The Andes are the longest continental mountain range on Earth, stretching along the whole length of South America. This range reaches 7000 m altitude, and many of the other high peaks rise above 5000 m, in contrast to the nearby Pacific Coast. And it is some points, it is cut by deep canyons, like trenches on the surface of the planet. One of them is Cotahuasi Canyon- a spectacular abyss with giant steep slopes, surrounded by snowcapped mountains. Let’s go on a journey to Cotahuasi and get the best of it!
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Basic facts about Cotahuasi Canyon
Open the physical map of Peru. Here you can see the Andean mountain range along the Pacific coast of South America. And if you zoom at the southern part of the country, you can see two deep trenches that cut the mountains. These are two giant canyons. The southeastern one is called Colca, and the northwestern one is Cotahuasi.
Look at the satellite map of the Andes. Their giant mountains are quite high, with peaks reaching more than 5000, even 6000 m altitude. And there are some glacial lakes scattered here and there.
One of these lakes, located at about 4700 m altitude is called Wansuqucha (or Huanso). The lake is not closed, but its waters exit through a small stream called Cotahuasi. It is like many other streams in the high mountain, but this one is destined to cut the mountain ridges deeper and deeper, forming one of the largest canyons in the world.
Cotahuasi River is about 130 km long. It starts from 4700 m (Lake Huanso) and reaches a larger river, called Ocona at 910 m near the town of Chaucalla. In fact, here the canyons of Cotahuasi and Ocona merge into one valley that reaches the Pacific Ocean at the town of Ocona.
How long is Cotahuasi Canyon? It is difficult to say because the river flows almost entirely on the bottom of a canyon-type valley. So, it doesn’t have a clear starting and ending point. In fact, the canyon terrain proceeds further downward on the Ocona River, and it remains as such until its mouth at the Pacific Ocean.
But how about its depth? It is clearer. The deepest point of Cotahuasi Canyon is located in the village of Quechualla (between the town of Cotahuasi and the merging point with the Ocona River). Here the bottom is at 1580 m altitude while the highest edge is at 5115 m, near the top of Mount Solimana (6093 m). With that altitude difference- 3535 m, it is the third deepest canyon on the Earth, slightly deeper than its southeastern neighbor Colca Canyon.
Terrain and nature
The area around Cotahuasi Canyon is spectacular. And you can imagine- the lowest point of the canyon (without its extension of Ocona River valley further downwards) is below 1000 m while the highest point in the area is Mount Coropuna (6425 m), located in the middle between Cotahuasi and Colca canyons. That’s more than a 5 km elevation difference!
And this is what you can see on the satellite map- a giant trench with a bit smaller branch (Ocona Canyon) like a cut on the Andean mountain range. This area is covered by 12 ecosystems- from a mountainous subtropical type of landscape to ice caps like in Antarctica. Today, this is protected by the establishment of the Cotahuasi Natural Reserve.
At the same time, this elevation difference speaks about an extremely difficult terrain. Yet this place has been inhabited for thousands of years…
History and local culture
Cotahuasi Canyon and the area around it are difficult to access. So, the people, their culture, and their traces from ancient times have remained well-preserved here. You can see petroglyphs, tombs, and other artifacts from Pre-Inca and Inca times, as well as some Spanish influence from the colonial period.
Nowadays, the population here consists mainly of native ethnic groups, descendants of the ancient people. You can see their lifestyle which hasn’t changed much since ancient times. In the lower elevations, they work mainly on agriculture- you can see the terrace fields on the steep slopes they’ve made, and these terraces exist for centuries. And in higher elevations they raise livestock.
So, all of the facts above is a very attractive reason to visit and explore Cotahuasi Canyon. But before we get into detail, let’s make a comparison.
Cotahuasi vs Colca
Both Cotahuasi and Colca belong to the largest canyons in the world. They are quite close to each other, in the same mountain range, with similar landscapes, and similar cultures. If you can visit them all, that would be the best, although most probably after you have visited one of them, visiting the second one would look like a useless “repetition” of the first visit.
Yet there are some differences. First, Colca is much more famous and touristy. As a result, it is much better developed for tourists, with better roads, more resorts, hotels, restaurants, parking lots, panoramic terraces, and more. It is closer to the large city of Arequipa and can be much more easily accessed.
On the other side, Cotahuasi is much wilder and off the beaten. There is only one road that reaches the canyon from the “civilization”, not without many hours of adventurous traveling, and tourism in general is much less developed. As a result, only a few tourists go there.
So, we can say that Colca is for tourists and adventurous travelers, but Cotahuasi is only for the latter type of people. If you are looking for something untouched, authentic, wild, and adventurous, far from crowds- choose Cotahuasi instead of Colca!
