A once-in-a-lifetime kayaking adventure through the deepest canyon in the world.
By Robert Bart
This was the sales pitch Gian Marco Vellutino gave Jay Gifford and I in late January, 2006 about the Cotahuasi River in Southwestern Peru.
Now, after almost three months of speculating what the river might hold, we were finally loading our kayaks onto Burros to start the sixteen-kilometer hike into Cotahuasi Canyon.
Little did we know that we would end up paddling the canyon at the highest flow ever attempted, which brought out a whole different side of the Cotahuasi..
The Cotahuasi ( pronounced cota-wasi ) river is a spectacular kayaking destination. The river flows through a canyon twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, which means paddlers are treated to jaw-dropping scenery throughout their trip. The river is as impressive as the scenery, featuring never-ending class IV-IV+ rapids punctuated by a handful of powerful class V drops.
To put it mildly, traveling to this phenomenal region of the world is a logistical challenge. But, if you are going to the Cotahuasi, there is no better person to have along than Gian Marco. Since making the first descent in 1994 on a trip sponsored by National Geographic, he has returned almost forty times to this amazing place. He is also the only person in the world who runs commercial rafting trips on the Cotahuasi ( currently one per year ). Gian Marco comes from a whitewater family and is one of the famous 'Vellutino brothers', known around the world for their tremendous kayaking prowess and for authoring many hard first descents in South America.
While many people envision Peru as a land of tropical jungles, southwestern Peru is quite different. The landscape is arid and barren, punctuated only by huge volcanoes and the occasional lush river canyon. The Cotahuasi River valley is one such oasis within the vast deserts of southwest Peru.
The remnants of the once-mighty Incan Empire can be found everywhere in Cotahuasi canyon. An elaborate system of trails cuts through the Cotahuasi valley, which for centuries served as the main transportation route for the Incans to bring goods from the ocean to the mountains. The sides of the canyons are also lined with stone terraces, which were once used to grow crops.
Incan ruins are still visible today in the Cotahuasi valley. These agricultural terraces are technological wonders; if you pour water on them, it spreads and flows evenly over them like a fountain. They are all perfectly level.
Arequipa is the largest city in southern Peru, and it served as the starting point for our journey to the Cotahuasi. On the first leg we paid Gian Marco’s sister to take us the first four hours, then we hired a second van to take us up and over the altiplano, a 16,000-foot mountain pass. This was much easier than using the local bus.
Loaded up and ready to go.
By South American standards the commute was fairly mild, but we were all glad it was dark so that we could not see the sheer drop-offs next to the road.
We found that beer helped pass the time on the long van ride.
Jay and Sergio enjoy some of the local brew.
We arrived at the river at about three in the morning, argued with the driver about the price of the ride, and then flopped on the ground for a few hours of sleep.
The next morning we awoke next to a dirt road, damp and a little sore. However, all of that was quickly forgotten once we looked out over the morning sunrise reflected off the walls of a magnificent desert canyon.. It was breathtaking.
After making breakfast, Jay and Gian Marco hiked their boats up the road three kilometers to run an upper section of the river. Unfortunately, I couldn't join them as I had noticed a large crack in my Gus the day before.
So, while everyone else had fun, I was forced to spend most of the day welding my boat back together. While I worked and sweated the morning away, I prayed to various Incan Gods that the boat wouldn't break somewhere in the middle of the canyon.
The author toils away welding his boat while Jay and Gian Marco paddle the upper three kilometers of the canyon.
The next morning we were joined by another kayaker named Keta, which increased our group size to six. A little while later the mules arrived to haul our gear into the canyon. On previous trips Gian Marco had hired mules from the town of Cotahuasi at the top of the canyon, but convincing the mules to carry gear down the steep trail into the canyon had proven to be a nightmare and somewhat dangerous.
So, Gian Marco had come up with a better solution: hire mules from the bottom of the canyon. This option was much safer because once loaded with gear, the mules were only too happy to walk home..
The mules, on their way home to the bottom of the canyon.
In a true 21st century moment, I asked Gian Marco how he communicates with the mule driver who lives at the bottom of the canyon. To my surprise, he casually replied: "I sent him an email." Gian Marco went on to explain that the Peruvian government recently installed satellite dishes in the most remote villages so that each one now has an Internet connection.
