The Cotahuasi canyon – cañon de Cotahuasi in Spanish – located in southern Peru is one of the deepest canyons in the world. It is somewhat difficult to reach the Cotahuasi Canyon, therefore it only sees a few tourists. For those who like to escape the crowds at Colca Canyon, Cotahuasi canyon might be just what you are looking for. Next to being an impressive canyon on its own, the area provides some spectacular sites that make a visit to Cotahuasi worthwhile.
Getting there: Transport to Cotahuasi
Cotahuasi Canyon is located about 375 km northwest of Arequipa. From Arequipa, it is a 10-12 hour bus drive to the town Cotahuasi. There are also organized tours leaving from Arequipa to Cotahuasi.
For travelers by motorbike, bicycle or overlanders, a visit to the Cotahuasi should definitely be on your wish list. it will be a beautiful ride to get there, no matter from which direction you will arrive.
Background Cotahuasi Canyon
The Cotahuasi Canyon is formed by the Cotahuasi River, which carved its way into a plateau between the two large mountains Sibayo and Coropuna.
Due to its unique setting, geological formations, and biodiversity, it was declared a national geopark called ‘Reserva paisajística Subcuenca del Cotahuasi’. The national park covers the watershed of the Cotahuasi River.
The Cotahuasi river starts flowing from the high altitude lake Wansuqucha (4700m) near Culipampa. At its deepest point, the canyon cuts roughly 3,535 meters into the earth – slightly deeper than its nearby rival, the Colca Canyon.
Deep canyons like Cotahuasi are formed by years of river erosion combined with high tectonic uplift. The very first signs of the formation of the canyon started ~9 million years ago when erosion of the river created a broad valley. Due to the increased tectonic uplift of the Andes ~3.8 million years ago, the river Cotahuasi continued to cut deeper into the valley and formed a canyon The oldest rocks that are exposed by this canyon are up to 1500 million years old!
Explore Cotahuasi canyon from Cotahuasi town
From the town Cotahuasi, you can explore the lower and upper part of the Cotahuasi canyon. We cycled through the upper part and visited the lower part of the Cotahuasi canyon by car.
A Visit to the lower part of Cotahuasi canyon
We stayed at a nice family-run hotel Hatun Wasi. Via the friendly (English-speaking) owner we organized transport to visit the lower part of Cotahuasi by car. We left early in the morning with a friendly and experienced driver as a guide.
The narrow dusty road, which is not a road for the faint-hearted, provides stunning views from the start all the way down to the lower canyon. Pre-Incan agricultural terraces and mountain trails are visible along the sides of the canyon. These terraces are still used today for avocado farming, cactus farming, and even some vineyards. Old Incan roads, stacked rocks against the face of the mountain, leading to Cusco are impressively built against the mountainsides. Further down the canyon, you can see remnants of these roads.
Ten kilometers from the town Cotahuasi, the impressive Sipia waterfall pours off the edge of a cliff, with a free fall of 150 meters. The lookout on the waterfall is accessible by foot providing beautiful views of the waterfall and canyon. From the viewpoint on Sipia, we zigzagged our way back up the dirt track to continue by car to the next stop.
The road traverses the cactus forest of Judio pampa. Some of the cacti reach a height of 15 meters. A spectacular sight!
We continued the road to the lowest accessible point by car: Quechualla. A small village, but with a restaurant and even a hostel. From here you can walk down to the end of the dirt road, or cross the river by foot to continue to overlook one of the deepest parts of the Cañon de Cotahuasi.
Visit the upper part of Cotahuasi canyon
Luicho Thermal Baths near Alca.
Located about 20 km from the town Cotahuasi, near the village Alca, you will find the Luicho thermal baths. The thermal baths are the product of the geothermal activity, heating the baths’ waters to temperatures of between 33°C and 38°C. The atmosphere in Alca is relaxed and has a nice colorful plaza.
Maucallacta Archaeological Complex near Puyca
The village Puyca is located about 40 kilometers from Cotahuasi. From Puyca you are only 2 kilometers away from the largest ruins of the Cotahuasi Landscape reserve: Maucallacta.
Mauca (ancient) llacta (place) is the Quechuan name for this ancient place. The pre-Inca citadel on the top of the hill was developed by the Wari culture before it was occupied by the Incas. It was strategically located on trading routes. The wari culture was active 5000BC -10000AD, prior to the Inca empire. Also for the Incas, it became a trading route between Cusco and the coast.
‘El silencio’ the inhabited pampa of Peru
A visit to the upper part of the Cotahuasi Canyon can be as adventurous as traversing the Cotahuasi reserve all the way up to Culipampa, and the start of the Cotahuasi River. We traversed the Cotahuasi reserve by bicycle with its impressive geological formations. Volcanic mineral deposits give the mountains green, orange and yellow colors. A spectacular sight!
It’s a rough road leading from Cotahuasi to Culipampa, so with any means of transportation, be prepared for some bouncing around.
Cotahuasi canyon or Colca canyon?
If you like roads less traveled and places not yet overrun by tourists? Yes, you should go. It will take some more planning and organization, in contrast to Colca canyon, but you will experience authentic Peru.
For us, the upper part of the Cotahuasi canyon was more interesting and beautiful than the deepest part. So should you go to Cotahuasi, don’t forget to visit the upper part!