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The Cones and Canyons route part 2 | Cotohuasi to Arequipa, Peru

Volcanos, lava fields, and mountains of volcanic ash is what typifies the landscape of the second half of the cones and canyons route. The geology in this area is quite impressive, to say the least. The region has recently been declared the first national geopark of Peru because of its unique setting and geological characteristics. 

For the second part of the cones and canyons route, we were accompanied by our English friends again. After two rest days, of which one was a day trip to the lower part of the Cotahuasi canyon, we knew we would have a relatively easy start.

It took us 1,5 days to climb out of the Cotohuasi canyon. The climb was gentle and we were grateful it was tarmac as a start. It was an easy day with a lot of breaks. We found a beautiful camp spot with a panorama view over the Cotohuasi canyon.

cones and canyons route: camp spot iOverlander
cones and canyons route: camp spot iOverlander

The next day easy riding and smooth tarmac continued. A beautiful descent with views on Coropuna volcano made for fast progress. Only once we left the main road to reach Mauca Llacta, tarmac switched to dirt again. 

We stopped for lunch in Mauca Llacta and bought some extra food in one of the shops. We considered staying there for the night because of a thunderstorm on the horizon. But Mauca Llacta did not really feel like a special place so we pushed on for another two hours. Luckily the storm passed and we found a suitable camping spot. That night we camped near Peru’s biggest volcano Coropuna (6425m), but the weather was not on our side. Clouds covered the snow-capped volcano for the rest of the afternoon and the next morning.

The wind picked up early the next day and with an overcast sky and washboard road, it was a bit of a struggle to enjoy the ride. More than the barren plain was not to be seen.

cones and canyons route: dirt road
cones and canyons route: barren plain
cones and canyons route: creek
cones and canyons route: creek crossing

In this section between Mauca llacta to the highest point at 4800, we crossed a few streams. Nothing big though, so only one of us had to get in the water. The rest of this section is desolate and bare pampa with some alpacas and vicunas roaming the plain.

In the blog of highlux.co.nz we read we could expect a beautifully paved descent into Andagua once we would reach the intersection. This prospect kept us going over the rocky washboard roads, with only limited views due to the clouds. 

Once we reached the intersection, we got a glimpse of the beautifully paved road winding down into the valley. It would have been an amazing descent of 27 km if only the clouds, wind and cold didn’t throw a spanner in the works. If such a road would exist in Europe, it would be thé road for road cyclists to climb and descent on. 

cones and canyons route: beautiful switchbacks
cones and canyons route: beautiful switchbacks

Although this descent could have been one of the highlights of the route, we suffered quite a bit. Hail, winds and freezing temperatures made it a very cold descent. In fact, it was so cold Pim had symptoms of pre-stage hypothermia. Luckily, Nienke was wise enough to force Pim to stop and put on extra down jackets and dry clothes.

Within a few minutes, Pim thawed and gained back his normal self. It was a bit frightening to experience how the cold can slowly get in the body and have such an effect. Pim was fully cramped in arms and hands, was heavily shaking and made no sense in decision making.

After this short break, both our hydraulic Magura rim breaks weren’t working. Something we never experienced before. The wet conditions combined with freezing temperatures must have cooled the rims down. A thin layer of ice might have been stuck on the rims. After a few minutes of pumping the brakes, while going very slow of course, the brakes started working properly again. We cautiously made our way down to Andagua.

We found a hostel with the promise of a hot shower and wifi. Instead, we got a sort of lukewarm shower, no wifi and a leaking roof over our head. It was however still so much better than being outside after being so cold in the descent. We had considered taking a rest day, because of the intense day before, but opted instead for a half-day ride the next day.

The road from Andagua down into to valley provided some incredible views over different volcanic wonders. The valley is filled with cones,  small lava domes and is covered with a blanket of an old lava flow. This basaltic lava field is about 100-150 meters thick and covers an area surface of about 100 km2.

This lava flowed and cooled off rapidly, resulting in the angular pieces of lava you will find here.

While the original cones and canyons route follows the road all the way down, back to an altitude of 2500m, we decided to take a short cut. It would be shorter, less climbing and above all, the road goes directly through the Valle de los Volcanes and lava field.

