Somewhere at the bottom of the deepest canyon on earth flows the Cotahuasi—a long, roiling ribbon of whitewater, a river so old and dangerous that you never master it, you just surrender to it. And pay respect to its ghosts.
Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
THE LITTLE PERUVIAN MARE stepped gingerly in the bedded tracks of burros, got halfway across the steep sand slide, and stopped. All around us, rock walls the color of a raw wound soared in pinnacles and ramparts, sheer and bone-dry. Fifty feet below, the slide ended in air. And sound. The Cotahuasi River, thousands of feet down, sent up a roar like distant wind as it cut its way into the canyon floor. Ahead, the two-foot-wide Inca footpath was a gray thread clinging to a nearly vertical wall.
I looked at the horse’s ears. It seemed the best place to focus. Her head was low, forlorn, like the woodcuts of Quixote’s Rocinante.
“You want me to get off, don’t you?” The ears twitched. “You don’t trust your footing in this scree and you’re as scared of heights as I am, even though you are Peruvian and bred for the mountains.”
I slid carefully off the upslope side of the horse and led her across the sand to the trail. I could see the river now, dun-green and white, tracing itself through the gorge with the remoteness of a drainage on a map. A shape, cruciform and black, caught my eye. It was a huge bird, gliding along the wall on stationary wings. It circled over the void then slipped back toward us, flying so close that I heard the wind tearing through the frayed pi-ons. I could see its reddish eye and the wrinkles on its homely bare face. Condor.
I took it for a sign, though I wasn’t sure of what. I was about to spend a week kayaking 70 miles of continuous Class IV and V whitewater in a chasm twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. It was a place without roads or rescue teams, where the last rafting expedition lost a member in the first mile. I figured that this angel of the Andes had come to tell me something, and that it was best seen as propitious.
THE STORIES HAD TRICKLED in from southern Peru for the last couple of years. John Mattson, an old friend and accomplished expedition paddler with many descents in Nepal and Chile, came back in the summer of 2000 exuberant about what he called, hands-down, his favorite river anywhere. “It’s beautiful, Pete,” he said. “It drops and drops. The flat water is Class III.” The same season, Marc Goddard, co-owner of a California-based rafting outfit called Bio Bio Expeditions, said that he had just kayaked a river that was like a dream of whitewater. “It’s 100 river miles from top to bottom, dropping 100 to 150 feet a mile, and all runnable. Inca terraces and ruins all over the place.”
The Cotahuasi was pioneered in 1995 by a group of Peruvian and American paddlers that included Gian Marco Vellutino, the head Peruvian guide on our trip. The river’s remoteness, the difficulty of scouting it, and the fact that it had been overshadowed as a destination by the famed Colca Canyon were all reasons why no one had run it before. Since ’95 only a few expeditions have made it down the Cotahuasi. One of the first private raft trips was attempted in 2000 by a European group and ended in the death of a 19-year-old woman who was thrown from a raft in a Class V rapid. Her body was never recovered.
The draw of the Cotahuasi is the almost unbelievable distance of navigable whitewater and, perhaps more alluring, the fact that the river threads what Peruvian geologists have designated in recent years as the world’s deepest canyon. At 11,000 feet, it outranks the Colca, the 10,469-foot-deep chasm just to the south that formerly held the title.
The deepest canyon. It makes the Cotahuasi a prize in a game commercial adventure companies call the “Everest phenomenon”—the race to send paying customers up the highest mountain or down the longest river, to put them face to face with a Stone Age jungle tribe or the last ivory-billed woodpecker. Travel companies thrive on these kinds of trips, blurring the distinctions between cutting-edge exploratory expeditions undertaken by dedicated experts who understand the full scope and nature of the risks, and high-end vacations for enthusiasts who may or may not know what they’re getting into. The result is sometimes disastrous. On my first assignment for this magazine, in 1989, I kayaked along with a commercial rafting group attempting a first descent of a river on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. I ended up in a desperate rescue attempt as a man on his honeymoon drowned.
But Goddard and his partner at Bio Bio Expeditions, Laurence Alvarez-Roos, were confident that they could successfully lead a group of 26 down the Cotahuasi, including 15 paying guests, who all had experience on Class III whitewater and higher. An awesome challenge, but our guides had reason to be sanguine: Bio Bio has a flawless safety record on difficult classics around the world and is one of the few paddling outfits whose owners consistently guide trips.
