I bought a one-way ticket to Venezuela and I'm not coming back until my tube of toothpaste runs out...
Cotahuasi Canyon Rafting
With over 100 miles of continous Grade 4 rapids with a couple of grade 5s thrown in for good measure this trip would see me as one of the first 400 people to ever raft down the Cotahuasi Canyon; the deepest canyon in the world!
By 6:30 am everyone was lined up outside the hotel, ready to be driven to a small village in the middle of nowhere where the rafting expedition down the little known Cotahuasi Canyon was set to begin.
News of my dirty stop out soon leaked out along with tales of batgirls. Apparently even the groups hardened drinkers had called it a night at 2:30 am so the fact I still hadn't been to bed seemed to impress them. I thought nothing of it myself as today was mainly a drive day. With an 8 hour (plus) transfer in a convoy of posh comfortable 4x4s, I argued there was nothing to go to sleep for!
I was lumped into a car with a group who, as it tuned out, were to be my raft buddies. A family of Michel, the rotund jolly Dad, Renne (or bear) his daughter, and Heather her step Mum.
We stopped for packed lunch at the top of a mountain pass. There may have been a chill in the air but no-one expected it to start snowing! Michel in particular was displeased with the lack of heat. I felt the chill no matter how hard I hugged my fleece.
The afternoon afforded some spectacular mountain views as we descended into a valley. The bottom of which lay a little village where we were to stay for a night or two while the expedition gear was sorted out.
The house was nice enough, lots of rooms although the new wing was still a bit of a building site (literally!). The village was small and quiet and cows roaming the streets proved it was local.
Come nighttime I thought it best if I left the gaggle of loud Americans to themselves and wander out for a quiet one. Unfortunately, the wee village we were in was quieter than I imagined and after an hour scouring every road and alleyway, nook and cranny, there was not a bar to be found! Doh!
The day did not get off to a good start. Lawrence, our expedition leader and liberal American thought best to set the scene by leading a group Yoga session. Worse still, there were promises of lots more during the trip! I was quite amused by the less than perfect setting of the building site amongst the foot hills of the surrounding mountains! I have to add at this point that, yes, I declined to participate. I took a couple of good photos though!
Today, being somewhat of a free day, left us with time on our hands. So in the afternoon we went on a hike of the local ravine at the bottom of the village. This walk offered up some great mountain views and gave us an opportunity to try out some very dodgy Peruvian engineering in the form of bridges over some death defying gorges.
We gathered on the edge of an overhang for a group shot. Everyone cuddles in close and I figure I'll stand at the back, out of the way. Only the rock which I chose to stand on as a final resting place turns out to be rather loose. It gave way as I applied pressure sending it tumbling down and over the precipice. The only thing to grab a hold of was a spiky bush which made regaining my balance rather tricky. I was just about getting there when my calamity became apparent to the rest of the group, who all screamed and lunged at me to grab a hold. They may have meant well but due to the shock of their screams, my startled instinct was to back away from them over the cliff! What followed was a bit of a give and take before being wrestled to safety and being allowed to regain my balance for the group photo! Phew!
It was a walk back along the gorge, over the dodgy Peruvian bridge and back to the house for dinner and drinks.
But not before we visited the local hot springs! This place was the equivalent of the local baths, only with all the blazing hot water provided geothermally! It was a good frolic with playful antics amongst friends, though being the stranger in town I just watched on. Afterwards, the bus seemed anxious about my disappearance as I was the last (by some time) to board. But their nerves were settled when I disclosed my newly acquired bounty of beers!
Bio Bio expeditions had kindly made us all some delightful Peruvian hats with their logo embodied on the front. Looking like gormless gnomes we started on the card games. The favourite of the night was Bullshit (where you lie about what cards you put down). Only after I involuntary uttered a British expletive upon seeing some obvious cheating (and the Americans loving quaint British swearwords) the game soon changed its name to Bollocks!
Knowing we were in for a long walk tomorrow we all retired early, after each and everyone had their fill of Bollocks of course!
After packing day packs we pile into a mini bus for a short ride down the road. Packs of donkeys were being laden up with our gear and equipment. The set off point was a buzz of activity - it felt as we were about to embark on something truly special! So why donkeys? Well, they certainly weren't going rafting with us! But it was one long day's walk to reach the rafting put in point and donkeys were the only way to get all our stuff there.
Today we were to walk deep into the Cotauhasi canyon until we meet the river. This canyon was recently credited with being the deepest canyon in the world, and is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon!
Rafting aside, today was without a doubt was my favourite day on the expedition, for the views offered up by the canyon were truly spectacular; even for my weary sight seeing eyes!
