At 3400m deep and over 100km long, the Cotahuasi Canyon in Peru is quite a sight – yet it’s rarely visited by foreign tourists. It’s so remote – a ten-hour drive by private vehicle – that few travellers have heard of it, let alone made it this far. While researching The Rough Guide to Peru, Kiki Deere delved into its depths to explore a near-untouched land.
“Te va a gustar, verás” [“You will like it, you’ll see”], my guide Edwin smiled, patting me on the back, before packing me off with one of his expert drivers.
It was early on a Thursday at sunrise when I found Carlos – a man of portly presence with a surprisingly gentle voice – waiting for me outside my hotel. At that time of the morning the streets of Arequipa were bathed in a gentle light.
Set at the foot of the active El Misti volcano, this UNESCO World Heritage city is home to some of the country’s finest colonial buildings, many of which are constructed from sillar, a white volcanic stone.
The surrounding area couldn’t be more different, punctuated by deep canyons, majestic volcanoes and spectacular gushing rivers. And as we drove through the outskirts of the city, the landscape started taking on a new appearance.
Dry barren expanses stretched into the distance, our car raising clouds of dust as we bumped our way along a potholed road. From arid dusty terrain the countryside soon took on an otherworldly appearance, peppered with small craters and large rocks covered in what appeared to be olive-green moss.
“About 100km in that direction you could be on Mars”, exclaimed Carlos as he pointed out the window, hot dry air gushing into the car. He was referring to the Valley of the Volcanoes that lay east of us, a lunar landscape dotted with extinct craters and the dormant Mount Coropuna, the country’s highest volcano.
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We occasionally stopped off at dusty remote towns to stretch our legs and refuel; our odyssey to the world’s deepest canyon continued well into the afternoon. By about 3pm we had finally entered the Cotahuasi Reserve, home to twelve ecosystems covering areas between 900m and 6063m above sea level. It aims to safeguard the unique species of flora and fauna that inhabit its geographical landscape.
As we entered the reserve, our 4×4 climbed up a steep paved road that hugged the mountainside, snaking through rocky terrain sprinkled with greenery. I peered out my dusty window as our car bounced its way down a track. Far below us I could make out the Cotahuasi River slicing its way through two mountain massifs, the Coropuna and the Sulimana, both towering over the ravine.
At its deepest point the canyon reaches 3535m into the earth – slightly deeper than the nearby Colca Canyon, and nearly twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the USA.
We overnighted in the settlement of Cotahuasi, a remote town at 2684m, its cobbled streets lined with whitewashed houses fronted by crumbling wooden balconies. A rumbling motorbike or the odd tractor occasionally disturbed the town’s quiet streets – it was a peaceful, composed little place where life has changed little over the last few centuries.
After 379km and ten hours travelling, however, my legs were numb and exhausted, and I was relieved just to collapse into bed.
The next day I awoke to a crisp morning with a cobalt blue sky. We hopped into the car and drove deep down into the canyon itself along a small, winding track.
The sun’s warming rays hadn’t yet reached the valley below; the two walls of the canyon stood guard, proud and majestic, casting their shadows over the river that flowed between them.
We drew up along the side of the road and walked for the last few hundred metres to reach the Sipia waterfall, one of the area’s most impressive sights.
The sound of the pounding water was audible from a fair distance, growing more intense as we approached.
Standing by the waterfall, we cried out to one another to make ourselves heard, the water drowning our voices as we watched it tumble 150m, creating a spectacular gorge.
From Sipia, we zigzagged our way back up the dirt track and along a mountainside carved with vegetable terraces. Covering an area of about 100 square kilometres, they serve as testament to the harmony between humankind and nature in this remote part of the country.
These pre-Inca agricultural terraces are also still in use today, with crops of quinoa, dark maize, beans and peas that supply the local province. The gentle people of the Cotahuasi have preserved age-old traditions and customs here; farmers use ancient tools and manifest ancestral rituals to protect the land and bring abundant harvests.
We drove on amid awe-inspiring mountains with ragged walls, passing through small towns lined with traditional houses. Colonial churches with gold-leaf altars stood proud in the main plazas.
I couldn’t help but think how resolute the Spanish colonial missionaries must have been, building such isolated settlements and reaching out to people in the remotest corners of the country – even the world’s deepest canyon.
Explore more of Peru with The Rough Guide to Peru. All images by Kiki Deere, with exception of “Sipia Waterfall” and “Cotahuasi Canyon” via Robert Harding. Getting there: Pablo Tour is a reliable well-established company operating tours to the Cotahuasi Canyon and the Valley of the Volcanoes. Where to stay: Hotel Valle Hermoso is a pleasant guesthouse with rooms giving onto a lovely garden area with avocado, orange and fig trees and a couple of grazing llamas. Where to eat: Linda Cotahuasina offers tasty home cooked meals rustled up by friendly owner Carmen; she will happily cater for vegetarians, too.