North of Arequipa

North of Arequipa

The map shows the circuit that swings North and then East of Arequipa, taking in the following places of interest:

To Cotahuasi

Andagua and Cotahuasi are usually reached from Arequipa, although it is perfectly possible to divert up from the coast, at Nazca if you are adventurous, or off the Panamericananan via Aplao if you want a more conventional route, and then proceed on to Arequipa. However, public transport is restrictive, and oriented around the run to and from Arequipa. Aplao is the usual point at which public transport splits, one route heading away fro the coast to Andagua, the other North-East to Cotahuasi by way of the provincial capital of Chuquibamba.

Cotahuasi is 375 km from Arequipa and the trip to Andagua is 320 km. Only 180 km of this is surfaced, and the route is frankly arduous to those who dislike winding roads and dust. Travel in 4x4 is, by contrast, straightforward except at the height of the rains. The locals describe the road as a "rosary of curves", which speaks for itself. Bus travel takes around 12 hours to Cotahuasi and 10 hours to Andagua. The Andagua bus leaves at 16.30 from Arequipa and arrives at 03.00 or thereabouts, stopping briefly to begin its return journey.

Accommodation varies in this region from the serviceable downwards. Cotahuasi has a number of hotels from which to choose, but none of these are truly oriented around tourism and you should adjust your expectations accordingly. The best hotel of the region is in fact in Alca, an hour from Cotohuasi. There are no travel agents in Cotohuasi, and tourism is little developed. Arequipa has agents who can organise a trip for you by remote control, but you will need to bring in any equipment that you feel that you will need. Guides do exist locally, but you will need Spanish to work with them.

The towns on the way - Corire, Aplao and Chuquibamba - do not have much by way of accommodation. Andagua has three hostal-like establishments, with country restaurants in the town. Again, there are people who offer the services of a guide, but no formal travel agencies on hand.

Toro Muerto petroglyphs

Corire is on the river Majes, and is a farming town in a rice-growing district. It is not without its charms, but its main interest is the extensive field of petroglyphs located 7 Km from the town. There are taxis available to make the trip (for around US$7) and access costs a further dollar. This area is unusually hot for the normally temperate Peruvian desert and a hat, sunglasses and a bottle of water are essential items.

Click here to see a series of images The site stands in pure desert, in a situation which has never been irrigated and which would have been as hot and as arid when the figures were made. The reliefs themselves show animals - birds and a wide range of mammals and insects - plus abstract designs, figurative humans and anthropomorphic shapes. The cover and area of about 5000 square metres, and were evidently undertaken over a protracted period by the Wari people, around 500 BC. The purposes to which they were put is unknown. There is no ceremonial centre and the range of styles suggest that this was something done by individuals, perhaps as a part or a rite of passage.

Aplao offers a practical jumping-off ground from which to see the petroglyphs, as it is around 40 minutes by bus from Corire. It is a farming centre, offering basic accommodation, adequate restaurants and both telephone and internet access. It has its own wine and distilled pisco spirit, as well as fruits and unusual crops such as yuca. March 12 and September 7 are its festival days, when the town turns out in full dress for la Virgen de las Peñas.

Aplao-Cotahuasi

It is around 200 km to Cotohuasi from Aplao. The road comes close to Coropuna volcano, and there is fine Andean scenery. Chuquibamba is the only large town on the route, itself 50km from Aplao.

An early attraction that appears before one reaches Chuquibamba are strange rock formations. These look artificial, and are known locally as el Castillo. The best of the formation is some way off the road and a climb to it is fairly hard work over difficult ground. Guides are not available because the local people view the formation as haunted, malevolent, deadly. There are tales of caves opening spontaneously under travellers'' feet, that few climbers return, that . Early morning clouds often hang over the formation, giving it a mysterious air.

Click here to see a series of images Chuquibamba is the provincial capital, a town very literally under the volcano as Coropuna rears over 6000m above it. The town itself is at around 3000m, and specialises in selling ice cream made from Coropuna ice. It has pre-Incan ruins, little described and little understood. Extensive floriculture dots the fields with blossom in the season. You will also see guinea pig (cuy) vendors on the market, people selling alfalfa for them and fields of blue flowered lucerne intended for use in home cuy ranches. The town also makes cheese, grows avocados and rather good potatoes.

The town itself has narrow streets, down which donkeys and mules pass bearing milk churns for the cheese factories. Many know their way and their duty, and make the trip unattended. People follow a seemingly leisured life, greeting the visitor with courtesy but with limited energy.

Religious life centres on la Virgen de la Concepción, who is credited with saving the town from massacre during the war of liberation. The royalist general who was about to assault the town received a dream in which a fine lady instructed him not to kill her people. General de Canterac entered the town peacefully and visited the church, where he recognised his visitor in the statue of the Virgin. The town has a modest hotel and a bus station. Buses leave for Arequipa and Cotahuasi, using a timetable on which it is not sensible to rely. However, the Cotahuasi bus notionally departs at 21.00.

The true puna begins half an hour beyond the town, offering a landscape dominated by ichu grass, lichen and moss. This last is used locally as a cooking fuel, contributing a unique flavour to the food.

The township of Vizca gives excellent views of Solimana (6318m) and Coropuna (6425m.) The road passes the dark green Pallarcocha lake, providing a natural mirror in which to see Coropuna reflected. This was a sacred location for the pre-Incas peoples, who have left ruins around the area.

The drop down from the puna is fine. The road descends steeply into the Cotohuasi valley. Irrigated fields are perched here and there, and huge sweeps of terrain appear and disappear. The town of Cotohuasi lies deep in the valley at 2,600m, surrounded by an extensive and ancient area of irrigated agriculture.