How to explore Cotahuasi Canyon
Unlike the neighboring Colca Canyon, Cotahuasi doesn’t have clear “starting and ending” points. The valley of the Cotahuasi River is canyon-shaped almost along its entire length. Besides, the canyon is much more difficult to access- there is only one normal starting point for exploring the canyon, and this can be your “base camp”. This is the town of Cotahuasi.
And the best way to explore Cotahuasi Canyon is to follow its length upstream (upward from the town of Cotahuasi), and downstream (downward from this town), reaching various points of interest on the way.
Points of interest
Let’s start from the town of Cotahuasi
The town of Cotahuasi is very small, the only settlement in the area that has some tourism. It is established on the southern slope of the canyon, at about 2670 m altitude. It has some hotels, hostels, and lodges, as well as some restaurants with local food and souvenir shops. Here you can taste the local culture while you walk on its narrow streets. And at some points, you can get some spectacular views of the Cotahuasi Canyon.
Right here, north of the town, there is a branch of Cotahuasi Canyon- a “sub-canyon” formed by the Pampamarca River, a right tributary of the Cotahuasi River. And it is worth exploring too, before start following the main course of the main canyon.
Pampamarca River source is located north of Cotahuasi. Its starts from around 4700 m altitude and flows southward. Most of its course is on a soft high mountain valley, and only the lowest 20 km before it merges with the Cotahuasi River is canyon-shaped.
The main point here is the village of Pampamarca. It is connected by a dirt mountain road that winds up to the northern rim of the canyon into the high plateau. You can reach it by local taxi (or your own 4×4 vehicle) after about 20 km ride- for between 40 to 80 min, depending on the conditions.
Once you reach this village, it can be your starting point for hiking. There are three points of interest in this area, accessible by the hike (this hiking area is called Pata Capilla:
- Eastern panoramic terrace and Uscuni Falls. This is the easiest and shortest hike from Pampamarca. It goes east of the village and guides you (about 1 km) to a small panoramic point with a bench. From here, you can enjoy a stunning view of Pampamarca Canyon, and you can see a waterfall on the other side of the canyon, called Uscuni.
- Bosque de Piedras de Huito. This is an area with weird rock formations that look like conical towers. They raise on the top of a ridge over the canyon and are accessible by a 3km steep winding trail, from 3370 m (the village) to the rock formations at 3950 m.
- Qoslla Thermal Baths. This is a small lodge with a mineral spring. There is a small pool with hot water (occasionally closed), located at the bottom of Pampamarca Canyon. It can be reached by another trail from the village, about 3 km long.
If you want to explore more of this small “sub-canyon”, you can proceed on the trail to Qoslla, but turn left on another trail before reaching the thermal baths. This trail will lead you to the high areas of the canyon until finally you reach the village of Tecca. Have in mind that it is not touristy. It is wild and used only by locals and adventurous hikers.
Downward from Cotahuasi Town
The bottom of the canyon under the town of Cotahuasi is at 2500 m altitude. From here, the wild river descends downwards and the canyon gets deeper. Another dirt road descends from the town to the bottom of the canyon, then branches to three other roads (first on the right, and a bit further- on the left).
The right and left roads lead you to the edges of both sides of the canyon (and they are good for mountain biking). But you follow the middle one, following the river. Soon, you will reach one of the most popular attractions in Cotahuasi Canyon- Sipia Waterfalls.
This is the highest and most impressive waterfall in Cotahuasi Canyon. Here the Cotahuasi River drops spectacularly from a height of 150 m into a crack-shaped point of the canyon. The waterfall is about 10 km from the town of Cotahuasi on the dirt roads described above. A small trail starts on the right side of the dirt road and descends to a panoramic terrace in front of the waterfall.
Judiopampa Cactus Forest
Back to the main dirt road, then proceed following the Cotahuasi River downstream. After about 12 km (passing through the village of Rosariopampa) you will see an area with tall cactuses (some rising to 10 m). This is one of the cactus “forests” in the canyon. The cactuses add some weird nuance to the landscape and it is a great place for photos.
The dirt road proceeds downwards. The next village is Velinga, a tranquil settlement full of native culture. Then, another 10 km of the road leads you to Quechualla (on the way, you will see another cactus forest). Here is the deepest point of Cotahuasi Canyon. You can’t really see it from the bottom, but if you hike up on the slopes on the trails around, you will see the whole canyon in its most magnificent image.
Quechualla is another nice native village that has even some tourist features- a restaurant and a hostel. It is located in a vineyard area, and there are some ancient Wari ruins nearby.
