Adventure Travel in Peru - The Valley of the Volcanoes
By Vic Hanson
I have driven from Arequipa to Cotahuasi many times and have been interested in some of the side roads that we pass. One of them has a sign that says it goes to Cabanaconde, on the rim of the Colca Canyon. Another one goes in the direction of Colca Canyon around the backside of Nevado Coropuna. I have always wondered if it is possible to drive directly to Colca Canyon from Cotahuasi, where I live, rather than going all the way around through Arequipa, which is the normal way. I have a map that shows a road there, but it also shows roads in my area that I know do not exist.
I had been told that this road doesn't exist either, but then a friend of mine, Marcio, who is a guide here, said there really is a road there. Now that I have my 4x4 van, we, along with Frank, who is doing research to update his Peru Travel Guidebook, decided to check it out and see if we could drive all the way to Chivay, at the entrance to Colca Canyon. We started in Arequipa on Friday morning, and on the way to Cotahuasi, we stopped at the Majes River Lodge, which is just a few minutes off the main road. They have a number of bungalows, a pool, outdoor eating areas, and very interestingly, a parking area that is in an old bull-fighting ring. Julio, the owner, is a major promoter of tourism in the area, and he took us to see a hillside that was covered with pre-Inca graves. Vandals and erosion have uncovered many of them and there are pieces of clothing, straw baskets, and pottery, as well as bones and even complete skulls laying all over the place. I have seen many gravesites here in Peru but none as extensive as this. Julio said there are thousands of graves, which I didn't believe, until we saw them, they are everywhere. There are also dinosaur bones and petroglyphs but we didn't take time to go see them.
We told Julio of our plans to drive from Cotahuasi to Chivay and asked him if he knew anything about the condition of the road. He mentioned a number of towns on the route, including Andahua, where we wanted to stop, and others I didn't recognize. He said the road is good to Andahua, fair to Orcopampa, and very good from there to Chivay, because there are mines in Orcopampa and they have fixed up the road. We later found out that the Reyna bus line also goes all the way to Orcopampa and the ticket agent confirmed what Julio had said about the roads.
After spending a few days in Cotahuasi, we left at 8:30 am on Tuesday, and arrived at the cutoff to Andahua two hours later. From here we were on a road that was new to us, on the high plain at just over 14,000 feet. I was surprised at the number of houses we saw near the road, which belonged to llama herders. We saw a number of both llamas and herders, walking on paths along the road. We also had a great view of the north side of Coropuna, which I had never seen before. As I looked ahead, I could see some loaded burros, and a few people walking down the road. I assumed it was some of the local herders, however as we got closer to them, it looked like they had large backpacks, like hikers or climbers would use. We could soon see that there were two gringos, a very rare sight in such a remote location. We stopped and talked to them for a few minutes, and found out that they were archeologists, doing some geological studies of Coropuna and the ancient ruins in the area.
After two more hours of driving, passing above 15,400 feet, and taking many more photos of Coropuna and other sights, we arrived at Andahua without any problems. We did have one more surprise though, we picked up a hitchhiker in the middle of nowhere, he was a schoolteacher on his way to Andahua. He teaches in a one-room school and said he has 14 students in grades one through six. He told us a lot about the area, including the fact that there wasn't a gas station in Andahua; the nearest one is in Orcopampa, about an hour and a half away. Fortunately, we have enough fuel to get there, but I still hate driving around on these roads with less than a half of a tank of fuel.
After we reached Andahua, we stopped and looked at best looking hostel, the rooms weren't too bad but the bathrooms left a lot to be desired. Although they do have fresh air, the back is wide open, facing the building next door. No one answered the door at the next hostel, which was still under construction, so we went back to the first one. After checking into the hostel, we decided to go for a hike up one of the volcanic craters outside of the village. We met a young man named Antonio, at the base of the crater, and he joined us on the hike to the summit, which is about 12,000 feet. We found out he used to live here, but now was just visiting from Arequipa. We took many more photos and were about ready to leave when Antonio took out a cell phone and to our surprise told us there was a signal there, as there was a clear line of sight down the valley to Aplao. I needed to make a call to Arequipa about my car, and just happened to have my cell phone in my daypack, so was able to make the call from there. The village does have regular phone service, but no cell phone service. I had some free minutes left on my phone, so was happy to be able to use them before they expire.
Back down in the village, we stopped at the local Internet, which had agonizingly slow satellite service for about 28 cents for 30 minutes. It was really starting to get cold by then as the sun was about to set, the village is at 11,450 feet, and it is fall here. I found a sidewalk vender selling french fries for 56 cents, which with a banana, was my dinner. While I was eating, Marcio went and looked at the other hostel that was now open, and found out that it has a very nice bathroom. At least we know for next time! It's now 7:25 and my hands are getting too cold to type much longer, but I have to quit soon anyway as the outlet in our room doesn't work and my laptop battery is almost dead. Tomorrow we plan on doing some more hiking, maybe to a waterfall, and then in the afternoon we will drive on to Orcopampa.
The restaurant selection isn't too good in Andahua, so we bought some fruit, bread and jam, and ate in our room this morning. It was cold when I got up at 6:30 but the sun rose soon after that and the sunlight coming in the window took the chill off the room. I went next door to the city office, where we had gotten some tourist brochures yesterday, to check on a guide to show us some of the sights. I met the mayor and he said one of his workers would show us around. We drove on a poor winding road, up, down, and around some craters and, then hiked down to see a waterfall. It was a very poor trail and I was thinking that it wouldn't be too popular with the average tourist, but then found out that there is a much better trail on the other side of the river. That is a longer hike, all the way from the village and we didn't have time for that, which is why he took us on the poor trail. The waterfall was nice, and quite interesting, as the water was also coming out of the mountain in various places from an old canal, which was actually a tunnel in the rocks.