Click here to see a series of images Cotohuasi is extremely quiet, inhabited by a population which has not changed greatly in its compositions since the early years of the Spanish conquest. The name means "our houses together" in Quechua, and the communal atmosphere is clear to the visitor. The people live almost entirely by farming and trading. It has a sparkling white colonial church. Many of the houses date back to the earliest colonial era, with its pierced wooden windows and wrought iron bars. There is a major market on Sunday mornings, occupying the entire central street. There are two hotels that offer (very) basic accommodation. The town otherwise has basic facilities, although it is linked by telephone and there is Internet access.

Tourism is gradually entering the area, at least insofar as the local people are becoming accustomed to strangers in their midst. There is, however, next to no organised response to this and there are no travel agencies or official guides to suggest what you might do or how you might do it. The municipal offices are not a bad place to start a chain of enquiry through which to find reliable people, but you will need to have brought in any equipment that you may need.

One exception to this is an adventure sports festival, organised in the first week of May and chiefly aimed at Peruvian tourists. This chiefly promotes river rafting and kayaking, but the locals have combined this with local festivities and the fiesta goes on into the small hours, fueled by a local wine that is brewed higher up the valley.

Cotahuasi church is built in the colonial style but is in fact around 170 years old. It has three metre thick adobe walls, giving a dim, solid feed to its interior. The altar is plated with gold leaf, and the interior is graced with paintings in the Arequipa colonial style. The bell tower of Santa Ana, near the main exit from the town, offers splendid views of the crags and mountains that ring the region. One can also see the Chaquicocha lake, a twenty minute walk from the town.

Click here to see a series of images The local people live in the traditional manner, with relatively little external influence. Most speak Quechua as a first language. The local farm animal of choice is the alpaca, which yields particularly fine wool in this valley. They raise, harvest, spin, dye, weave and tailor fabrics for their own use and for export. Scissors (tijeras) are regarded as a magical symbol. Their villages are scattered along the valley, following the opportunities which it offers for irrigation. Unmapped and unexplored pre-Incan ruins are common in the valley; and there are extremely ancient rock paintings and Incan remains.

The Cotohuasi valley stems from the Laguna de Huanzo (4750m). It its deepest, the cañón is more or less the same as Colca, at around 3370m. This point occurs at the village of Quechualla, showing a scene that is similar to, but arguably much wilder than that at Cruz del Condor. The Cañón de Cotahuasi has just been proclaimed a Reserva Paisajística, a location of outstanding natural beauity and so preserved from development.

An interesting scenic destination is the Sipia waterfall (2100m), where the river drops 150 m. This is a three hours walk from Cotahuasi, so an easy day's outing. The route crosses a hanging bridge at Cuyao, and one can cheat by hiring a taxi or truck to drop you off by the bridge, which cuts the travel time in half. The waterfall is the scene of ancient rites in the first week of May, when the "scissors dancers" come to make their peace with nature. The rites involved the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus, so one hopes that few fall into the cataract.

An hour's walk brings one to the cerro Huiñao, which is the (literal) jumping off point for hang gliding enthusiasts during the May festival. However, it is also a good viewpoint (mirador.)

Trekking routes are little-organised, and the more open aspect of the valley around Cotahuasi makes it possible to pick your own way in a manner that is impossible in Colca. One general route is to travel out of Cotahuasi by car, dropping into the valley for around 40 minutes before reaching a road halt called Chaucavilca. A walk of 2-3 hours brings the untouched village of Locrahuanca, with its stone-and-thatch houses. The trail in is an easy one, offering excellent views. Framers in the field in spring can be seen offering libations of beer (chicha de jora) for a good crop. Passers-by are required to help turn the earth and drip in some beer.

Click here to see a series of images The path goes on from the village to Tomepampa, a much larger town. One arrives after a further unchallenging 3 hours walk. (One can go back to Cotohuasi by car in an hour.) The town is, however, well worth a look as it, too, is virtually untouched by the modern world. It has a cave in which pre-Incan artifacts have been uncovered. Tomepampa has a delightful church and associated rituals, an example of which is shown in the photographs opposite.

Alca is also an hour by car from Cotahuasi. The colonial building show off traditional willow-wood or cedar balconies. This belies the town's past, insofar as the name of the its comes from the Quechua word challca, meaning xenophobes and primitive louts.

A two hour walk from the town comes to the archaeological site of Ticnay, a town that has left a ceremonial centre, dwellings, a cemetery and streets. An alternative walk goes to Cahuana in around an hour. This is a perfectly preserved colonial village, with adobe houses. Hot springs were a major attraction for the Incas, and the valley offers access at Luicho, two km from Alca. You can end the day by relaxing in the mineral waters in these newly-refurbished facilities.

The upper reaches of the valley - around Lauripampa - are particularly rich in the weird plant, Puya raymondii. This relative of the yucca has spiny leaves capable of catching and holding a sheep. It flowers once, producing a 3-6 m spike of white flowers, and then dying It is pollinated by humming birds, and to sit by one of these in flower is to hear a continual bruu-bruu as their minute creatures buzz about. The chief concentration of these plants in the district occurs around 20 minutes walk from Lauripampa. One plant is said to exceeded 10 in height before it died.

Pampamarca, another high village, offers access to a stone forest, where erosion has left grotesque shaped carved from the volcanic basalt by erosion. The site has views over the neighbouring great volcanoes and their snow fields. The Cotahuasi and Pampamarca confluence adds to the view. There are also chullpas pre-Inca funeral towers, showing this strange place to have been an ancient sacred site.