The town of Cotahuasi is the principal point of departure for the canyon’s attractions. From here, roads and trails extend to the north and south.
Gateway to the scenic landscapes, ancient ruins, and natural marvels of the world’s deepest canyon, the small town of Cotahuasi also serves as the capital of La Union province. Situated at 2,680 m (8,793 ft), the small town boasts narrow streets lined by whitewashed adobe buildings. A small central plaza is the site of the colonial-era Iglesia Nuestra Señora de la Concepcion.
Standing guard over the town, the peak of Cerro Wiñaw (also spelled Huiñao) offers fantastic views over the canyon. It’s about 1 hour by foot from town to the peak. Cotahuasi town is the central hub for hiking trails that go southwest to Sipia and Quechualla and northwest to Tomepampa.
Southwest of Cotahuasi
One of Cotahuasi Canyon’s most scenic attractions, this magnificent waterfall cascades 153 meters (502 feet) off the edge of a cliff and into a deep ravine. The fall measures 10 meters at its widest point. Located about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the town of Cotahuasi, the waterfall is accessible either by foot (3 hours) or by van. Taking the van cuts the walking distance by about two-thirds, dropping passengers off at Cuyao hanging bridge. From the bridge it’s a 45 minute walk to the waterfall.
A 5-hour walk from Cotahuasi via the village of Velinga, Quechualla town is located at 1,980m and marks the deepest point of Cotahuasi Canyon. Along the trail, detour to a rock forest and a giant cactus forest at Judio Pampa. From Quechualla, the trail continues to past the old Wari city of Maucullacta.
Northeast of Cotahuasi
Sitting at 2,700 m, the town of Tomepampa is located 10 km northeast of Cotahuasi. It is the gateway to the hot springs at Luicho and to Santo Santo (4,200 m.a.s.l.), site of a forest of giant rocks carved into strange figures by wind and water erosion. From Cotahuasi, it’s 18 km to Tomepampa; accessible on foot or by combi. The road continues onward to Alca and to Pulca, where you can walk to forests of Puya Raimondi cactus.
Luicho Thermal Baths (Alca)
Located about 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) from the town of Cotahuasi in the small village of Alca, the Luicho Thermal Baths are the product of geothermal activity beneath the earth’s surface. The volcanoes in the vicinity of the Cotahuasi Canyon are inactive, but their thermal activity heats the baths’ waters to temperatures of between 33°C and 38°C (90°F to 100°F). Sulfur gas infuses the waters and the baths are recommended for people suffering from ailments such as arthritis, muscular atrophy, rheumatism, and stress. A small fee of S/.5 ($2 US) is collected upon entry.
North of Cotahuasi
A 2 hour drive north and west from Cotahuasi Village, Pampamarca is known for the traditional woven rugs made by its skilled craftswomen. From here, it’s 1 hour to the 50-m waterfall at Uskuni, 3 hours on foot to the hot springs of Josla, and 3 hours to Bosque de Puyas.
Corire Town (road to Cotahuasi)
On the road to Cotahuasi, the town of Corire is 157 km (2.5 hrs) from Arequipa and offers access to the Toro Muerto Petroglyphs. For accommodation and ATMs, continue on 25 km to Aplao.
Toro Muerto Petroglyphs
Near Corire, these ancient cave paintings are estimated to be more than 1,000 years old, pre-dating the rise of the Inca Empire by almost 500 years. Archeologists have catalogued nearly 5,000 depictions of birds, animals and humans etched into the white volcanic rock that protrude from the mountain sides. Toro Muerto means “Dead Bull” in Spanish, in reference to the herds of cattle that often died from dehydration on the overland journey from the mountains to the coast in colonial times.
To visit the petroglyphs, any of the three bus companies will make a stop in Corire, which is about 3 hours from Arequipa. From Corire, a 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) trail leads to a checkpoint where visitors must sign in and pay a small fee. Another option is to take a full-day, 4-wheel-drive tour from Arequipa. This option is more convenient, albeit more expensive.
Things To Do
The majestic Cotahuasi Canyon provides a compelling alternative for travelers who wish to avoid the big tour groups that flood Peru’s more famous destinations. It takes some effort to get here, which perhaps accounts for the low visitor numbers. Travelers should be prepared for basic services and facilities in the tiny towns and villages that dot the canyon. In exchange, you’ll get to see places of surreal beauty.
Trekking Cotahuasi Canyon
- Base yourself in Cotahuasi and venture on day treks such as to Sipia.
- Plan a multi-day trek along one of the trails to the southwest, northeast, or northwest.
Tour agencies usually organize treks between 5 and 8 days depending on your interests. The best time to trek the canyon is from April to November when the region is not experiencing heavy rainfall. Altitude is a major element to take into consideration. Most towns are perched on valley hillsides at 2,000-3,000 meters above sea level, but attractions and sections of trail reach up to 4,000 meters. Some of the trails are very old. In some cases, such as on the main trekking route from Cotahuasi to Quechalla, you can see Inca stones paving the way.
