Peru 2003 

The Cotahuasi Canyon

July 19 - July 31

Cotahuasi Canyon is the deepest canyon in the word, deeper by far than the Grand Canyon. This adventure offers stunning canyon walls, a wild river below your path, ruins and a string of Quechua villages all along the way. This backpacking trip is well worth the effort.

The canyon is reached after a grueling and uncomfortable 12-hour bus ride from Arequipa. The bus leaves in the late afternoon, which gives little time for scenery. Sadly, the return from the town of Cotahuasi also leaves in the late afternoon, but at least one can see a few hours of remarkable landscape before the sun sets.

Cotahuasi Canyon is scarcely hiked by backpackers---I saw none. The town itself presents a contrast to Cabanaconde, which is the town serving as the beginning of the Colca Canyon hike which I did one year ago. (Colca is the second deepest canyon in the world.) It is not really set up for tourism. I tried every restaurant in town to get a dinner with a beer, and it was impossible. This is outrageous, of course. But it also means you will have the whole place to yourself.

I stayed in the Hostal Huntahuasi ($3 a night, full board available) which offers a family atmosphere and comes highly recommended---by me. 

I spent 8 days walking the canyon. One could hike it in four or five, but such a pace would deny you much of the reason for backpacking there in the first place. Everywhere and at all times you are surrounded with dizzyingly high canyon walls, a ridiculously vertiginous path, a roaring river at times hundreds of meters below and the occasional local walking with his mule.

There are concerns here, as with any place. These are sun, wind, dust, height and disease---Chagas Disease, to be exact.

Sun: There is little shade anywhere, and none at all while on the trails. You must lather on the sun block or you will suffer dearly from severe sun burn. The tropical sun has enormous burning power and reflects off the rocky trail and the canyon walls. Take this warning seriously or your trip will be ruined. Where a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.

Wind: At times the path along the canyon wall is dangerous. There are parts where a sudden gust could put you over the edge of the trail and into oblivion far below. Take heed. If the day is windy consider waiting out the wind.

Dust: It is everywhere and gets into everything. You just have to get used to this.

Height: Those with vertigo should avoid this hike. Many times the trail seems such a trifle as the canyon  walls rise far overhead and the river rushes by far, far below.

Chagas Disease: This is carried by a bug that lives in the typical wattle and mud houses built by the Indians who live in the Andes. You will see this type of house in the canyon. This disease once depopulated several villages along this route but now the government has taken strides to eliminate the bug. Always sleep in your tent, do not sleep in one of these houses. If you must then soak yourself with DEET. Keep a candle burning all night.

Good places to camp are about three hours apart. There is usually no water except at these wild campsites. You will be walking from Cotahuasi - Sipia - Chaupo - San Cay - Velinga - Huña - Quechalla, and then return mostly the same way. Until Quechualla you will be walking mostly downhill. There are no supplies available after leaving Cotahuasi.



Between Sipia and Chaupo

Alcides Llamoca

Camping at Alcides´ house


The Cotahuasi Canyon


San Cay


Near Velinga


Typical footbridge


Walking above the river




The ruins at Huña


Typical canyon view


Walk out of the town toward Sipia. These are 150 meter falls whose roar you will hear long before you get there. There is a road about two-thirds of the way, but many switchbacks taken by the locals who walk---and they all walk. You will be crossing two brides, one of concrete and the other a rickety foot bridge. Ten minutes before the falls you will see the path divide, the left going to Chaupo, the right going to the falls. Time: 3 hours.


Backtrack a bit to the fork that goes to Chaupo. This is a little village inhabited by perhaps twenty people. There are excellent camp sites here and lots of water. I stayed with Alcides Llamoca, a worker on one of the little farms in the village. Time: 3 hours.


One-half hour out of Chaupo you will come to another fork, the left going up to the attractive village of San Cay, the other continuing across a dry pampa to the village of Velinga. I went to San Cay, where there are many campsites and plentiful water. As soon as I arrived some locals gave me chicha, which is a mildly alcoholic drink made from corn that has been well-chewed and then fermented. This produces a liquid with an entertaining taste---but just forget it has been made with saliva. I was surrounded by curious children my entire time there, so my ideas of solitude went out the window. Time: 3 hours.