The 16-kilometer trail wound along the walls and around large rock formations, past a five hundred-foot cataract called Sipia Falls, before finally descending into the heart of the Cotahuasi River Canyon.
Checking out the massive cataract known as Sipia Falls during the hike to the put-in.
Nearing the bottom of the canyon and the main Cotahuasi.
The next morning we woke up, had a quick breakfast of oatmeal and black coffee and prepared to start the trip. Everyone's nerves were a little on edge because this was the first trip of the year, and the river had never been run this high. This was also the first training trip for a season of safety kayaking with Gian's rafting company, so it was to be a trial by fire for our team.
The author heads into the canyon with Incan ruins visible on river-right downstream.
Sergio is a raft guide who works for Gian Marco, and while he had proven himself a great paddle raft captain, this was only his second time piloting an oar rig. Needless to say, he was pretty gripped because of the high flows, and it didn't help that his passenger ( Jess ) had no rafting experience whatsoever.
We peeled out into the current in a tight group and within a couple hundred yards got our first taste of what the Cotahuasi had to offer: very continuous, fairly pushy, technical class 4 to 4+ boulder gardens that went for miles. What a river!
Gian Marco dodges holes on the upper section of the river.
Since Gian Marco knew the run he stayed closer to the raft shouting directions to Sergio, Jay tried to keep an eye on Keta, while I probed the rapids.
None of us were used to paddling with a raft and we quickly learned that if we stopped to catch an eddy the raft would go barreling past us. That left us in the awful position of having to charge downstream, trying to get in front of a moving undercut. In spite of this, we quickly got into a rhythm and were soon moving downstream safely and efficiently.
Typical Cotahuasi rapids; the river went on for miles like this.
Before long we came to our first scout, which was also one of the bigger rapids of the trip. The rapid started with a long wave train, crashed through a couple holes, then took a hard left turn into a blind gorge. Gian Marco said he would run to the final bend, catch an eddy and then signal where to run the last part of the rapid that we could not see.
Gian Marco runs relatively easy entrance drops leading up to the first really large rapid we encountered.
( The crux of this drop is in the gorge around the corner )
Gian Marco and Jay went first, punching the series of holes on the lead-in, then eddying out before the gorge section. Keta and I ran the first part of the rapid, and when we pulled into the eddy, both Gian Marco and Jay were still there. Looking upstream, I was surprised to see the raft come barreling down the rapid.
We found out later that Sergio had slipped an oar out of the lock, and was now hurtling downstream at the mercy of the current. The raft smashed into a huge boulder, almost throwing Jess out, somehow managed to stay upright, and then proceeded to careen down through the gorge, hanging up in each hole, but somehow managing to keep upright, until it disappeared around the corner.
A wild ride for Sergio and Jess in the oar rig.
Gian Marco yelled something like "go left!!" as he tore out of the eddy after the raft. He dropped over the first series of ledges moving left, but then he started cartwheeling in his playboat and then abruptly vanished from sight. After nearly a minute he emerged on the right side of the river and frantically motioned us to follow him.
Now, I am not a huge fan of throwing ends in my creek boat, but I knew that the raft could well have flipped and the Sergio and Jess might really need help. I peeled out and bombed down the left side, hoping that speed would be my friend. The Gus stayed true, and I managed to make it into the eddy where Gian Marco had stopped without too much trouble. He yelled "the raft is downstream", and so I peeled out again without having any idea where I was going. I expected the rapid was going to let up, but I was wrong.
I punched a couple big ledges and caught an eddy, trying to pick my way down the rapid. At this point, I could neither see Gian Marco upstream or the raft downstream. I decided my responsibility was with the raft and that I could not afford the time to look at the rapid. From what I could see there was another series of big ledges and I decided to simply hope the line would become apparent once I was in the rapid.
I boofed over the first ledge, clawed through a small hole and began to have the feeling that I, alone in the deepest canyon in the world, was about to get worked. I drove towards the final ledge and by some miracle, found a tongue I had hoped for and made it through cleanly. I caught the first eddy I could, gasped a couple breaths of air, ( which at an altitude of 12,000 feet does not provide much oxygen ), and looked downstream.
