After our day running the dunes in Parcas Park and then flying over the Nazca lines we had a choice to make, do we continue on the standard Peru trail to the white city of Arquipa or do we head directly east into the Andes across the less explored terrain of volcanos and canyons…. Thankfully Duncan and I were of the same mind so we pointed Nelson east and headed into the mountains leaving the heat of the coastal plain behind as the first volcano came into view.
I did have some concern about this route, it starts at 0 meters on the beach at Puerto Inca and end up on a canyon lip at 4500m, normally over 3000m it is advised not to sleep more than 500m up from the previous nights sleeping altitude so this was really a bit inadvisable for a day trip. We had taken the precaution of taking diamox for two days ahead of this climb to help with the symptoms of altitude sickness and we were sucking on cocoa sweets which were supposed to help as well. Before we set off in the morning we both agreed that the other could make the call if one of us seemed to be acting a bit strange or drunk and we would come back down in altitude and we check the maps for routes to the base of the canyon which was around 1500m.
All these precautions were in the end unnecessary as fate intervened, as we approached the junction at 3500m to head to Cotahuasi canyon we bumped over some 2 or 3 feet high earth ramps in the road, no obstacle to Nelson but I said to Duncan “I wonder what that is all about”. A few km later we found out, when the road was blocked by a 2 meter high earth ramp and traffic backed up in a que for a few hundred meters. Leaving Duncan to look after the car I wandered up to the front of the que to see what was going on with the large crowd of protestors who were manning the barricade. In these circumstances introducing yourself as a tourist and asking what was going on, with appropriate shaking of hands is good form and quickly I was offered tea and an explanation by the leaders of a pretty big protest group. Once again I was so pleased that I had taken the advice of other travellers and spent time learning basic Spanish before the trip.
It seemed that a mining company working to extract minerals in the mountains above had contaminated the water supply to the local village, so they had blocked the road in protest using a backhoe to dig out trenches on both sides of the road 2m across and depositing the material in the road, so there was no way past on either side, and they had chosen a location which was bounded by a river and a lake so there were no side roads or even cross land routes round the roadblock. It was clear that with the backup of about 50 protesters there was no way we were going through and it was about a 12 hour round trip to get to the canyon any other way so we were stuck.
I asked the protestors how long they thought the road would be closed and they said it would be open tomorrow, as it was already around 2pm it looked like we were stuck for the night, the protestors had come well equipped for a long siege with a kitchen set up on the side of the road and even the kids helping out with preparation of food for the crowd of protestors. I walked back to Duncan and told him we were likely to be stuck until morning so we popped the roof and put on the coffee, sometimes its best just to accept the situation and get on with reading or sorting out the car. After all we were probably the best equipped for a night in the high altitude desert of all the folks in the line of cars and trucks.
Having made our introductions, and it was clear that we were friendly and not going to try to “run” the bockade, then we became the centre of interest for the kids and finally the whole group of village elders were brought over to see our amazing truck (their words) so I ended up pushing my Spanish to the limit and handing out coffee and explaining my travels and the design of the “small house on wheels”. I think that I gave about four or five tours of the truck over two hours. The village elders even came up in a group and apologised for the inconvenience of the barricade, but in the hope that we would understand they had to protest to get clean uncontaminated water for their families. So there was a nice atmosphere in the que broken occasionally when a motorist would come along, drive to the top of the line and argue with the protestors for a bit, we stayed well out of that as both sides had been drinking a bit by this point.
We were pretty remote at this location so we did not see any Police, perhaps they were staying well out of the way, and no one from the mining company made an appearance but it was a nice way to meet and chat with the locals
So we did end up staying the night at the barricade, fortunately we had some emergency rations, in this case a very nice veg curry and Nelson has a heater which we could use until we went to bed in our warm sleeping bags and in the morning to melt the ice of the canvas, it is very cold at night at 3500 with no cloud cover, but the stars were nice for as long as one could stand outside and bear the cold (I still need to work out how to photograph stars so no pictures)
Overnight they cleared the barrier with a JCB and in the morning we set off for the main point of the trip the crossing of the two grand canyons of Cotahuasi and Colcoa both of which are, to my surprise, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the USA and the former is the deepest canyon in the world. The route we were going to follow would take us past volcanos like the one below.