There are two routes to Velinga, one of which is extremely dangerous with a backpack on. This route leads out of the village toward Velinga, which soon becomes visible lying on a Pampa far below. Take a photo, and then return to the village without continuing on this trail. I attempted it without my pack and almost fell to my death---or at least it seemed that way. You will have to backtrack a bit to the first ridge that rises on the trail leaving the village. Ask the locals the proper way. You will be dropping to the trail that goes to Velinga further down the canyon. I did not enter the village as I did not want to be the center of attention again, but camped along the river. Time: 3 hours.



You will be heading toward Quechualla, which is the last village along the river. There is a bridge across the river here that leads to a pampa high above. Do not take this, but continue down river. You will soon cross another bridge, and then one hour later you will arrive at the ruins of Huña. These are much larger than Machu Picchu, but dilapidated. They extend for about a kilometer. I camped in them---an unforgettable experience. Where else can one camp alone in ancient ruins? At night I heard the voices of the long-dead Inca. You probably do not believe me but no matter. You were not there. Time: 3 hours.


Continue to Quechualla, about one hour away after crossing yet another bridge close to the ruins. Here I stayed for about an hour before heading back  to my campsite below Velinga. Time: 4 hours.


Leaving the campsite below Velinga, head for Chaupo by the route that avoids the climb to San Cay. You will be walking among huge cacti. I stayed another night in Chaupo with Alicides. Time: 3 hours.


I made it all the way back to Cotahuasi because I was lucky enough to find a ride at the end of the road that goes to Sipia from Cotahuasi. Time: 4 hours.


The ruins of Kuelap and Gran Vilaya

August 12 - 27



Without question this was one of my finest and most rewarding backpacking experiences. It offers everything: stunning landscapes, an entire valley filled with ruins, Inca roads, water and wild camping all along the route, a string of remote villages and not another gringo in sight. It is not easy though, and presents a backpacker with some tough challenges. There will more than  likely be rain; you will be reliant upon your own resources and those of the locals you meet; the total descent and ascent over 13 days approaches 10,000 meters.


I would be hesitant to do this hike without reasonable Spanish, absolutely reliable equipment, knowledge of emergency medicine and long experience in difficult hiking. You will need two topographical maps of this region, Chachapoyas and Lonya, both available from the Instituto Geografico Nacional in Lima. GPS experience and land navigation skills are not really necessary unless you plan to venture far a field from the route below. You should carry 10 days worth of provisions. Some is available on route, but no fuel. Locals will cook meals for you and let you sleep in their house or pitch your tent in their yard. Here you will have an outstanding opportunity to see rural Peru at its most remote.


This walk begins at the town of Chachapoyas, reached by a 22 hour bus ride from Lima, or---better---11 hours from the city of Chiclayo. This city itself boasts some fine ruins at the sites of Túcume and Sipán.


Chachapoyas is named after the people who lived in the area from c. 1000 AD until the Spanish conquest (1531-1533). They were organized in a series of mutually independent city-states much like the ancient Greeks. They were usually at war among themselves---again like the Greeks---and could not present much of a united front when the Incas came around 1450. Warfare being the rule, their cities were built around hilltop fortresses---as were the Greek city-states---among which Kuelap is a fine example. Roads stretched between each Chachapoyan city, and it was the discovery of these roads by Gene Savoy in the 1960s that led to the opening up of the area to archeologists. So far more than 80 lost cities have been discovered, and scientists believe far more lie buried between the rivers Utcubamba and Marañon.


