Cotahuasi River Expedition

February 07th, 2012

Our recent Cotahuasi River expedition was truly an unforgettable adventure. The Cotahuasi carves the second deepest canyon in the world (the first, the Colca, is a just few hundred miles away) and snakes through an arid landscape on the southern coast of Peru. First run by raft in 2000, only a few expeditions have descended into its chasm and braved its mighty river. In June, our group of Global Descents adventurers took the plunge and conquered its roller coaster of spitting Class V rapids.

Beginning our journey in the “White City” of Arequipa, where streets are dotted with mouthwatering cevicherias and the impressive colonial architecture shows ingenuity in its giant blocks of volcanic ash, we set off on the two day drive through Peru’s barren costal plains. Our first night was spent in the community of Chuquibamba, a convenient mid-way point to our final destination, the town of Cotahuasi. Our second day’s drive took us over a 15,500-foot pass, along the flanks of the massive volcano Coropuña. Lama, vicuña, and alpaca were scattered through the high plains, grazing beneath glaciers and snowfields as our travel van cruised along the wide-open road. That night was spent in Cotahuasi, sitting just above the gaping canyon rim and surrounded by waterfalls, rock walls and views of the distant peaks.

The next morning we drove to the end of the road, loaded burros with our gear and, with a quick handshake to our driver, officially began our six-day river adventure. It was an eight-hour hike into the depths of the Cotahuasi Canyon and to our first riverside camp near the community of Velinga. The next morning was the final preparation – rigging the rafts, swim tests and a safety talk that confirmed serious whitewater lay ahead.

After lunch we climbed in the rafts and were off. Immediately the rapids were non-stop and steep, and we aggressively punched through Class III-IV rapids with intermittent Class II-III rapids to keep us busy. It was good preparation for the first big Class V drop of the trip, the frighteningly-named Broken Neck Rapid, a long 3-part rapid wrapping around a corner and out of sight from a possible scout. After making a plan, we pushed off to run this first major drop. Wow! Everyone survived, and from that moment on truly understood that we had embarked on a serious whitewater expedition with demanding whitewater – and lots of it.

The following days brought much more of the same – long, steep, and technical rapids, one after the other. Rapids that pinch down so narrow the boats don’t fit through and continuous roller coaster rides through inner-gorges… challenging, exhilarating, and unforgettable whitewater like nowhere else.

With all the excitement had by day, night brought rest, good food and unparalleled beauty. Camping under the stars on flat platforms amongst long-forgotten Inca walls gave everyone a unique sense of discovery and exploration. We found Inca and pre-Inca ruins and neck-kinking views up toward the canyon’s rim. Though we were on a whitewater trip, we could have used extra days to explore more of the ruins and burial sites along the way. Incredibly, the sites seemed untouched as if they had survived hundreds of years without notice. No footprints, no signs of disturbance, not even a hint of anthropological studies! Interestingly, the trails that once were used by the Inca to run, yes run!, fish fresh from the Pacific Ocean to their rulers high in the mountains eventually washed away in the torrential coastal rains and rockslides, isolating these lost and forgotten ruins.

Down river, where the Cotahuasi confluences with the Moran River, its character changes, widening and slowing down, with rapids spaced further apart and the views expanding as the walls recede toward the ocean. Feeling the usual adventurer conflict – so happy to have accomplished such an expedition and so sad to leave – we left the Cotahuasi with a two-hour 4×4 drive through small dusty communities to the coast and then another five hours back to Arequipa and our victory dinner. Cold beer never tasted so good!

Every river trip has its own character and magic, whether it’s a half-day float on a local waterway or a three-week luxury trip down the Grand Canyon. But the allure of the unknown, the excitement of discovery, and the challenge of demanding and continuous whitewater are true and strong on the Cotahuasi. Nowhere else on Earth is like it. A word to the wise: It is not for everyone. But if you long for true unequalled adventure, the Cotahuasi should be your next trip. I hope to see you this coming season.

HARVEY