Here the dirt road ends, at 1580 m altitude. The river proceeds further downwards, but there are no roads following it. There aren’t even hiking trails (only narrow, dangerous paths here and there, used by locals). So, if you want to follow the Cotahuasi Canyon further, it is possible only by wild canyoneering.
However, two trails start from here and ascend upward to the edges of the canyon. The trail on the right (northward) ascends to Pichuilla- another ancient site. Then it proceeds to the canyon’s edge and reaches the village of Charcana.
And the other trail ascends to the village of Huachay, on the other side of the canyon, and proceeds further to Marpo. Then another trail descends again to Cotahuasi River at Yachau Oasis. From here, you can follow the bottom of the canyon again until you reach the Ocona River at Chaucalla.
Now, let’s back to the town of Cotahuasi.
Upward from Cotahuasi Town
Here the canyon is better arranged. There is a paved road that follows it to the village of Pallanguiri (almost until the upper end of the canyon-shaped part of the Cotahuasi River) before it leaves it and ascends to the highlands in the north.
And there are several points of interest worth visiting. The area also offers some other hiking opportunities.
Drive (or get local transport) 13 km on the road. Then turn left on a narrow dirt road that crosses the river and ascend for another 10 km to the village of Huaynacotas (there is another Huaynacotas far north from here, don’t confuse it with it). On the way, the road winds like a serpent on the steep slope, revealing breathtaking views of the canyon.
Once you reach the village (at 3300 m altitude), you can proceed hiking on the dirt road (or by 4×4 vehicle), until you reach the edge between Cotahuasi and Pampamarca canyons. Here is Mt Llamoja (4522 m)– a spectacular peak revealing fantastic views, with ruins of an ancient sanctuary.
Not far from it (actually, about 1 km before Llamoja), you can enjoy another stunning rock formation- the Martian-colored rock towers of Huarmunta.
Thermal baths of Luicho
Back to the main road and proceed on it. On the 17th km, you will reach another popular point in the Cotahuasi Canyon- the thermal baths of Luicho. They are established around hot water sources with temperature between 33 and 38°C and consists of three pools (two outdoor and one indoor). There is also a restaurant, a toilet, and some other facilities. Entrance to the pools: 6 sol.
Not far from the thermal baths is the village of Alca- a picturesque place, full of local culture, a great place to relax.
The ancient ruins of Maucallacta and Puyca village
Proceed further on the road, following the canyon. The next point of interest is located on the 42nd km from the town of Cotahuasi. This is the most spectacular ancient ruins in the canyon- the ruins of Maucallacta.
These ruins date from pre-Inca times. They were a citadel built by the Wari people who occupied the area for thousands of years. Today, they are the best-preserved ruins in the area. They can be reached by a short but steep hike with more spectacular views.
Lauripampa and further upward
From Puyca, the road proceeds upward, following the river, until finally it leaves the canyon at 4200 m. Only small trails proceed further. Here the valley gets softer and gradually changes its landscape into high-altitude tundra-covered mountains. You can see here and there some scattered villages with locals raising livestock- alpacas and llamas.
This area is known as Lauripampa Plateau. If you proceed following these trails, finally you can reach Lake Huanso at Culipampa. This is the upper end of the Cotahuasi River and its canyon.
How to get to Cotahuasi Canyon
This is how the Cotahuasi Canyon itinerary would look like- the full itinerary would include these main points of interest described above. But first- how can you reach this canyon?
Transport for independent travelers
The best starting point for a journey to Cotahuasi Canyon is the city of Arequipa. If you are an independent traveler, you have two options to reach the town of Cotahuasi from there.
The first option is by bus. Three bus companies offer transport to Cotahuasi- Reyna, Alex, and Imaculada Concepcion. Each one of them has one bus per day from Arequipa to Cotahuasi:
- Reyna bus departs at 19:00 and arrives in Cotahuasi the next day at around 3:50 in the morning. Price: from 35 sol
- Imaculada Concepcion bus departs again at 19:00 but is a bit faster and more expensive, usually arriving about 30 min earlier. Price: from 40 sol
- Alex bus departs at 17:00 and is slower. It arrives around 5:00 am on the next day. Price: from 30 sol.
The second option is by rental car. But have in mind that only the section until the town of Chiquibamba is paved. From Chiquibamba the road is dirt/gravel, and 4×4/combi is recommended. You can rent it from Arequipa. The road is again paved only around the town of Cotahuasi.