We don’t know what we missed of the original cones and canyons route by taking this short cut, but we do know what we got in return. A beautiful section of good dirt road into Chachas, with a big waterfall for a perfect snack break spot and a river crossing which was perfectly rideable.

We read about the friendly town of Chachas, but we never expected such a warm welcome. The lady from the restaurant hugged and kissed us upon arrival. Unfortunately, her husband was away in the mountains, so she had nothing to offer. Her daughter could help her preparing supper if we’d like. Hard to turn down such a lovely lady, we accepted the offer and had a nice dinner in the evening.

cones and canyons route: river crossing
cones and canyons route: river crossing

We stayed in a lovely homestay and same as before, this woman hugged us and provided us with all the information we needed. She was a bit worried about our plans to go up into the mountains because of the bad weather in the last few days.

There had been snow- and thunderstorms every afternoon which was abnormal for this time of year. She warned us for lightning and advised us to seek shelter in the second part of the afternoon. We planned our route accordingly, because sensible local information and advice, we take that seriously.

After a complete resupply at the very well stocked shop near the plaza, the day came where we would start our climb up to the highest point of the cones and canyons route. A climb of 2000 vertical meters up to 5200m awaited us.

We left early that day to reach the planned camp spot, Umapallca, at 4500m before 14:00 as the woman had advised. There would be no water up to 4900m which meant we each carried three liters of extra water.

In Nahuira, a rough mining town only 3 kilometers away from the friendly town of Chachas, we filled up our MSR with gasolina for the stove. At the fuel station, at around 7:30 in the morning, we chatted with a drunk gold miner. He pointed to some white tents high up in the mountains. Apparently he had an (illegal) gold mine there.

Every day, he walked up the mountain he was pointing at and worked in a tunnel of max 1.5m high and 300m deep into the mountain in search of gold. In this area, hydrothermal quartz veins are formed that contain gold. If you are lucky, you find a ‘bonanza’ a large vein full of gold. 

Leaving Nahuira and starting the climb, we first had to pass a checkpoint, a lady in the booth. Everyone who takes this road for the first time has to register. She also pointed out that we needed permission of ‘el presidente’. We asked the lady where el presidente was. ‘In chachas’ apparently.

We weren’t planning to backtrack to ask el presidente, especially because we asked people in Chachas where we had to register for passage through the mine. Neither of those people said anything about permission from ‘el presidente’ to get access to the Chila mining area. After a chat and a ‘fee’ of 10 soles p.p. we were allowed passage. Happy days for the lady in the booth earning 40 soles.

The climb of that day is tough but doable. The average gradient is 7,5-8%. The quality of the road was fairly good, but with a lot of loose rocks, it takes a fair amount of effort. The views on ‘valle de los volcanes’ was beautiful though, and with every break, we enjoyed the sight of it. 

After a tough climb, we reached the camp spot at the same time the dark clouds reached it. We could hear the thunder roaring in the distance. It looked like it could start raining or snowing at any minute. It was our lucky day though. The camp spot actually was a deserted alpaca farm with one building still intact and half a dozen small collapsed stone huts.

As soon as we started pitching the tent in the abandoned building, it started to rain. Without hesitation, we filled our pots and pans with rainwater collected from the corrugated rooftop to make some extra hot drinks. Another lucky moment and a bonus, because there was no other water source nearby and we only had extra water with us for dinner and breakfast.

The luck wasn’t over yet! Rain turned into snow as the afternoon progressed. The mountains slowly turned white under a few centimeters of snow. With the snowy mountains outside, a roof over our head and enough water to make ourselves comfortable, it was the best wild camp spot we ever had.

The next morning, most of the snow was gone and the skies were clear and blue. The perfect start for the day we dreaded and were looking forward to at the same time. The higher we got, the more snow was still left on the shadow sides of the mountains. The already beautifully colored mountain views, became even more beautiful with parts of it snowed under.