To my relief, I could see the Sergio and Jess sitting in an eddy up against the left wall, right side up. In a few minutes the others kayakers came downstream, wide-eyed and happy that we were all together and upright. After our first encounter, we treated the Cotahuasi with the respect it deserved and managed to run everything smoothly.
Gian Marco and Sergio scouting a long rapid downstream of the first gorge.
We camped at a rapid called 'The Wall', which Jay and I elected to run in the morning. Gian Marco rowed the raft for Sergio and managed to dump himself ass over teakettle out of the raft, which eddied out in the pool below and waited for Gian Marco to swim over to the boat. After a long day of running great rapids it was a comical and fitting way to end the day.
That night we slept on an ancient Incan terrace. As we lay there watching the stars and listening to the river we could not help but wonder about the thousands of years of history contained inside the canyon. Had the Incas looked at the river as a source amazing whitewater? ( probably not ) Had they seen it as anything other than a source of water?
Throughout the day we had seen Incan terraces, stone trails and ancient huts, some of which are still used today during the grape-picking season. As I drifted off to sleep I thought: "This is exactly why I came here; to be consumed by a place with more beauty and mystery than I will ever understand.."
Jay and I started the morning with a final scout of The Wall, a huge boulder jumble that slams into a wall and takes a 90-degree turn into one of the few pools on the river. There is no better way to start the morning than by waking up next to a river, and no better way to start a day on the river than by having a clean line through a great rapid!
A Great Way to start the morning: The author runs 'The Wall' in the morning sunlight.
For most of the day we continued to run very high quality class four rapids that simply had no end. At lower water, there would have been quite a bit of class three interspersed with the class four but at our water level the whole thing was one big class four roller coaster.
As the day went on Sergio became more and more confident with the raft and we all learned how to stay ahead of him, catching raft-sized eddies when we need to scout.
Sergio framed by impressive rock walls on day two.
Towards the end of the day, the raft again popped an oar out of an oarlock and spun away from the rest of the group. Once again Sergio and Jess were racing downstream at the mercy of the river, while the kayakers charged helter-skelter after them. Discipline broke down at this point and the group got spread out. Gian Marco and I soon left Jay and Keta behind as we struggled to keep the raft in sight.
I was following Gian Marco, so I managed to miss most of the big holes in this section. Luckily for us the raft seemed to be hitting all of them, and twice we were able to get ahead of the raft as it madly surfed a hole only to have it get free and go racing past us again.
Finally, the rapid let up enough for Sergio to reclaim his oar and eddy out above the next big drop and we could catch our breath.
I think we all had a feeling something bad was going to happen at this point, and before long we saw Keta’s Java floating towards us, sans Keta. Gian Marco and I managed to wrestle the boat into the eddy, and soon after Jay appeared saying Keta had gotten worked in a huge hole but was okay and walking down the shore.
At this point we decided it would be better for Keta to help with the raft and for Gian Marco to trade out his EZ for the Java so that he would be better able to help with rescues. We were exhausted from another great day so we camped early that night, cracked a bottle of scotch, had dinner and passed out.
Sergio repairs the troublesome oarlock at the end of day two with an Incan raft-tool.
Day three found us needing to make miles downstream, but we also faced some of the bigger rapids on the trip. The whitewater on this day culminated in a rapid named Marpa. When we arrived at the top of Marpa we got out to scout and mostly didn't like it. The drop consists of a huge breaking wave train through a steep boulder bar, which then pinches down between the canyon walls into a horrible-looking hole backed up by the river-right wall.
We decided that we would line the raft down the bank and then ferry across the river. Gian Marco would row the raft to a lower eddy, and then we would rope it down the shore. This sounded about on par with the rest of the trip.
Roping the raft across the river above Marpa.
Finally we were all ready to start lining the raft. Jay waded out into the current to throw Gian Marco a rope, while I stood on shore taking pictures. I gave Jay a heads up when Gian Marco was coming and then walked downstream to get a better shot. Suddenly I heard a frantic shout and then saw Gian Marco scrambling into the raft and reaching for the oars! Something had gone wrong, and now Gian Marco was pulling hard to line up to run the rapid we had just decided was unrunnable!