On the road to Cotahuasi
The whole road from Arequipa to Cotahuasi is 369 km. If you travel by car (which is a better option), you can start early in the morning and you can stop at several points of interest on the road:
- Toro Muerto– a historical landmark with more than 1000 years old petroglyphs, dated from the pre-Inca period. They are located about 160 km from Arequipa.
- Diaz Waterfall– an attractive waterfall, located near the edge of Salamanca Canyon (a side canyon connected to the Ocona River valley. It is located on the 271st km from Arequipa.
- View of Mount Coropuna. Mt Coropuna (6426 m) is a dormant snow-capped volcano, and you can enjoy magnificent views of its peak on the right side of the road.
- View of Mount Solimana. While the road approaches Cotahuasi, it leaves the area around Coropuna and passes northeast of Solimana. The views of the Andean plateau and Mt Solimana is another spectacular moment.
Cotahuasi Canyon itineraries
If you visit all of the points of interest, described above, it will give you a full impression of the Cotahuasi Canyon. But it requires about two weeks! Only 5 to 7 days would be the exploration of the downstream of the canyon (downward from the town of Cotahuasi), and another week for the upstream.
Yes, you can do it more quickly, everything even within a week, especially if you are stronger and can run uphill on the steep slopes. However, it is worth not only to walk and drive, but to do it more slowly, to stop and relax, and to enjoy the fantastic scenery.
So, if you have only 4 days, better focus only on the most popular sites- Sipia Waterfall, down to Quechualla, then only to the thermal baths of Luicho and to the ruins of Maucallacta, probably with some short hikes. And you can do it only with well-arranged logistics.
Of course, independent traveling would be the best- you have your own itinerary and freedom. But it requires more days. If you have enough days and experience to travel alone- do it! Otherwise, if your time is limited and you are not confident to explore this stunning place alone, join an organized tour.
It is advisable to get your travel insurance when you go to adventures! So, if you still haven’t applied for it, you can do it from here:
Cotahuasi Canyon Trek
Since Cotahuasi Canyon is not a developed tourist place like Colca Canyon, there are only a few tours that are currently focused on this destination. You can join one of them by Bookmundi.
The good thing is that this tour is flexible and can be customized. That’s normal since the area is less developed and factors like weather, seasons, and lack of developed infrastructure and facilities can make the whole itinerary too unpredictable. Also, don’t forget the high altitude! Some people can’t bear it and would need a longer time to adapt to it!
This tour offers a lot of trekking, which is the best way to taste the environment of the canyon. It can be from 4 to 10 days, including travel from Arequipa to Cotahuasi and back. You will spend the nights in homestays, lodges, or just camping. The shortest option (4 days) focuses only on Sipia Waterfalls, Luicho thermal baths, and Maucallacta ruins.
Another option is to do it for 7 days. It focuses only on the downstream section of the canyon, only by trekking from Cotahuasi to Chaucalla- the merging point of the Cotahuasi and Ocona rivers. Then, you don’t need to back to the town of Cotahuasi again, but a means of transport will take you directly from Chaucalla back to Arequipa.
Finally, what is the best time to visit Cotahuasi?
In general, the temperature here is between 10 and 25°C all year long, and it varies depending on the altitude, not on the seasonal changes. There are two seasons- wet and dry. The wet season is from November to May, and the rest is the dry season. Yes, the difference between these two seasons is not too big- there can be sunny days during the wet season, and rainy days during the dry season.
When it rains, the dirt roads can cause real suffering, in some places they can be even dangerous. Yes, when it is dry, the roads can be dusty, but it is still much better than mud. In high altitude areas, above 3500-4000 m altitude, snowfall is also possible.
So, the best season is from May to September. The weather is mostly sunny and beautiful (with a deep blue sky and white clouds), and the air is fresh with a pleasant temperature. Anyway, bring more clothes, because it can be chilly at night, especially if you sleep in a higher spot.
This is Cotahuasi Canyon- one of the deepest and largest canyons in the world. If you want to explore Peru, this amazing country with ancient history and fantastic landscapes, and if you are more adventurous, open the map and take a look at Cotahuasi. Exploring this amazing place would richly satisfy your wanderlust!
Take a look at this video for more impressions from Cotahuasi Canyon
Check some travel books about Peru:
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Hi, we are Krasen and Ying Ying. Krasen is from Bulgaria, and Ying Ying is from China. We are passionate about geography and history, and we believe that the best way to experience it is by exploring the Earth in reality, not in a school, and not virtually.
So, we created this blog Journey Beyond the Horizon, where we share geographical knowledge, travel guides and tips how to experience it when you explore our planet, and a lot of inspiration.
And we wish you a happy journey, not just virtually, but most of all- in reality.