first, one more freezing night. 

Best sleep in Pampamarca! I managed to 1: not have to pee in the middle of the night (a freezing endeavour) and 2: managed to keep the two wool blankets on all night, keeping me in a warm bubble of dead air. I woke up and ordered us three cups of coffee from Rufina before the 7 o´clock bus back to Cotahuasi. Rufina, who if I didn´t mention before is the cutest indigenous Peruvian woman on the planet, was also heading to the hot springs of Lucha. There are two thermal pools very near each other. One is Luicho, popular among locals and the other is Lucha, rarely used and as it turns out for us, FREE! Luicho has an entrance fee of S2 as of 2010´s Lonely Planet. 

We caught a colectivo (van) to Lucha for S2.50 which was constantly stopping to pick up more locals from the small pueblos and fincas along the way heading to Luicho for a nice Sunday soak. We got out at Lucha and hiked down to the thermal pools adjacent to the river. Snow capped mountains hung on the horizon like a tapestry on a wall. Though there was a gate to get in (it was open), no one was there or seemed to be there to take money to enter. Maybe just Sunday´s are free? There were two pools, but one was empty. The full one had hot water pouring into it from the mountain slope. So crystal clear you would think it was treated with chlorine. On the side facing the river, an exit pipe directed the flow towards the cold mountain flow. The pool was large enough that the pool temperature was slightly warm, with only the hot spot being while you sat just in front of the source of the pool. Even though the sun was out, you realized we´re still fairly high in altitude when you´d get out of the water and the air was COLD. 

We had lunch of sweet bread, similar to English muffins, and avocados, with the rest of our time spent sun bathing and thawing after three freezing nights in Pampamarca. We caught a bus back to Cotahuasi and took steaming hot showers! What a luxury. My first real wash in over ten days (again, don´t judge). We had dinner at our favorite old lady in town who always comes by our table afterwards and talks to us about the canyon, her life, or what type of dish we just ate. This night she explained the green thick soup with cheese we just had, a very common taste around here for pastas, soups, or a sauce for meat and veggies. 

Exhausted, we were in bed by 7:30, asleep by nine. 

Our last day in Cañon de Cotahuasí, sad to leave, we took an overnight bus back to Arequipa, 12 hours, then the first bus we could catch to Puno, Perú, sitting on Lake Titicaca. Puno is the border city with Bolivia. We were saddened to leave such a beautiful and magical place and unfortunately would miss the festival de Cotahuasi at the beginning of May featuring bullfights, traditional dancing and music and local artists, all the while partying all week. If we had more time, we could have spent a month easy in the canyon but we don´t so we can´t. 

Cañon de Cotahuasí, you are forever in my heart.

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