Passing the 5200m climb was easier than expected. Roads were good and the climbs gradual. It was an exciting moment to reach the highest point. We celebrated with a piece of chocolate and a short break. 

cones and canyons route: camp spot abandoned building
cones and canyons route: camp spot abandoned building
cones and canyons route: snow on shadow side mountains
cones and canyons route: snow on shadow side mountains
cones and canyons route: high pass 5200m
cones and canyons route: highest pass

After the 5200 meter pass, the route continued through the Chila gold mine. We read stories of people who were refused entrance and had to backtrack the 2000 meter climb. We discussed with Don & Jo to cross the gold mine as a group. If needed, it might make it easier to persuade the miners to grant us passage as a group. It turned out to be an easy and relaxed descent without anyone keeping us from passing through. The mine was deserted, gates were open and before we knew it, we passed the last ‘checkpoint’.

This particular gold mine we cycled through was actually already in use in Incan times, continued being used by the Spanish colonists and is still in commission up to this date.

The roads through the goldmine and the descent afterward were of perfect quality as far as dirt roads get. We were flying downhill! Sometimes cyclists should be grateful for all the mines creating rideable routes in beautiful Peru. Controversial as mining might be, by cycling the mining roads we at least make good use of them. Maybe the Peru Divide or cones and canyons route might not even exist without them. ‘Shout out to the mining!’ as Alee Denham once said.

With the highest pass and the gold mine behind us, we set up camp at yet another nice camp spot next to a river stream. The cones and canyons route really provides some cool places for wild camping. 

We continued down to Caylloma. With a day of rest, a nice hotel and a hot shower in mind, we kinda wished we were there already. We hoped for an easy day, but whenever an easy day is expected or wished for, a difficult day is what you get.

cones and canyons route: caylloma
cones and canyons route: Caylloma

Slowly the traffic in the area increased with more and more mining trucks and pick up trucks passing by. Road conditions turned for the worse. A tough descent with huge rocks, sand, and washboard, followed by a nightmare last 15 km section of washboard into Caylloma was all we got that day. Shaken up, dizzy and a little bit grumpy we made it to the mining town of Caylloma.

We checked in at Hostal Emanuel, a clean hotel with a hot shower and fast wifi. It felt like we deserved and needed a proper rest, so we stayed for two days. The town itself is not much to write home about. It has some rough edges and people were not as friendly as we’re used to from the weeks before. Nonetheless, it is still a nice enough place and has all the luxury a hungry a tired cyclist could wish for. 

And, same as in many other towns we passed on the cones and canyons route, there was yet another fiesta. It’s like Peruvians want to party all the time. In this occasion, it was the fiesta of virgin San Rosario. There was a procession on Sunday, with dressed-up llamas and fireworks at night. It lifted up the atmosphere in this otherwise rough mining town.

The two days of rest had a good effect on our bodies and mind. Fresh and eager we set out on the final stretch towards Arequipa. The profile on the map for the last days looked promising. A bit of climbing, but nothing majorly high or steep. After that an altiplano before going down to Arequipa. We hoped to reach Arequipa in three days riding.

All went well and we continued the road to Sibayo, where a few nice homestays were located. Just before sunset we reached the village with its typical stone houses. It was surprisingly clean and well kept. 

The homestay we checked in was fantastic. Nice owners, nice room, nice beds, perfect. The next morning we planned to leave early, but actually only left at 10:00. Not only was it because it was such a nice place, but also because the owners dressed us up in ‘traditional’ clothes. Apparently it’s something they do in Sibayo with the tourists.

Cycling out of Sibayo a small stretch of asphalt leads towards réserva national Salinas y Aguas Blancas. We crossed rio colca and cycled in the higher part of the colca canyon. 

They were clearly working on road improvement, and we think this whole part of dirt road through the national park will be paved in the near future. The road kept getting worse and worse from the moment we left the asphalt. By zigzagging on the road it is possible to find the better parts and riding is reasonably comfortable until you hit the altiplano.