It was a long days walk along the inside rim of the canyon gorge. Sure we passed a lovely deep raging waterfall in the morning but the afternoon gave us a stroll along the inside edge of the canyon. The scenery was HUGE, one photograph shows a steep cliff face, closer magnification shows a trail etched in the side of the cliff with donkeys following. An yep, that's where we're heading! Most photographs of the area didn't turn out at all simply due to the sheer scale of everything! The mountains, the drops, the gorge, the view, just didn't fit into a single frame! The massiveness of everything meant there was nothing to photograph for I just couldn't fit it in my view finder!
Happy as I was, I skipped the last hour or two down the side of the gorge to the river, overtaking most people in the progress. This earned me the nickname "Skipper"! And given we were about to spend a week on boats, I didn't think it was half bad!
One more dodgy Peruvian bridge across the raging torrent and we were at the camp site. We had lots of spare tents (I guess someone couldn't count!) so I was happy to learn I had one to myself. And it was brand new too! The nice thing about these new tents is that, assuming you didn't put the fly sheet on, the meshing over the top afforded open views of the starry nights and bright mornings.
Similar to the aripurmac, our rafting adventure starts with some trial rescues and some safety speeches. We're on a 100 mile stretch of continuous grade 4 rapids with some grade 5 thrown in for good measure. We're in a remote stretch of Peru and should anyone get hurt, their only way out is down river at the end of the trip. There is no way out!
Once we've been purposely capsized a couple of times and rescued by ropes and safety kayaks we begin our descent of the Cotauhasi canyon. Michel and I take the power house positions up front while Heather and Renne sit behind, the guide at the back. A couple of sizeable rapids ease us into the river and excitable chat ensues during the calm afterwards. I'm sat on the edge of the raft as it continues to drift, it rotates so my back is facing downstream. We suddenly ground out on some low rocks and come to an abrupt stop. Caught unawares my body keeps travelling and I back flip over the side. I grab hold of the raft and before I know it Renne helps pull me back inside the raft. "That water's bloody freezing!" I splutter.
"Yeah? Well your ass has just been saved by a girl!" announces Renne, her smug mode on! I hang my head in shame, I fell out in what would possibly be the easiest part of the river trip!
We stop and make camp early. Because we're not yet into the routine, everything takes 3 times longer than it should. We haul everything out to the camp site, set up the kitchen, grab our personal gear and set up our own tents. Today we find a nice sandy plateau to camp on.
It soon goes dark and we huddle round a large fire. Mark, a New Yorker and avid rafter (with all his own gear) made the mistake of sitting next to the females with his long hair. It was French Platted before he knew it!
Spinning a couple of light sticks on string made for some evening entertainment and some cool photos. (Well, for those with professional cameras!) As we set alight a swiftly made effigy I came to learn of Burning Man, a week long commercial festival in the Nevada desert starting on American Labour Day, or 1st September. Essentially, it sounds like a modern day, soap dodging hippy convention but it still sounds pretty cool!
I wake up staring at the side of the canyon through the mesh roof of my tent. I was pleased to have had a good nights sleep for today was to be a longer rafting day.
The water is always cold when you start the day. It heats up for midday but has usually cooled down again by the time you wash in the late afternoon. Great!
Rafting was plain sailing all day (as far nasty shallow grade 4 rapids allow!) except for a portage. Except it wasn't really a portage. The whole river narrowed down a wedge to a point about the width of a standard door. We had to break out ropes, unload the rafts and ease them through the gap on their side!
Today's camp site was on some Inca terraces, the land boundies still clearly marked by rows of rocks. In fact, further up the bank were more Inca ruins and in the afternoon most of us took a trek to go see them.
We found lots of broken pottery but the real find was mantle piece holes in walls stuffed with Skull and Cross Bones! Essentially all the Inca remains in the canyon are largely untouched since the Inca period. Only a few roaming goat farmers have ever travelled the canyon before (and a few previous rafting trips). The consensus is that the locals placed the skulls in holes, and probably looted anything of worth. Still, the tour group are trying to get some anthrologists in to study the remains of the canyon before they become too disturbed. Meanwhile it makes a handy barbeque area!
It struck me as amusing today that a couple of guides wore T-Shirts with, printed on the front in the corner, "Safety First! Dead Men Don't Tip." It inspires confidence for actually, there's probably some truth in it!
Man, I wake up feeling rougher than a badgers arse. At 6:30am the ogre rises! A combination of a hard day yesterday and a bad nights sleep.
I bag a picture of the wall enclosing the camp site which shows the dedication the Incas had in perfecting their stone work. After that we hit the water again.
The excitement of the day was a grade 5 rapid called Marpa. We were 5 passenger rafts in total and we were one of the first down. It all went according to plan and we made it through without too much difficulty. On a whole the river through the Cotahuasi was really low making it very treacherous and technically difficult, especially should you fall out!