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Near one of the three entrances of Kuelap

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Exterior wall of Kuelap

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Another view of the exterior wall

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Lonya Grande

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Resting along an Inca road near Vilaya

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Family near Vistahermosa

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Forest  near Abra Yumal 

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View of terrain in Vilaya

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Chilling at El Chillo

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Landscape near Chachapoyas

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Landscape near Ocalli


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Typical Chachapoyan house at Kuelap


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Interior wall at Kuelap



The walk to the village of Levanto will take 5 hours. It is on an almost perfect Inca road. Bring water and sun screen.  Levanto was one of the great Chachapoyan centers. Above it 30 minutes away are the extensive ruins of Yalape. I stayed 2 nights at one of the Tambos Chachapoyanos, a series of hostals built by American Charles Motley to bring more tourism to the area. 


The next stop is half-way to Magdalena and Tingo, which are really sister villages along the Rio Utcubamba. Head out of Levanto on the road toward Mayno. After 30 minutes you will see a definite trail leading off to the right and down---way down---to a valley. There is water along the way. I camped in the valley along a river after three hours of walking.




The trail continues on the left bank of the river and heads upwards to a road. You will have to scratch around a bit. Eventually you will come to the obvious route to the Utcubamba, and then on to Magdalena and Tingo, both visible while still an hour away. You will see the difficult route to the ruins of Kuelap as it winds up from Tingo. You can stay in Magdalena or at El Chillo, about one hour more along the river. Here there is hot water, full board and a family atmosphere---highly recommended. I stayed two nights and washed clothes, explored the area---including an Inca road that leads into Magdalena---and enjoyed cold beer. I walked five hours from the valley to El Chillo.



The South American Handbook mentions a route to Kuelap from El Chillo, but landslides have taken it away. (I had taken this route in 1997.)To get to Kuelap you have three options: take a taxi, walk the boring route from Tingo, or enter from the village of Nogalcucho. I chose this route. The village is a 30 minute walk along the road that goes to Leimabamba from El Chillo. It is far more interesting than the walk from Tingo, but takes longer. You walk along a river on a gentle ascent until the trail veers sharply upward to your right about two hours from Nogalcucho. I camped right before the ascent near a small and vacant campesino house. If you choose to carry on from here you should know that water is scarce until you reach the first village some hours above.


This day will take you right to the ruins of Kuelap, known locally as la fortaleza. The obvious trail ascends for three hours through farm land. The ruins will be visible while you are still two hours away. You can either camp at the government sponsored hostal right below them or stay at a local hostal, El Bebedero, very nearby. I stayed there two nights as there was beer to be had and meals were served. The ruins will take all day to explore.

(By the way, it is written that Kuelap has more stone than the Great Pyramid at Giza. This is absurd. Kuelap was built using 100,000 stones while the Great Pyramid boats 2,300,000, each much larger than any at Kuelap. Napoleon calculated that the stones from the pyramid could from a wall around France 12 feet high and 3 feet wide---which is an idea still worth considering.)


The next stage of this hike will take you to the village of Choctamal, which is the entry point to the Gran Vilaya region. You can walk the five hour road that leads from Kuelap to Choctamal or arrange transport from the parking lot behind Kuelap as I did. The reason was that the road was dusty, there was no shade and many combis and taxis heading to and from either Tingo or Kuelap made walking unpleasant. If you do walk plan on breaking the hike at the village of Maria, about half way to Choctamal. There are a number of hostals there. I stayed at another of the Tambos Chachapoyanos right before Choctamal.

DAY 10

Now begins the real journey, the descent into Gran Vilaya. Head toward the pass at Abra Yumal about 4 hours away; it is all uphill on a road. There is OK camping and water on the way, but why dally? Once at the pass, you will see what remains of the road heading to your left, a trail heading to your right, and trail descending steeply into a valley---this is your path. There is camping and water about 30 minutes in. 

DAY 11

For the next 6 - 7 hours you will be descending from a cold cloud forest to a tropical valley, that of Gran Vilaya. It is a drop of one mile, and can be a bit precarious after a rain. There is much mud; walk with care. There is also much traffic, as the locals use this trail as a highway to transport goods from Choctamal to the valley. You will encounter many mules and horses on route, a good thing if you get injured and need some quick transportation out. I stayed with a family in the village of Vistahermosa. There are some supplies available here, mainly sodas and crackers.