A few kilometers before reaching the final pass, we stopped at a small village, Pulsera, where we enjoyed a cafe pasado. A rare moment where the lady in the shop had fresh coffee instead of instant coffee. 

cones and canyons route: happy
cones and canyons route: happy
cones and canyons route: cafe pasado
cones and canyons route: cafe pasado

Once on the altiplano, it was washboard all over again. In this mining area, every few hours a convoy of up to ~10 trucks passed us by. Quite annoying, but we were happy they were driving in ‘groups’. So we just stopped for 5 minutes, let them pass, let the dust settle and get on our bikes again. These convoys and, what we think, the preparation of the road for asphalt by depositing loose gravel turns the road into ripio. 

cones and canyons route: convoy trucks
cones and canyons route: truck convoy
cones and canyons route: dust and trucks

What we only realized at the end, was the dirt road parallel to the washboard road. It looked like this road would have been so much easier to ride. A bit sandy maybe, but not as relentless as the washboard. We finally reached the end of washboard hell and hit tarmac. Soon after, we pitched the tent at a lake with flamingo’s. 

From there on it was an all tarmac descent with a few uphill parts until Patahuasi. Vicuñas were running around and crossing the road. More and more tourist busses appeared and before we knew it, we were in a completely different world. The tourist world and what a shock it was. 

cones and canyons route: flamingo lake
cones and canyons route: flamingo lake
cones and canyons route: starry night
cones and canyons route: starry night
cones and canyons route: vicunas
cones and canyons route: vicunas

At Patahuasi, the junction of the main road to Arequipa and dirt road in between the volcanos Chachani and Misti, we asked about the road conditions. Not just was it to be a tough stretch of road, there were no water sources between Patahuasi and Arequipa. Together with the prospect of cycling into a large city we evaluated our options. It was either very bad dirt road, camping, and carrying extra water, or hitchbiking to Arequipa.

Although we still liked the idea to cycle between volcan Misti and Chachani, we opted for a lift. A good decision as it turned out. Don & Jo did cycle this bit into Arequipa and said it was not a fun ride to say the least. Within 20 minutes a pick-up truck gave us a ride and dropped us off right in front of our hostel. Misti B&B, an affordable and clean hotel near the historic center, with friendly owners and a nice free breakfast.

We made it to Arequipa where we indulged ourselves in good food. We loved the vibe there. Somehow it felt like a holiday to spend a week resting, eating and writing this story. 

Thoughts about the cones and canyons route

We have loved the cones and canyons route. It has been an amazing adventure with high ups and low downs. The people we’ve met have been incredibly kind, friendly and welcoming. The landscapes, views, and surroundings were often overwhelming and stunning. We can highly recommend cycling the cones and canyons route if you like dirt road touring. We rode it on fully loaded touring bikes with two-inch tires. It would make life easier to have wider tires, a smaller granny gear, and less weight to carry. However, it is not an absolute necessity. 

We found the second part from Cotohuasi to Arequipa easier than the first part from Antabamba to Cotohuasi despite the many washboard roads. The gradients were friendlier and there was more tarmac.

We want to thank Mark Watson (www.highlux.co.nz) & Hana Black and Cass Gilbert (www.bikepacking.com) for all the very useful information and Harriet & Neil (www.andesbybike.com) for creating this route.

Useful info for Cones and Canyons route

  • Road conditions: The first 60 km out of Cotahuasi is a perfect tarmac road. Thereafter, the road becomes a reasonable dirt road with some sections of loose rocks and washboard until you reach AR-106 road. The descent down to the Valle de los volcanos is a new tarmac road. From Chachas until 10 km before Caylloma 95% of the dirt roads are of good quality. The last 200 km from Caylloma to  Arequipa contains a lot of washboard roads. We can recommend taking the parallel (old) dirt roads where available. They are working on road improvements in this region and road conditions might change in the future. But as of October 2019, only a 10 km section after Sibayo and a 30 km stretch up to Patahuasi are tarmac. 
  • Food: there are well-stocked shops in Andagua, Chachas, and Caylloma.
  • Water: water is readily available on most part of the route, with an exception of the climb from Chachas to an altitude of 4700m, and the section between Patahuasi and Arequipa. 
  • Money: You can withdraw money with VISA or MasterCard in Cotahuasi at the shop next to the police station (Multired sign). You can exchange dollars in Caylloma for a reasonable exchange rate at one of the shops at the plaza. 
  • It took us 10 cycling days to get from Cotahuasi to Arequipa.

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