THE COTAHUASI CANYON
Deepest, Brightest Peru
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Everybody loves a good record. There's something about a 'highest, longest, furthest, lowest, smallest, biggest' tag that immediately lends cachet and class to a person or a place. Discovery Channel has a series called 'The 10 most.', magazines run endless lists of 'The Top 10' whatevers, and then there's the Guinness Book of Records. So, if I tell you that the Cotahuasi Canyon in southern Peru is 1,850 metres (6,000 ft) deeper than the Grand Canyon, you're no doubt surprised. But if I tell you that the Cotahuasi Canyon also happens to be the deepest canyon in the world, it's now entered into that great 'Must-See Places' pantheon in the sky. And with good reason.
On the journey to the canyon, one circles Peru's third-highest peak, Coropuna, its set of three snow-capped incisors biting into lapis skies at nearly 6,500 metres. One crosses a lonely puna of high-altitude moorland, bereft of vegetation except for the ichu grass upon which occasional herds of alpacas and vicuñas munch furtively. Shallow rivers wind their way in inky-black volcanic beds across the landscape. The wind blows in gusts of dust which blind and confuse. The roads are of compacted earth and rocks, occasionally giving way to mud tracks. It takes nearly two hours by car to cross over from the last valley to the Cotahuasi watershed, and some ten hours to reach the canyon from Arequipa, Peru 's second largest city.
One's first impression of Cotahuasi is the landscape's sheer scale. It rises up from its dim bottom, up through amphitheatres of terraces and hopscotch squares of fields, up through clutches of eucalyptus groves and necklaces of stone walls, up vertical cliffs stained unlikely colours by minerals, and finally up to the canyon's rim where you stand, dumbstruck by its majesty. The difference in altitude is impossible to fathom, particularly for an Englishman. Ben Nevis, Britain's highest peak, would fit two-and-a-half times into Cotahuasi.
After the desolation of the puna, the descent into the valley is like passing through a Gainsborough looking glass of bucolic life. A cascade tumbles from the mountain's ribs, bringing fertility in its white wake, irrigating fields of corn, flowering potatoes, green shoots, rustling cane and grasses for lowing cows. Stone walls line the road and divide the fields, like a genealogical mausoleum, testament to each generation's contribution to the land. Farmers plough their fields or lead their cows in dissembling squadrons down tracks. Old women totter with bundles of faggots for their fires. Children play in the lanes. An eagle circles above.
In the village of Alca, the square is framed in each corner by four weeping molle (pepper) trees, each in different stages of life and death. The one by the police station, whose concrete is scrubbed by a young recruit, is alive and healthy, drinking from the brook channelled by its feet. The farthest two are on their death beds. The one nearest the hostel where I'm staying is in its mid-life crisis. It looks half dead, but then is sprouting green leaves from its higher branches. Its lower gnarled and walnut-like trunk, perhaps to make it feel better, has been hollowed out. It provides the ideal shrine for the Virgin, Jesus and Saint Francis. The locals, many of the women in tall, white straw hats, genuflect and kiss the tips of their thumbs as they pass by it, and at night, someone switches the small bulb on to keep the statues from the dark.
The hostel is run by a 13-year old boy called Chino. He was a street urchin in the town, abandoned by his family, until the owner took him in. He proved so proficient that he now attends to the guests, gives orders, allots beds and collects the money. The arrangement is a sound one, except when the hotel manager happens to be in a maths class when tourists turn up.
The Cotahuasi Canyon has been inhabited for generations, and was an important route linking the Pacific coast with the Inca capital of Cuzco in the highlands to the northwest. There are several ruins from the Wari culture, which flourished in the early centuries AD, and remnants of Inca road systems. The Spanish established their towns with their plazas, churches and municipal buildings, and brought their customs - nearly every town has a bullring. The settlements in the valley all come with chapels and bell towers, rectilinear cobbled streets, houses of adobe blocks, teeny doorways topped with wooden lintels, wonky balconies, lazing dogs and tenebrous shops where you're never quite sure who might be lurking in the shadows or how long the merchandise has been on sale. The shops never have change and sell cigarettes in twos.
In Tambomarca the houses were particularly neat, painted celestial blue and party-cake green, old rusting pots hooked to their walls sprouting vivid geraniums. An old man with only one tooth in his lower gum sat chatting to his friend beneath the blinding white arch by the handsome chapel, and explained to me how he hoed his terraces with his hand-and-foot plough. His face was burnished a deep red-brown, like his fields.
We climbed up from Alca and the valley floor to Puica at 3,700 metres, perched on the only non-precipitous land for miles around. It was only 7.30 when we arrived, but already the sun was prickly hot. I ambled down to the church, which abutted an empty bullring with stone seating. It was the day after the Day of the Dead, and the tombs in the graveyard were all adorned with fresh flowers and cheap decorations. There were dark patches in the earth in front of them, where their families had burnt candles in remembrance. The church warden had had help from Matisse: the bell tower's inner walls were painted Mediterranean blue.