The Andahua River cuts through a number of narrow and very deep slot canyons, so deep that we could hardly see the river because it was so dark at the bottom, even though it was a bright sunlit day. We crossed the canyon in one place on what looked like a natural bridge, but when we walked upstream a ways, we could see that there was an old stone bridge underneath the dirt path, which must have been 400 or more feet above the river. Actually it wasn't really dirt; most of the area is covered with fine black volcanic sand, which was very tiring to walk on. We also went to see some pre-Inca ruins, which seem to be everywhere around here.
At 3:00 in the afternoon, we left Andahua for Orcopampa, and were delighted to find out that the road was in quite good condition, in most places better than the road to Cotahuasi. For much of the way, it follows along (and once through) the Andahua River, which was now flowing through a wide flat valley, between two mountain ranges. Orcopampa is a busy mining village, and we had trouble finding a hostel with rooms available. Finally on our fourth try, we found one, supposedly with cable TVs and hot water showers, and even an enclosed garage for my car. The rooms are small and dingy, no reception on the TV, there is no water at all, not even cold, and a couple of miners tried to get the only parking spot from me (they didn't succeed), but we have beds to sleep on, so we are thankful for that.
Last night before I went to bed, I added an extra blanket from the empty bed next to me. I still got a little chilly during the night so took one more blanket and then slept better; except for when the bus honked it's horn long and loud at about 3:00 am! That's when it arrives from Arequipa and then continues on to Orcopampa. Tonight I got my sleeping bag out of the car and am using that, as we are even higher up, about 12,490 feet. We walked around for a bit and found a nice restaurant, where we had dinner. On the way back to the hostel, we passed one of the three Internet signs we had seen when we were looking for a gas station. I almost didn't stop, after the bad experience last night, but when I got close to the sign I saw that it said "Speedy", which is the telephone company's high-speed service here. It wasn't as fast as in Arequipa, but better than the dial-up service I have at home, and a huge improvement over last night.
Tomorrow we go to Chivay and Cabanaconde on the other side of Colca Canyon, and again we have received varying reports of the road's condition, from bad, due to the recent rainy season, to very good, because of the mines. The road today, which passed a mine, was in great shape for the last few kilometers into Orcopampa, so that gives us some hope for tomorrow as well, as there are many more mines along the way.
We had planned on leaving this morning (Thursday) at 7:00, and I was concerned that my car might not start because of the cold. I didn't start it until 10:00 am yesterday, after the temperature had warmed up quite a bit, and it didn't start very quickly, it took a lot of cranking. There was a good layer of ice on the water container outside when I got up at 6:15, but thankfully it did start, again after much cranking. I had planned on going back to Cotahuasi tomorrow, but have decided that I better return to Arequipa and get the cold starting problem checked. By 6:45, we were on the road, which after a climb up to the high plain, remained above 13,000 feet for the next five hours, reaching 14,980 feet at the highest point.
The road started out about the same as yesterday, fair with enough potholes and curves to keep our speed down to 25 to 40 kph most of the time. However once we got up on the high plain, it turned into a good gravel road, which was nice and wide as well. After being able to go 60 to 70 kph for a half hour or so, we came to a fork in the road. The map we have showed a road going straight and one angling off to the left. They both arrived at the same place, but the left fork was quite a bit longer.
The good road continued straight ahead, which we were going to take, but the road sign said that it went to a vicuņa reserve, and the left fork went to our destination. Because the maps here are often not correct, we regretfully took the left fork, which was a much poorer road. It meandered all over the place, finally meeting up with a good road again, coming from the direction of the previous junction. Sure enough, when we looked back at the sign on that road, it said "vicuņa reserve". Why the previous sign said to go around I don't know, but next time we will know better and go through the reserve on the good road. Less than an hour later, the road turned real bad, full of holes and washboard, and we were back down to 20 to 30 kph again.
A couple of hours later, I could see what looked like road construction in the distance ahead of us. It was, and when we reached there, we had to wait about 10 minutes for three dump trucks to unload and a bulldozer to spread out the gravel. After that, we were able to continue, on a much-improved road. It stayed good all the way to the bottom of Colca Canyon, where we crossed a bridge and continued on our way. However we soon realized that we were going the wrong direction, when Frank looked back at an intersection and saw a sign that said Chivay was the other way. We turned around and headed back, and soon found the correct road back on the other side of the river. There was only a sign for Chivay if you were coming from Arequipa or Cusco, there wasn't one coming from the back way like we did. We noticed this numerous times on our trip, so we got pretty good at looking back at intersections, but this one we missed.
From Orcopampa, we arrived in Chivay in about six hours and 10 minutes, which we were pleased with, considering that from what some people had told us, it could have taken much longer. Twenty minutes later, after taking our first showers since leaving Cotahuasi, we were relaxing and soaking in the popular hot springs just outside of Chivay. It really felt good after three days of dust filled driving, much of it on rough and tiring, high altitude roads. I don't think I am ready to take the trip again soon, but at least now I know that it is possible and I know the correct route.
Vic Hanson is the founder of Adventure Cotahuasi Tours, which offers pre-planned and custom adventure travel tours in Cotahuasi Canyon and other areas of Peru.
If you are interested in your own adventure in Peru, check us out!
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