DAY 12

From Vistahermosa you have choices: you can take the usual route and go to Belen, which is a plateau about 6 hours from Vistahermosa---all uphill. Or you can head down the valley to the village of Ocalli two days away. Since this was the road less taken, I chose it. Ask locals for advice, and also for assistance in getting to the many ruins spread all around the area. I walked three hours until some rain blew in, and so I stayed with a family in San Felipe. 

DAY 13

From San Felipe the route is very up and very down as you traverse a canyon and its many comings and goings. I camped at a river after about 4 hours of this.

DAY 14

I made the village of Ocalli  after four long hours of ascents and descents. There is only one place to stay, the San Simon Hostal. Transport leaves every morning for Lonya Grande. Ask the locals. 

Your backpacking ends at Ocalli. You can make Lonya Grande in 5 hours in a truck---a very rough road. From Lonya you can make connections to Jaen and on to Chachapoyas.



Cachora - Choquequirao - Huancacalle

September 9 - 21


This was one of the most difficult expeditions I have ever done---no, it was the most difficult. There are several reasons, among them being the 10,000 meters of climbing and descending it entails, and the two passes you must cross---one at 4200 meters, the other at 4600. It was also the most rewarding in my career---rewarding physically, mentally and spiritually.


Like all my expeditions, this was done solo. Undoubtedly going alone increases the difficulty. I cannot recommend it for the solo hiker unless he has a great deal of experience, good equipment (state-of-the-art gear is not necessary), a working knowledge of emergency medicine and is in superb shape. All expeditions must be self-sufficient, for little is available en route, at times not even water.


One of the many highlights of this hike is the Inca ruins of Choquequirao. The site of this city astonishes even those used to such things, compared to which Machu Picchu seems but a trifle, a touristy theme park full of the wide-bottomed and spandex clad. On a normal day Machu Picchu seems to have more visitors than a typical day at Disney World. I was alone in Choquequirao, with nothing to disturb but the ghosts of Inca long dead.


Your gear must be able to handle wind, rain, cold and icy nights. Over the ankle Gore-Tex boots are strongly recommended, as is a down sleeping bag suitable for at least  -15 centigrade. A full medical kit must be carried, including a wide-spectrum antibiotic and an emergency splint if bad luck follows you into the mountains. One hundred percent DEET is required, for there are ferocious biting flies the entire way, though fewer of them at altitude. All water must be treated with iodine, six drops per liter.

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Terracing at the ruins


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The entrance to the ruins


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Camping in pampa after Yanama



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Choquetacarpo Pass

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View of the Apurimac

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Mine entrance on the way to the pass at Choquetacarpo


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Looking toward Huancacalle



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The ruins


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500 year-old mine at 4000 meters


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What real camping should be


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Approaching the 4600 meter pass


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View from entrance to ruins


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Looking toward the Rio Victoria


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Resting at the ruins


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With two rangers


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Approaching 4600 meter pass

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Bridge over Apurimac

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Resting after Yanama

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Approaching 4600 meter pass


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On the way to Chuquisca


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View from the ruins


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Near the ruins


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View from the top


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View toward the Apurimac


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Toward the 4200 meter pass


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View from the ruins




Take a bus from Cuzco going toward Abancay. Ask to be let out at the road to Cachora, about 4 hours from Cuzco. From there it is a 2 hour walk far down to the village. There are two hostals there. I do not recommend continuing unless you arrive at noon or earlier, as between Cachora (2932 meters) and the first reasonable camp site there is no water.




You begin the day walking out of town on a clear path that eventually leads all the way to Choquequirao. The trail drops down and after about 30 minutes you will come to a valley. Keep to the left and begin a slight climb to a ridge from where you get  your first view of the Rio Apurimac far, far below. Continue on a hard descent to Santa Rosa, about 4 hours from Cachora. Here is fine camping and plenty of water, and a family that might cook meals for you.




The next day you continue descending to the Apurimac (1700 meters) 1 hour away. You may camp here if you wish. Cross the bridge and begin the hard climb to Chiquisca, 3 hours from the river. There is good camping and water here.