Luckily Gian Marco guided on the Futaleufu in Chile for years, so he was well equipped to deal with what had suddenly become a bad situation. He straightened the raft, hit the waves with good speed, took one final stroke and smashed into the hole at the bottom. The raft rose up on its side tube, hovered for a minute, but managed to make it through upright. We heard Gian Marco yell exultantly as the raft disappeared around the corner and out of sight.
This left us in a hard spot, because Keta and Jess were supposed to be in the raft. Jay and I had already decided that we were going to portage the top of the rapid, but with no way around the gorge on the river-right side the raft crew was forced to climb up a crumbly rock cliff. Sergio tried to find a route and failed, while the others had similar luck. Eventually, after almost an hour, Gian Marco appeared and said he had found a way around.
While Sergio, Jess and Keta walked around the canyon, Jay, Gian Marco and I took our boats down the river-left side. Our portage on that side was pretty easy and mundane.
The others ended up stumbling onto an Incan burial site, which was a bit of the shock. Jess told me later that skulls were littered everywhere on the hillside and that she had seen an ancient Incan burial poncho that had been preserved for centuries by the arid climate.
Meanwhile, Gian Marco hiked back up and decided to paddle his kayak through Marpa. He had a good line and we all continued downstream.
Gian Marco running Marpa for a second time in his kayak.
We ate a quick lunch after Marpa and continued downstream. We ran through Meter canyon, so named because the river constricts to a point of less than a raft width wide. We actually had to raise the raft up on one tube to get it to fit between the walls.
Working the raft through the narrow gap in Meter Canyon.
The next narrowing of the river signaled Centimeter Canyon. Centimeter ends with a huge rapid that pinches down to a five-foot wide slot between a rock and the wall, creating a horrible looking wave/sieve/hole. Nobody wanted any part of this drop except for Gian Marco, who ran it without problems.
Gian Marco enters Centimeter Rapid as the sun goes down on day three.
In order to get the raft down past the nasty drop in Centimeter Canyon, we had to unload it, carry all the gear a hundred yards over boulders and then line the empty raft down to the bottom of the rapid.
Below Centimeter we camped near another set of ruins. The clouds were gathering overhead, so we set up our tarps and enjoyed a little whiskey-enhanced Lime-Aid while a quick rainshower passed through the canyon. It had been a long day and we were all physically and emotionally drained, so everyone fell asleep well before eight p.m.
The fourth day found us entering another sheer-walled canyon, and the river continued to dish out breathtaking scenery and high quality rapids. The last major rapid of the trip, Highside for Your Life, was somewhat unique because it was a boulder garden into a bedrock slide into a small sheer walled gorge that was boily class 2-3. We paddled from here down to the confluence of the Moran, another classic Peruvian run, where we stopped and ate a lunch of hard salami.
The Moran almost doubled our flow, but the water eased up to class 2-3. A huge afternoon headwind whipped up the canyon, making life truly horrible for the raft. After paddling almost all day we finally reached a small town. Sergio and Gian Marco went up into the village to try to arrange for a bus to take us back to Arequipa, while the rest of us scraped together a strange dinner consisting of leftovers from the food box: mainly moldy tortillas, raisins, and sugar. Mmmmm good!
At 4:30 the next morning we started packing up. Everything was coated in dew and a thick layer of volcanic sand, but we did our best to clean the gear before we loaded it onto a couple mules. After everything was set we walked up a hill for thirty minutes to catch a bus back to Arequipa. The trip back took almost twelve hours, changing buses three times.
We were all so happy to have seen such a beautiful and remote place that few westerners will ever experience. Viewed from that perspective, the hassles of traveling by bus with kayaks in an obscure corner of Peru seemed like a small price to pay for what we had experienced.
On the shuttle ride back upstream, we passed this random guy in a suit on a horse.
You never know what you will find in South America..
For more information on paddling the Cotahuasi and other rivers in Peru, contact Gian Marco Vellutino. Gian's family runs Cusipata Viajes y Turismo, a rafting and kayaking whitewater adventure company. Cusipata Viajes y Turismo is currently the only commercial outfitter who runs the Cotahuasi
( they currently guide one trip per year on the Cotahuasi ).