We drove down into the bottom of both of the canyons on impossible small roads
Which led to super views and shadows from the sun cutting into the canyon
Some of the roads however were on the scary side, etched into sheer cliffs they clung impossibly to the contours of the rock with nothing but a thousand feet of air between us and the raging river below.
On the first night we camped on a small outcrop of rock surrounded by three sides with the steep drop into the bottom of Cotahuasi canyon it has to be one of my best ever wild camping sites, fortunately there was very little traffic on the roads we took, just as well as getting past an oncoming car or minbus would be quite a tricky proposition in places.
On the plains above the canyons there was a good deal of wildlife including Alpacas, Flamingos and Llamas as you can see below
The flamencos are quite shy and flew away as we approached the small lake they were feeding in but they did have a lovely pink and red colouring which I hope you can see below.
It is a bit strange to be driving up for 3000m in low ratio on tricky hairpins and then to find yourself on a reasonably flat plain, the altiplano, at the top of the steep hills. On these plains there is quite a lot of seasonal grazing with weatherbeaten shepards looking after mixed flocks of sheep, goats, Llamas and alpacas
These pictures are all taken at an altitude of about 4300m, it is very easy to run out of breath as soon as you climb a few steps to get a better vantage point for the photo
Unlike us who were wheezing at every small effort the Alpacas could really shift if startled
It is hard from a photo to get the impression of the size and the scale of these landscapes but these canyons are enormous, often over 3000m from lip to the river at the base and we went down into the canyon and crossed the river to go up again on the other side of both canyons.
The snow capped mountain in this view is at 6000m while the base of the canyon below us is only at 1600m, it was only early this year that a small dirt road was created in the canyons to join up the routes so that we did not have to go down to the coast to get across between the canyons, Most maps do not show the new route yet so it has not opened up to tourism, in our day crossing between the canyons we saw very few other cars mostly because the tour companies have not yet added it to their offering and most folks would look at the map and think it was not possible (we benefited from a recent iOverlander post saying it was open)
The rocks do not suffer from strong erosion of ice sheets or even much rainfall so the strata are a stark lesson in geography everywhere you look, we had two full days of views like this one
As we approached the end of our canyon tour at Cabanaconde we were lucky to see a few condors flying over the canyon as the sun set, crossing the canyons had taken two full days of 9 hours of driving but it was among the most spectacular driving days of all my trips given the amazing changes in height, the difficult roads and the astounding scenery.
As the sun went down the layers of the canyons were even more clear as the shadows started to build up, the next day we were rewarded with some lovely views over the canyon and a very nice breakfast at the mirador we stopped at for the night
Not a bad view for breakfast, overlooking Colca canyon
So we were feeling very pleased and dust covered after our two day trip across the canyons during which we had hardly seen anyone else and we felt we had really found a super adventure, it was difficult long and with tricky roads in places sometimes with twenty hairpins in a row on gravel tracks with big ruts, but we had a great sense of achievement.
As we drove from the mirador and our lovely breakfast we were in for a bit of a culture shock, just further along is a part of the canyon which can be reached from Arequipa in day long round trip, we saw minibus after minibus come along the road and deposit their passengers on “condor watching” car parks full of similar minibuses and stands for local produce, we estimated that there must have been 50 or more buses and thousands of tourists all looking out from the same spot for the elusive condors.
Little did they know that the local people put dead animals below the lookouts to attract the condors to those lookouts and keep the trade going although we did not see any condors as we passed.
We also went to the town of Chivay to get some money and diesel, it is a lovely little town all well painted and clean around a Spanish style village square very like the ones we had seen in many villages on the trip, however this village had little in common with the normal villages of the Andes, the square was full of tourists, the shops surrounding the square sold cake and expressos or burgers and chips and the local people were all dressed up in colourful costumes you would only see on feast days in the mountains with baby alpacas under their arms or brightly dressed children beside them for a photo opportunity. This village had been transformed by tourism into something which has very little to do with the life we had seen in the mountains over the previous three days.
I suppose each thing has its place but I was pleased that we had spent time in the remote hills as part of our trip and I did enjoy some excellent coffee and lemon meringue pie to keep me going !