A man in a grubby purple football shirt showed me the Municipalidad's dank and dingy rooms for rent, and its collection of beautiful framed photos of all the attractions in the area. Above the village, to the south, the mountain's outline looked like the profile a sleeping Indian, with an Incan nose, pot belly and a jagged outcrop where his genitals would be. We sniggered together and I bought chocolate in the local shop whose owner ran a hostel with the coldest water I've ever felt come out of shower.
I'd told my driver José that I needed shots of people. On our way back down, I went off to take a photo and returned to find he'd cut a deal with a local woman: I would take her photograph and she would get a lift. Regina was in her late twenties, and donned a round-brimmed hat topped with a fake flower with a petal or two missing, a crimson cardigan and a fuchsia skirt. She spun a thread of the most lurid, early-90s-rave-green I've seen for a while as I clicked away and tried to make her laugh.
We bumped back down to the valley, crossed a bridge and began climbing again. The road was steep and sandy, and the engine roared with the effort as we spun again and again round hairpin bends. We reached Pampamarca at around midday, the heat now intense, and not a soul populating its expansive square; only a minivan sulked beneath a vast molle tree. We walked to the nearby lookout point, along a path of rocks baking beneath the high Andean sun, lined with candelabra cactus with evil two-inch spikes that sprouted delicate, saintly yellow flowers.
Hundreds of metres below the lookout point, the river shot through a narrow mouth, a 50-metre staircase on its race to the sea. The cliffs around the waterfall glowed a ghostly green. Water droplets bellowed into the valley it has been scratching like an itch for millennia. From the lush fields and bright bunches of yellow rape seed, the canyon's walls rose on the left in sheer, shadowed cliffs, while on the right, the valley curved round in a convex arch to the village, every flat surface put to use, every gradient tamed, the terraces lapping like wavelets down the hillsides. High above the village, on the canyon's lip, an ash-grey forest of eroded stone sentinels fingered into the blue skies above.
"One, two, three, good night," said the small boy with a mewling kitten in the sack on his back and five sheep which his friend led by a string attached to a ewe. "Toma foto, sí," he told me, half gravely. And then he posed with his friend, and his sheep, with the backdrop of the valley and its snow-capped peak beyond.
We returned to the valley, and juddered along to the town of Cotahuasi, the valley's most important. Its name comes from the Quechua words 'cota' (union) and 'huasi' (house): united house, or close-knit community. We kept going, winding down the course of the river, past farms of adobe houses with their pocket-sized windows and shiny zinc roofs, fig trees shading their gardens, until we parked the car where the road ended. We crossed a suspension bridge and continued on foot, along a path which hugged the river's left bank, recently widened by a bulldozer. The heat and dust were stifling.
We rounded a corner and heard a cry. A man in a hard hat was shouting. He was whistling and gesturing outwards with his arms in cartoon fashion. I'm not the sharpest tool in the box sometimes, and it took José to tell me what was patently obvious: a road-builder was telling us he'd set dynamite charges ahead. We took cover by the bulldozer parked on the roadside. Not five seconds later, an almighty explosion ripped from cliff to cliff to cliff, a cloud of smoke erupted about 100 metres in front of us, and small rocks and dust rained down from above. I reminded myself to tip José generously at the end of the trip.
Ten minutes' on from the rock blast we came to the Cataratas de Sipia. A few kilometres downstream, the Río Cotahuasi cuts its deepest swathe: 3,354 metres (11,000 ft) from tip to toe, no less. The cataracts are in part responsible for this extraordinary depth. Here, the roiling river has sheered through its bed, creating a canyon into which it plunges with a noise and energy that is hard to describe. Slightly further downstream, a lookout point provides a view of the first cataract plunging into the abyss. But beyond it is only your imagination, since to get too close to the edge in the squalling winds of the canyon would be tempting fate. So soon after having nearly been blown to smithereens by dynamite, I stuck to the safe spots, content to marvel at the rumbling thunder and the dancing mists exhaled from the depths below.
In Cotahuasi, we had supper in a restaurant run by a busying lady in her forties. A television blared an action movie in the corner, arachnid electrical arrangements provided lighting and we shared a long table with the other clients who ebbed and flowed in and out. The food was excellent. Total cost, with beer, $2. "Israeli travellers would really enjoy Cotahuasi," joked José. "They'd stay for ages."
They're not the only ones. The next morning we were up at the canyon's rim soon after dawn, the morning sun lighting its tawny western flanks, feeling its way down to the river bed like a blind man tapping with his cane. The rest of the vast panorama remained hidden from it, washed in hazy mauve, hoarding its dew, reluctant to give up its secrets so easily. I took my last photos, finished my last cigarette and got back in the car. The Cotahuasi Canyon is one of the hardest places I've ever had to leave.