El Camino de Cotahuasi: Riding the Deepest Canyon in the Americas

Rocks slid from above, along a loose slope, showering the dirt road in front of me with a fresh layer. While treacherous in the rain, the locals warned that even an early afternoon breeze was enough to turn this road into a nightmare of falling debris. “Keep your ears and eyes open at all times,” a man in the nearby town of Huambo said as he made a motion imitating someone frantically pedaling a bike as fast as they could spin their legs.

Often these warnings can come across as hyperbolic, but when I saw the road firsthand and watched the rocks tumbling from above, I immediately saw what the hype was all about.

From the depths of the canyon at 1350m (4400ft), I knew I had a long climb ahead of me. By the time this road would stop tilting upward I’d be way up amongst the screeching vicuña at 4850m (15,900ft), but it’s probably best not to think about that while you’re staring up from the bottom. Instead, I broke it up into chunks in my head, with the help of a couple of village stops along the way.

First was the dusty town of Ayo. The sun was blasting in the main plaza. It was totally deserted other than the occasional truck pulling up to stop at the only open shop. The building offered just enough shade to keep the sun off of my neck for a while. A big relief after many days in the relentless sun.

I asked around to anyone I could find about a restaurant, but no one seemed certain if any were open. A casual tour through the streets led me to an unmarked open door where I could see an open table lined with plastic chairs and two women prepping food with some Eva Ayllón playing in the background.

A restaurant or shop having no sign is not abnormal around here, and all of the tell-tale signs of a restaurant were there, so I poked my head under the short door-frame and as soon as they saw me they smiled, waved me in, and started plating up some Papa a la Huancaina, a staple Peruvian starter dish.

After killing some time in Ayo to let the midday heat ease off, I loaded up on water and hit the road again into the Valle de Los Volcanes. The sun dipped behind the mountain and I climbed the smooth single-lane road for a couple of hours until dusk. The valley was filled with abandoned sites that had walls built up out of volcanic rocks, and perfectly smooth ground. Perfect for an improvised campsite.

A lot had changed in the time since I was here in 2017. On the main road, what was once a gravel road is now a pristine ribbon of asphalt. One other major difference was the season. The last time I visited was in early March, just at the end of the rainy season with everything lush and green. This time it was in the final days of the driest part of the year, leaving the landscape transformed.

(Left: Early 2017, Right: Late 2021)

From the village of Andagua the road snaked through a series of switchbacks toward the impressive Nevado Coropuna, which stands tall at 6,377m (21k ft). I’d planned to camp at the foot of the mountain to avoid descending toward small settlements, but this meant a night in the cold and thin air at 4800m (15.7k ft).

I watched the alpenglow light up the peaks as the relentless afternoon wind slowly subsided. The last remaining warmth of the sun abandoned me on the mountain, leaving no choice but to burrow into my sleeping bag for the foreseeable future.

After the morning thaw, I’d have most of the day to traverse the undulating alpaca-filled terrain to the beginning of the massive descent into Cotahuasi canyon, the deepest in the Americas (Colca Canyon, where this ride starts, is the second deepest). At the bottom of the plunge sat the small town of Cotahuasi, though it felt quite lively compared to the sleepy villages I’d recently gone through and made for a nice place to take a day off before the inevitable climb back up to altitude.

The ride through the canyon was amongst the best in South America. Quaint villages along the way are set amongst a dramatic backdrop and Pre-Incan historical sites.  The road is quiet and slowly deteriorates with every kilometer ridden.

After reaching the settlement of Huacctapa, I rounded a corner to the sound of drums and flutes playing a familiar rhythm. A kid amongst a group of party-goers pointed with excitement as I descended toward them. Without skipping a beat, one of the two masked men grabbed my helmet and danced around in circles to the band.

One man approached me with a vessel of clear liquid and a face I’d grown accustomed to seeing before reaching his arm out with a make-shift shot glass fashioned out of the top of a plastic bottle. Spend any reasonable amount of time riding the backroads of the Andes of Peru or Bolivia and you are bound to have a similar experience.

A few pisco shots later I continued down the road (perhaps a little wobblier than usual) as the traveling party made its way in the opposite direction, back to their village where they’d prepare a feast for the evening.

Immediately I was thrust into an amazing stretch of canyon, with walls shooting up toward the sky, a loose dirt track, and a roaring river below. It was almost too nice to simply pass through, so I did the natural thing and decided to set up my tent in a perfect spot near the river despite it still being the middle of the day. After all, what is the rush to make progress?

The following day I’d climb to the final town of the road before heading into no man’s land. With a big storm blanketing the Andes with rain, snow, and lightning in the direction I was headed, I took the advice of a villager who was bringing his herd back in from the mountains and stopped at the lone accommodation in town. The best I could do is hope for clear skies in the morning while I prep for another beastly 5,000m mountain pass on the horizon.

My route for this section: