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2013 and earlier

The Road to Cotahuasi

One of the most memorable parts of my most recent trip to Peru was visiting the region around the Cotahuasi Canyon, which vies with the Colca Canyon for the title of the deepest canyon in the world.

When it comes to isolation however, there's no competition between the two: Cotahuasi is far more difficult to get to than its neighbour in the southern part of the Arequipa department. But as I found, the slow journey along unmetalled roads was certainly worth the effort, particularly as fiestas to honour the birth of the Virgin Mary were erupting in the villages in Cotahuasi and all along the way.

We set out from Arequipa early one September morning, on a northward grind up the Pan-American as far as the turn-off for Corire. From there we followed the asphalt as far as Chuquibamba, with a leg-stretching stop in a village which was gearing up for the fiesta. The brass band was doing some last-minute practice in a corner outside the church and women were stirring large pots of food over open fires for a communal meal which was to take place later that day.

Despite invitations from the villagers to take part in the festivities we reluctantly resumed our journey, stopping for lunch at a viewpoint which looked out over a lake with flamingos and sweeping panoramas of Corapuna’s snow-covered crest. Then it was back in the 4WD past herds of llamas and vicuñas until we stopped at the edge of the Cotahuasi canyon and beheld the breathtaking view beneath us. 

We wound our way through the canyon before arriving at Doña Catalina’s guest house in Cotahuasi village on the canyon floor. Then in the morning we visited the gushing Sipia waterfall, which pours down between two jagged canyon walls. 

Afterwards, Doña Catalina invited us to a bullfight in a neighbouring village, so once lunch was cleared away we headed for the bullring at Visve. By the time we arrived, the bullring was filling up with aficionados both male and female, and of all ages. We walked into the village where we caught up with the brass band and followed the music back to the ring, taking our seats under a blue plastic canopy (Doña Catalina’s own box). While we were waiting, regional and mayoral election candidates announced their arrival from a loudspeaker van and took the opportunity to do a bit of campaigning, which involved handing out small calendars and bottle openers endorsed by their parties to attract a few votes.

After quite a long wait the fight got underway – and I can assure those of a more sensitive disposition that no one gets killed at a Peruvian village bullfight. Four young men, three in jeans and one cross-dresser, all of them armed with nothing but Dutch courage, teased the bull with capes. When it became tired the bull was simply led out of the ring to the corral and another one substituted. Unlike Spain there is no big money involved, no celebrity bullfighters, and the bulls do the rounds of the villages afterwards in the época de fiestas.

The next day, we ventured up the canyon to Puyca, passing through colonial villages and almost vertical rows of terraces which had been there since Inca times and before. As we arrived, the village was bursting with fiesta fever and we were invited to join in. We were led into a square, offered chicha (a traditional fermented maize drink), which must be accepted even if you end up pouring most of it on the ground as a libation for the goddess Pachamama, and then found ourselves participating in a vigorous circle dance at more than 3,000 metres above sea level, accompanied by another brass band.

We were able to creep discreetly away so that we could undertake the climb to Maukallacta, a Wari settlement, known to locals as the Machu Picchu of Cotahuasi. The dancing had taken most of my energy, but I made it up the steep path lined with fuschia bushes to the ruins and the effort was well worth it. We had the site to ourselves, complete with an intihuana (sun-hitching post), though we could hear the merrymaking going on below.

After such an energetic day we were glad to relax in the hot springs at Luicho and then it was back to Doña Catalina’s for supper. We set off early for Arequipa the next day, stopping at Ratta (another Wari site) and a delicious lunch of freshwater prawns at Corire. When it comes to isolation however, there's no competition between the two: Cotahuasi is far more difficult to get to than its neighbour in the southern part of the Arequipa department. But as I found, the slow journey along unmetalled roads was certainly worth the effort, particularly as fiestas to honour the birth of the Virgin Mary were erupting in the villages in Cotahuasi and all along the way.

We set out from Arequipa early one September morning, on a northward grind up the Pan-American as far as the turn-off for Corire. From there we followed the asphalt as far as Chuquibamba, with a leg-stretching stop in a village which was gearing up for the fiesta. The brass band was doing some last-minute practice in a corner outside the church and women were stirring large pots of food over open fires for a communal meal which was to take place later that day.

Despite invitations from the villagers to take part in the festivities we reluctantly resumed our journey, stopping for lunch at a viewpoint which looked out over a lake with flamingos and sweeping panoramas of Corapuna’s snow-covered crest. Then it was back in the 4WD past herds of llamas and vicuñas until we stopped at the edge of the Cotahuasi canyon and beheld the breathtaking view beneath us. 

We wound our way through the canyon before arriving at Doña Catalina’s guest house in Cotahuasi village on the canyon floor. Then in the morning we visited the gushing Sipia waterfall, which pours down between two jagged canyon walls. 

Afterwards, Doña Catalina invited us to a bullfight in a neighbouring village, so once lunch was cleared away we headed for the bullring at Visve. By the time we arrived, the bullring was filling up with aficionados both male and female, and of all ages. We walked into the village where we caught up with the brass band and followed the music back to the ring, taking our seats under a blue plastic canopy (Doña Catalina’s own box). While we were waiting, regional and mayoral election candidates announced their arrival from a loudspeaker van and took the opportunity to do a bit of campaigning, which involved handing out small calendars and bottle openers endorsed by their parties to attract a few votes.

After quite a long wait the fight got underway – and I can assure those of a more sensitive disposition that no one gets killed at a Peruvian village bullfight. Four young men, three in jeans and one cross-dresser, all of them armed with nothing but Dutch courage, teased the bull with capes. When it became tired the bull was simply led out of the ring to the corral and another one substituted. Unlike Spain there is no big money involved, no celebrity bullfighters, and the bulls do the rounds of the villages afterwards in the época de fiestas.

The next day, we ventured up the canyon to Puyca, passing through colonial villages and almost vertical rows of terraces which had been there since Inca times and before. As we arrived, the village was bursting with fiesta fever and we were invited to join in. We were led into a square, offered chicha (a traditional fermented maize drink), which must be accepted even if you end up pouring most of it on the ground as a libation for the goddess Pachamama, and then found ourselves participating in a vigorous circle dance at more than 3,000 metres above sea level, accompanied by another brass band.

We were able to creep discreetly away so that we could undertake the climb to Maukallacta, a Wari settlement, known to locals as the Machu Picchu of Cotahuasi. The dancing had taken most of my energy, but I made it up the steep path lined with fuschia bushes to the ruins and the effort was well worth it. We had the site to ourselves, complete with an intihuana (sun-hitching post), though we could hear the merrymaking going on below.

After such an energetic day we were glad to relax in the hot springs at Luicho and then it was back to Doña Catalina’s for supper. We set off early for Arequipa the next day, stopping at Ratta (another Wari site) and a delicious lunch of freshwater prawns at Corire.

When it comes to isolation however, there's no competition between the two: Cotahuasi is far more difficult to get to than its neighbour in the southern part of the Arequipa department. But as I found, the slow journey along unmetalled roads was certainly worth the effort, particularly as fiestas to honour the birth of the Virgin Mary were erupting in the villages in Cotahuasi and all along the way.

We set out from Arequipa early one September morning, on a northward grind up the Pan-American as far as the turn-off for Corire. From there we followed the asphalt as far as Chuquibamba, with a leg-stretching stop in a village which was gearing up for the fiesta. The brass band was doing some last-minute practice in a corner outside the church and women were stirring large pots of food over open fires for a communal meal which was to take place later that day.

Despite invitations from the villagers to take part in the festivities we reluctantly resumed our journey, stopping for lunch at a viewpoint which looked out over a lake with flamingos and sweeping panoramas of Corapuna’s snow-covered crest. Then it was back in the 4WD past herds of llamas and vicuñas until we stopped at the edge of the Cotahuasi canyon and beheld the breathtaking view beneath us. 

We wound our way through the canyon before arriving at Doña Catalina’s guest house in Cotahuasi village on the canyon floor. Then in the morning we visited the gushing Sipia waterfall, which pours down between two jagged canyon walls. 

Afterwards, Doña Catalina invited us to a bullfight in a neighbouring village, so once lunch was cleared away we headed for the bullring at Visve. By the time we arrived, the bullring was filling up with aficionados both male and female, and of all ages. We walked into the village where we caught up with the brass band and followed the music back to the ring, taking our seats under a blue plastic canopy (Doña Catalina’s own box). While we were waiting, regional and mayoral election candidates announced their arrival from a loudspeaker van and took the opportunity to do a bit of campaigning, which involved handing out small calendars and bottle openers endorsed by their parties to attract a few votes.

After quite a long wait the fight got underway – and I can assure those of a more sensitive disposition that no one gets killed at a Peruvian village bullfight. Four young men, three in jeans and one cross-dresser, all of them armed with nothing but Dutch courage, teased the bull with capes. When it became tired the bull was simply led out of the ring to the corral and another one substituted. Unlike Spain there is no big money involved, no celebrity bullfighters, and the bulls do the rounds of the villages afterwards in the época de fiestas.

The next day, we ventured up the canyon to Puyca, passing through colonial villages and almost vertical rows of terraces which had been there since Inca times and before. As we arrived, the village was bursting with fiesta fever and we were invited to join in. We were led into a square, offered chicha (a traditional fermented maize drink), which must be accepted even if you end up pouring most of it on the ground as a libation for the goddess Pachamama, and then found ourselves participating in a vigorous circle dance at more than 3,000 metres above sea level, accompanied by another brass band.

We were able to creep discreetly away so that we could undertake the climb to Maukallacta, a Wari settlement, known to locals as the Machu Picchu of Cotahuasi. The dancing had taken most of my energy, but I made it up the steep path lined with fuschia bushes to the ruins and the effort was well worth it. We had the site to ourselves, complete with an intihuana (sun-hitching post), though we could hear the merrymaking going on below.

After such an energetic day we were glad to relax in the hot springs at Luicho and then it was back to Doña Catalina’s for supper. We set off early for Arequipa the next day, stopping at Ratta (another Wari site) and a delicious lunch of freshwater prawns at Corire.

Rosemary Corlin

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