Choquequirao (3088 meters) is about 4 hours away on a clear trail that alternately climbs and descends---mostly climbs. Along the way there is water and 1 hour from the ruins are some farms that have set themselves up as purveyors of tourist wares: Coke and bottled water is available, and you might be able to coax a family into cooking you a meal. When you get to the entrance to the reserve where the ruins are, and if the rangers are not there, you can either wait for them to return or continue for 30 minutes along the trail that goes behind the rangers´ facilities to the obvious ridge to your right. The ruins are there. You can camp in the terraces but there is only a little drip of water. I stayed with the rangers for two nights. They are a wealth of information of the route ahead of you.




I stayed with the rangers, hung out in the ruins, and generally prepared for the days to come. This extra day paid off.




Well rested from your time at the ruins, you are ready for the hard stuff---and it is hard. (You will have to trust me here.) The trail first takes you to the Rio Victoria  (1750 meters) 4 hours away. It climbs hard  from the ruins for about an hour. At a grassy pampa you can see your destination, an amazing 1700 meters below. You can also see the next day's destination high up along a ridge across the valley to your right. There is no water until the river, but---alas!---there are several good camp sites. Once at the river the flies become a motley and biting throng. Across the Rio Victoria there are campsites around 15 minutes from where you descended. 




Your route today will take you 1700 meters straight up---or so it seems. Your destination is Maisal, a collection of huts about 4 hours from the river. There is water here, but you will have to share it with pigs, dogs, chickens, horses, mules and humans. Drink up, as there is no other water until long after you cross the 4200 meter pass that awaits you. You may camp at Maisal (3400 meters).




Carry at least 5 liters of water for this day and part of the next. You will be continuing up another 800 meters or so. The climate and fauna change remarkably as you leave Maisal and climb to the first pass. It becomes much colder, and there are fewer flies---but they still pursue. You will see holes dug into the hard rock about 3 hours from Maisal, and then 2 hours later you reach a 500 year-old lead and silver mine (4000 meters). Here there is good camping but no water. Make the best of it.




Head up along a trail with the mine on your right. One hour later you come to the pass (4200 meters)  from where you will get a view of the trail you will follow the next day: it stretches across the valley to your left and ascends to a pampa. Head down to the village of Yanama, where there are some provisions available. Continue to the river (1750 meters) and cross a bridge about an hour from the village. There is good camping and water on a pampa right above the river. Here I washed clothes and had a bath of sorts. The flies here are bold but slow. Kill as many as you can.


DAY 10


There will be no more water worries from now on. Head up to the pampa you saw the day before. Here there is water and camping, but it is only 2 hours from Yanama, so you will probably wish to continue. The trail is obvious and leads to the next pass at 4600 meters. You will not make it that day as it is another 6 hours from the pampa. You will be walking along a ridge high above river and valley which eventually narrows 4 hours from the pampa into a beautiful grassy plain where there is plentiful water and camping enough for a Roman cohort. 


DAY 11



This part of the hike is certainly the most stunning, with rocky outcroppings, sheer icy towers far above and snow-capped peaks staring down at you. The pampa where you camped narrows to a valley. The path goes right through the middle of it,  where soon appears an amazing Inca trail that leads to the pass and beyond. You will see another clear trail to your left. Stay away from it unless you want to suffer a stiff climb that actually leads to the pass but on a round-about route that is not much fun. (Now, how do I know this?) There is fine camping and abundant water all the way to the last part of the trail below the pass. I camped here. Upon awaking my rain-fly was covered with ice. Be warned, it is cold, windy and bleak here.


DAY 12


This pass is difficult, and can be dangerous---it was dangerous---early in the dry season as there was some tricky ice and snow the final 1 hour ascent. A trekking pole would be handy here. Once at the pass enjoy the views of the valley far below where you will be walking. From here it is a hard and long 5 hour descent to the road at the village of Huancacalle (3000 meters). I stayed at the Six Pack Manco Hostal. There is regular transport from this village to the real city of Quillabamba 4 hours away, and then on to Cuzco another 8 hours further.


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