Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Cotahuasi Canyon

This weekend we did a trip to the deepest canyon in the world. It is located in the Atacama desert which extends all the way to the middle of Chile. We were picked up by two gentlemen-Sergio, our fearless driver, and Elias, our guide. There were 4 others on the trek, 2 sisters from Ireland (Carolann and Sinead, a german girl named Annmarie and a danish boy named Morten). Everyone was incredibly friendly and funny, it didn´t hurt that english turned out to be the common language we spoke for the trip but we didn´t learn much new spanish.

The 1st two hours were over landscape that must resemble the surface of the moon. It hasn´t rained there in 85-90 years. Irrigation has begun to pull water from the Colca River in hopes that it will create enough moisture to bring rain for this barren landscape. Its incredibly hot and sunny!

The lowest part of the canyon is 600 meters and the highest is 4,920 meters (we´ll just call it 5000). We didn´t stay at the highest altitude for long and our guide was packing O2 so all went well and no one needed to use it..... although I was close. We were offered coca tea and one of the Irish girls gave me some coca leaves to chew on which really helps with the headache. Around 4000 meters we saw a tree that only grows at high elevation, the name escapes me now but it only grows 1 meter per 100 years. We also saw a green plant that grows over rocks and resembles green coral, it only grows an inch a year. From this altitude it was apparent that there are very few glaciers left in this region. They have lost 87% of South America´s glaciers in the last 3 years from global warning. I hate to see what happens when they all melt, this region alone is ultra dependent on the water sent down the river from glacier melt.

The road to the canyon from Arequipa is about 40% paved but very bumpy with many steep and crazy turns. Not for anyone who is prone to motion sickness. The last 60% was not paved and made a dirt road in the states look like silk. These roads are not wide enough for more than one vehicle except in random parts, combined with hair raising turns and oncoming traffic of big buses or construction vehicles.... lets just say it wasn´t a good time to sleep.

Once we reached the small town of Cotahuasi, we had dinner and crashed for the night at a local hostel. After leaving the hostel in the morning we headed down the road in our van to our drop site for the trek. We didn´t get more than a mile down the road before we saw some workers flagging us to stop. *A little history - until last year this road didn´t even exist. They have taken a shear cliffside, not unlike the side of the grand canyon, cut it with a hand held jackhammer and built a road down to the river. The road was originally scheduled to meet up with the ocean but there is a giant cactus forest along the way. This area was recently protected due to the rare species so the road now stops just short of the forest. (see pics for cactus forest) Back to the story, as we got out of the van to see what the hold up was about we saw that the road abrubtly dropped down by a good six feet. For the bargain price of 1 liter of Inka Cola (a local coke product that resembles a mix of Mt. dew and cream soda) we got them to bring around another plow to fill in the drop and smooth over the road. About 25 minutes later we were on our way. About 30 minutes more we met the river and our porters/mules. This is where our journey on foot began. The trail wasn´t too steep except for an occasional bit. We wondered through the giant cactus forest, there were three different types but I can only remember the nicknames of a couple. ¨Sanki¨ is unique to this forest, it doesn´t grow anywhere else in the world. ¨Julio Sanki¨is unique to western Peru and eastern Bolivia and the third type which is more common. Most all of them are 15-20 feet tall and some are as old as 800 years. By 6pm we were at the camp site, down by the river and off to soak in the hot spring while the locals unloaded the mules, set up our tents and made dinner. We slept with the sound of the river under the stars at the bottom of the canyon next to lime and orange trees.

Our dinner was an amazing bean soup and beef stirfry with a bottle of wine. So far in Peru, I´ve had some of the most amazing soups I´ve ever tasted and this one was the best. We awoke at 4:30am and started packing up. The porters and donkeys showed up as breakfast was served. We had yogurt, quinoa pancakes with jam and coffe or tea. By 6am we were off and heading back up the canyon. After about 5 hours we took a detour to get an upclose view of the waterfalls we´d seen the previous day from above. They were spectacular, we laid on the rocks just above and could feel the refreshing mist on our faces. It was a welcomed retreat after being blasted by sand and dust for the last couple of days. Afterwards we climbed the rest of the way out of the canyon. The van picked us up and took us to another hot spring location to soak our tired muscles. For 5 soles each ($1.50) we could spend as much time as we wanted in the three different pools. We stayed back in Cotahuasi for our last night.

Annmarie and I walked the town a bit in search of the infamous Chicha (to Peruvians what moonshine is to Americans). We couldn´t buy it anywhere but we were looking for a local who would let us in on a secret of where to find it. No luck, instead we settled on some local wine made right there in town. The first hint that we went astray might have been the fact that they were selling it out of plastic water bottles. The second might have been that you could tell the liquid didn´t have much color for a red wine. The third would have been the smell if we had bothered to smell/taste it before buying. Oh well, it was only 12 soles per bottle ($4) so we did it. At dinner we opened it to find an alcohol that more closely resembled red wine vinegar than wine. In the end we gave it to the hostel owner, maybe she can use it to cook with. Lesson learned.

In the morning we got up for a 5am breakfast and 5:30 departure. I awoke feeling incredibly quesy and knew a day of riding in a van on unpaved roads was going to be entertaining in the least. After downing some pepto in a desperate attempt to hold down my little breakfast we set off. We made a couple of stops along the way and I managed to make it all the way home without puking which was quite a feat. What a trip! Check out my new pics on flickr.

1 comment:

  1. WOW! What a trip. Hope your stomach is settling down. Some Chicha was probably just what you needed. (Although I could hardly drink it because of the smell!)