After us came the raft nicknamed Estrogen-1, so called because it was full of girls - except a bloke called Steve, bless! They also managed okay. (You Tube Clip Here)
The next raft didn't do so well. As it drifted round the corner on the rapid approach I noticed something was wrong, someone was missing. Then it hit me, it wasn't just someone but the Guide himself was absent from the raft! In no way was this going to end well.
The raft grounded on a rock, swivelled round and tipped everyone out. The safety guides started throwing ropes across the river but to avail - the wet rafters couldn't hold on, instead they were all swept down Grade 5 Marpa. There was nothing I could do but film the whole event in glorious cinematic surround sound! (You Tube Clip Here) The rafters got bruised pretty badly as they bounced off the rocks and tumbled down to the slash pool at the bottom. Safety kayaks steamed in to prevent they from flowing any further downstream.
Next up was Testosterone-1, so called because it was full of man power (including an typical Aussie and his son with a career in the Navy). There was much distress from girlies about their safety but predictably, they were fine. (You Tube Clip Here)
After today's excitement we camped out a little earlier than usual. Not such a bad idea, only it necessitated carrying all the gear 3 stories up the embankment along a dodgy Peruvian path.
In the morning we went for a trek to scout for more Inca ruins. Some good whole pieces of pottery were found, as were pile and piles of bones. Better than that we also found some burial chambers packed full with skeletons and more bones!
The rafting was largely uneventful for most of the day - except for Ana who got whacked full force in the face with an oar as it bounced off a rock. A wee concussion later and she was fine. Well, until she removed her helmet and shades in the afternoon. It seems the impact had burst some blood vessels sending blood running into her eye sockets, giving her some very superficial but a very impressive looking set of black eyes!
The afternoon saw us set up camp, not just on Inca ruins, but on pre Inca ruins! All around us were fine examples of Inca architecture, buildings still standing, walls intact. We found not just pieces of pottery but whole bowls and urns. More bones littered the site as did several sets of human skulls and dismembered skeletons.
As you know, I'm British and I've been lumped in amongst a group of Americans. Now this hasn't caused much of problem but on this night the difference really reared it's ugly head. It's been common place for them to massage each other round the fire place but on this night they decided to start what they called a "Massage Train"!? They formed a line and sat down one in front of the other. Then every person massaged the shoulders of the person in front. (Obviously the person right at the front gets a good deal and the one right at the back gets a bad one.) This was all waaaaaay too touchy feely and just plain weird hippy'ish for my liking so I was happy enough to sit opposite and empty my hip flask instead. Until they started calling, "Hey Skipper! Why don't you come over and join us?"
With a wry smile and a tip of my flask I answered, "No thanks, I'm British!"
The morning saw us wandering round the awesome Inca ruins again before returning to the camp site. For some reason the guides were having difficulty packing up the rafts and us punters seemed to being hanging around for ages before it was time to set off.
Nothing too taxing or skilful today as the river was mostly wide, spread out and shallow. You would think it meant it was easy but I kept falling out at the most inopportune moments. Similar to the first day, whenever the raft suddenly grounded on rocks or a sand bank, I would keep moving and flip out over the side. And yes, I'd be saved by the girl again!
A long lunch on a flat sunny embankment helped ease my bruises before we set off again. For a large part we were racing Testosterone-1. Obviously we couldn't out paddle their muscle so instead we tried tactics and when the river split, we took the shorter (but usually shallower) path.
It was a long day with lots of paddling and we didn't arrive at our planned camp site until late afternoon as the sun was setting on the canyon. Everyones' arms ached. A strong wind and a touch of rain made pitching our tents on the sandy beach that much harder.
As tired as we were we still managed a few good games of 2 truths and a lie around a blazing fire. The best part being the ribbing Mark got from the two Aussies in his Testosterone-1 raft - "I'm Australian, I drink beer and I saw Mark paddling really hard today!"
We pack up our gear for the final time. Today was to be our last day's rafting.
The river stayed largely flat and wide like yesterday and I narrowly avoided falling in several times. We pushed on and come mid day we reached our pick up point. We all helped unload the gear and carry it (bloody heavy rafts included) up the embankment to the waiting transport. Fortunately the organisers has prepared a cooler of cold beers to make the heavy lifting all the more pleasurable!
So, that was it. We were all one of the first 400 people to have ever rafted down the remote part of quintessential Peru known as Cotahuasi Canyon. It was an awesome experience to have travelled such a distance entirely under our own steam. But no more, 4x4 vehicles drove us the 6 hour journey back to Arequipa via views of the Pacific Ocean. We figured rafting that would be a whole different experience!
We arrived back late evening and checked ourselves back into the hotel. We spruced ourselves up and headed out to a bar we'd hired out for food, drink, cocktails and a photo slide show!
Despite everyone feeling a little knackered from the excessive rafting we all did well and a merry time was still had by all. A couple of us hardcore headed out to hit the clubs after but I'm happy to report that this night I managed to make use of my luxury bed!