Monday, February 1, 2010

Rio Cotahuasi: IV

Endless Incan ruins and countless boofs

Finally, 14 months after we reached the take-out, I'm getting around to writing about the classic Cotahuasi. The Rio Cotahuasi (pronounced coat-a-wassi) in southern Peru was the final goal on our hit list of multi-day adventures for 2008. This canyon was also the one that got each of us interested in Peru as a destination. I read a great write-up on Oregon Kayaking and the Cotahuasi is getting pushed as a commercial raft trip for those really seeking an adventure. It is well on its way to becoming a world classic.

Many claim that the Cotahuasi Canyon is the deepest in the world. It is rather the deepest in the Americas, as several Himalayan canyons are significantly deeper.

Still, at almost 12,000 feet from river to rim, it's no drainage ditch. It's more of an irrigation canal. And that's just how Incans used it in pre-Colombian times. The river was widely used for irrigating small farms throughout the canyon and in the lower valley.

Rapids and ruins in the Andes' deepest gorge

The canyon was also an artery connecting the coastal communities to the rest of their empire in the andean highlands. The canyon is full of trails, irrigation canals, and terraced hillsides. In fact, those floating the Cotahuasi River will pass more incan ruins than hikers on their way to Machu Picchu.

By the time we reached the town of Cotahuasi, we'd been in Peru for nearly two months. Most of that time was spent paddling boats loaded for overnighters. The rest seemed to be spent in buses or clunky old trucks with our boats strapped on top. We were also getting dumped off in the small-town plaza at 2 in the morning with no lodging arrangements or sense of direction. We found a hostel, spent the next day planning and packing, and then got after it once more.

In the hostel courtyard getting things ready

Mike and Zak serenading the town, or at least the laundry

Much like its sister river the Colca, the Cotahuasi trip starts with a long hike into the canyon with burros schlepping the boats. And everything else for that matter. From the get go, we could tell that this canyon would be totally different.

Although deeper by over 1,000 feet, it isn't as steep as the Colca Canyon. The canyon walls are more of mountainsides than cliff faces. It is still desert, but there are at least plants growing and 30-foot tall saguaro cacti right out of Loony Tunes.

This donkey is so stoked to have the shortest, lightest boat in the fleet!

The hike is also much easier, as the road goes right to the river. The "hike in" is all just an all-day portage around Sipia Falls, a huge set of cascades dropping several hundred feet.

The river disappearing into a crack at Sipia Falls

The first two drops of 5-tiered Sipia

After a full day of re-rigging boats on burros each time they fell off, we finally made it to the river. Again, there was a small village where our burro driver lived and we visited him for dinner. Many of the villages down here make wine as a primary export, and it'd be a lie to say we didn't sample a little before wandering back to camp for the night.

After the first few hours of easy class III, we noticed a small community nestled on the hillside. We pulled over, geared down, and walked up the trail. At first, we couldn't find any people. There were some pigs running around the alleys between adobe brick walls, a few birds flying overhead, and perched atop the walls was a dense lattice work of grapevines. We knew these locals were making some wine and wanted to check it out.

Soon, a young girl rounded a corner, got one look at us, and high-tailed it back through a doorway. No doubt she was a little surprised to see four tall gringos in bright clothes show up suddenly. Her mother came out to meet us and was very polite, inviting us into their hut. They were more than willing to sell us wine at a fraction of its cost in stores, as this way they wouldn't have to haul it out on burros for 14 hours. The locals offered great conversation as well, and I finally started to build a little linguistic confidence. Liquid courage always helps.

Mike and Zak chat with the locals about life off the grid

After polishing off a few bottles of wine, another woman invited us over to her house for a fruit salad. On the short walk, she picked a ripe papaya and a few mangos to throw in the mix. We helped slice the fresh fruit and then helped devour it. The kindness and generosity of people in rural Peru is still my fondest impression from the entire six months I spent south of the equator. By the time we made it back to our boats, it was getting a little late and we set up camp near the village.

This was the last community of people we saw in the canyon, but ruins were a different story. Around every corner, we came upon aqueducts and terraces. We stopped to check out several of them, but to just visit them all would take months. I'll let the pictures do the talking.

These remains were at a ruin lower in the canyon

Incan farming terraces

Eating well on a multi-day

Intricate pot shards from the same site as the skull. Don't worry, we put them back.

Zak and Dave checking on Incan handiwork

The whitewater wasn't half-bad either. The Cotahuasi is reported to be 100 km of continuous class IV and V whitewater. It was certainly continuous, and some of it was class IV, but it didn't quite match the beta.

Not to say it wasn't good. Every hundred yards we had something to boof. There wasn't ever flatwater, and occasional horizon lines would indicate the class IV drops. Also, our trip was at very low water and from looking at the high water lines we could imagine how rowdy this place becomes during the rainy season.

Zak takes flight off a nice ledge

Creatively named "The Wall"

Dave working his way through Centimeter

Mike catching big air

Dave in the middle of "Marpa"

Me in Centimeter right before my nosejob

Mike at the bottom of Marpa

The rapids were mostly boulder gardens for the first three days with lots of optional boofs. On day four, we got into some pushier mini-gorge bedrock drops.

Mike in a pushy drop

Zak pushes back

The bedrock section is short-lived and leads paddlers to the confluence of the Rio Maran. The Maran is another big multi-day mission and shares a dreadful paddle-out with the Cotahuasi. We'd heard about what a drag this next section would be, so we put our heads down and got going.

Starting the paddle out as the canyon opens up

The paddle out is about 30km of low-gradient class II braided channels. This is probably my least favorite style of boating, and I could only wish that Will was there, with his trusty raft and cooler full of cold beer.

Every channel was full of these pickets, which are used for holding crayfish nets. The spacing was just wide enough for a kayak and they would have been a strainer hazard, but every time we hit one it just fell over

The braided valley we had to paddle through

But alas, us kayakistas had to fend for ourselves and paddled for hours until we were all exhausted, dehydrated and it was starting to get dark. We pulled over for the night and finished the paddle-out that morning in about another hour. With luck, a bus had just pulled in to the town at the end of the road. We loaded up the boats as usual, alongside the village's latest harvest. After one bus switch and eight hours on bumpy roads, we were back in the comforts of our $5/night hostel in Arequipa for a happy Thanksgiving.

Overlooking Cataractas Sipia

We all missed our family and friends over the American holidays, but never forgot about home. One night on the Cotahuasi we passed the rum around toasting all of you. It has been an incredible adventure down here in Peru, certainly the greatest accomplishment in my life. Over the eight weeks we spent here, we managed to get on every river we wanted to when we left home. We were all beat and worn out from the full schedule of multi-day expeditions and the experience was priceless. Thanks for following along, I hope you've enjoyed reading. And I owe major gratitude to Mikey, Zak, and Dave for bringing me along and making this trip happen. Cheers boys!