Cotahuasi Canyon first came to the world’s attention in 1994, when a team of whitewater rafters from Poland descended the canyon’s rapids. From upper Cotahuasi, it’s possible to raft or kayak almost all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It’s a descent of 2,300 meters through miles of class IV and V rapids that flow past ancient Inca and Wari ruins, terraced fields, and steep canyon walls. Tour operators in Arequipa can organize equipment and guides. Rafting season is from May to June. The water is snow melt and wet suits are required.
Exploring Archaeological Wonders
Both the Wari and the Inca empires used the Cotahuasi Canyon as a corridor between the highlands and the coast. Tantalizing remnants of their civilizational infrastructure litter the canyon. Whether you’re exploring the canyon on foot, by raft, or by car, you’ll see these ancient ruins everywhere.
Lodging and Camping
Accommodation throughout the canyon’s towns is in basic hostales which welcome tourists with open arms. Nightly rates go for about S/.30 and usually include continental breakfast.On multi-day treks through the canyon, camping might be the only option. Ask around the village to ensure you’re not camping on private property without prior consent from the owner.
Double rooms and Family rooms, with private bathrooms and mountain views. Complimentary continental breakfast. Restaurant and bar.
Address: Calle Tacna 106 (10 minute walk from plaza)
Hatun Huasi Hotel
Twin, double, and single rooms
Address: Centenario 309 (1 block from plaza)
Hospedaje Casa Primavera
Rooms for 1 to 4 persons, with private or shared bathroom.
Address: Union 112
The deepest canyon in the world
The Cotahuasi Canyon is located about 349 km (216 miles) from Arequipa in the heart of the Southern Andes. At its deepest point, near the town of Quechualla, the canyon cuts roughly 3,354 meters (11,003 feet) into the earth — only slightly deeper than the nearby Colca Canyon — and it extends for 100 km. Two peaks, Coropuna and Solimana, rise to 20,000 ft.
While the Colca Canyon is a more popular attraction due to its greater accessibility, the Cotahuasi Canyon is the preferred destination of off-the-beaten path thrill-seekers and extreme outdoor recreation enthusiasts. You need to set aside about a week to get the full experience of this natural wonder and its astounding geological and ecological features.
A remote location makes the journey to Cotahuasi Canyon a bit of a challenge. The roads are bumpy and windy, but they also to offer scenic views of Inca and Wari ruins nestled between enormous peaks. Much of the canyon has been designated as part of the Cotahuasi Sub-Basin Landscapes Reserve which aims to preserve the unique natural environment for endemic plants and animals.
The Cotahuasi Canyon’s unique topography creates multiple microclimates that vary by elevation. Temperatures are cooler at higher elevations, whereas the valley bottoms can get quite toasty during the day. Prepare for both extremes when you pack for your trip.
The dry season from June to September is the best time to visit Cotahuasi Canyon for ideal weather conditions. Days are warm and sunny. Nights are cool. Expect average temperatures of 64-70 F during the day and 45 F and below at night.
The rainy season from December to March creates muddy conditions on roads and trails and dangerously high water levels in the river.
When To Visit Cotahuasi
For trekking, rafting, and other adventure activities, the best time to go to Cotahuasi Canyon is from May to September (dry season).
Fiestas de Cotahuasi
During the first week of May, Cotahuasi town celebrates the anniversary of its founding with festivities on the main plaza. It’s also an occasion for adventure sports enthusiasts to gather to participate in exhibitions of mountain biking, rafting, free flight, rock climbing, and trekking.
How To Get To Cotahuasi Canyon
From Arequipa, there is just one road to the canyon, and it is accessible by bus or combi (public transportation vans that seat 9 to 12 people). It’s a 10-12 hour trip from Arequipa to the small town of Cotahuasi. Three bus companies service the area: Reyna, Alex, and Inmaculada Concepción. All of them typically depart from Arequipa around 5pm to arrive in Cotahuasi around 4-5am the following day. As an alternative to bus travel, 4×4 vehicles are available for rent in Arequipa; make sure to get full insurance. To get to some of the attractions in the vicinity, a local combi is your best bet. Costs range between S/.10 to S/.30 depending on how far you are going.
What To Pack
Essential wardrobe items include loose clothing, comfortable shoes, and a hat to protect eyes and skin from the intense Andean sun. It is also a good idea to bring sunscreen (SPF 30 and higher) and copious amounts of bug spray for biting insects at lower elevations.
Where To Eat
In Cotahuasi town, you’ll find a smattering of typical restaurants that serve a “Menu” or special of the day. Another option is pollo a la brasa roasted chicken served with fried potatoes.
Bring cash to cover your expenses in the Cotahuasi Canyon. The closest banks or ATMs are located 5 hours down the road in Aplao.
Is it possible to visit Cotahuasi from the Colca Canyon?
Yes, the Valley of the Volcanoes provides passage between the canyons. However, this route is seldom traveled and services are basic to nonexistent. The best way to go is with a tour operator. Most travelers choose to access Cotahuasi via the road from Arequipa.