At the moment, however, I was alone with a sad mare, and it was getting dark. Alvarez-Roos was far ahead at the put-in with his 15 clients and most of the guides. Somewhere behind me were Goddard, two other guides, and 18 donkeys and horses carrying our gear.
Dusk was lovely and unwelcome. It pooled in the bottom of the gorge and magnified the already immense solitude. Ranks of shadowed buttresses caught the last light on the upper rim. Sounds grew louder: the thresh of the river and the clicks of hoof on stone. The mare had a keen sense of what was not in her contract. She judged so much of the trail to be terrifying that it was easier just to lead her. We came out of a side canyon onto a bench of parched grass and tall cacti, and I dropped the reins and sat down. We’d wait for the mule train.
The Cotahuasi has been inhabited for hundreds of years. The canyon was once the link between the fishing town of Puerto Inca, on the coast, and Cuzco, where Inca royalty liked their seafood fresh—never mind that they lived 300 miles inland, at 10,000 feet. The Incas may not have had writing or the wheel, but they lived among shrines paneled with gold, and their idea of express mail makes FedEx look effete. The subjugated Chasqui people ran the Cotahuasi trail night and day at full tilt, relaying baskets of fish. Shrimp netted Thursday morning would be served on gold plates in Cuzco Saturday night.
The mule train came up onto the bench in a long string punctuated by a few headlamps and cries of “Burro! Burro!” As soon as the mules hit the flat ground, the driver, Rene Urguiso, declared that he would go no farther; anyone could see it was now night and too peligroso. He began to strip the animals of their loads—kayaks, raft frames, paddles. Gian Marco Vellutino argued that most of the group was ten miles ahead at the put-in and without any camping gear. Rene kept yanking at the lashings, bags dropping to the grass. Donkeys and horses drifted off into the dark. “Don’t put me in this position,” Gian Marco finally yelled, “or I’ll put you in a position.” Then he added, “I won’t pay you.”
Twenty minutes later we were back on the trail, leading the animals through the pitch dark. Every time I shone my headlamp over the edge of the canyon and saw the beam absorbed in a black vacuum, every time I slipped a little on the loose sand, I thought about Francisco Pizarro. In 1532 he led 150 conquistadores on horseback into this same country. He drove them relentlessly, sometimes at night. In a matter of weeks, in a storm of ruthlessness and greed, he conquered a military nation of ten million. And not one of his men fell from a cliff.
IN HIS PURPLE RODEO, paddling big, technical Class V water, Ario Ferri looked dauntingly poised. He vaulted—”boofed”—a five-foot ledge, took a few relaxed strokes, moving left through thrashing waves that wanted to push him right, and found the narrow seam that was the only way down the next series of chaotic drops. Ario fell through the ramps of crashing water with the smoothness of a marble on silk. Then he caught an eddy off the left bank, spun 180 degrees to a stop, popped his spray skirt, and scrambled to the top of a house-size rock overlooking the river. He pulled his video camera from its waterproof box and began to film the rest of the team—the ones, that is, who decided to run the rapid.
This rapid was almost a mile long, the bottom half solid Class V. We named it Todo el Día—All Day Long. Beyond the rock where Ario stood, the river tumbled over another set of steps and surged into a 20-foot-wide box canyon.
We had been paddling at this point for three days, and though the whitewater was relentless, we had settled into an efficient rhythm. Ario and his childhood friend Leonardo Gonzalez, both 21, were our lead “safety kayakers.” They would paddle several bends ahead of the four rafts and radio back instructions: “At the big pourover in the middle, enter left, exit right.” When the two Peruvians got to a Class V drop, they’d radio for a halt. The consequences of a mistake in Class V water may be serious injury or death. As soon as Goddard got the call in the lead raft he’d signal to the boats behind him and then look for a place to eddy out. Sometimes that wasn’t easy. The Cotahuasi never, not once, lets up. It’s an endless flow of fast-falling and difficult “busy water.” There are no pools, no flat stretches where a boater can relax.
I ran my kayak up onto a small beach and clambered over a cobbled bank to look down at Todo el D’a. Half of the eight kayakers had already decided to walk it.
Johnny Rama stood beside me. A 33-year-old safety kayaker from Massachusetts, he routinely runs some of the wildest, biggest rivers in the world, including the Zambezi in Africa and Chile’s Futaleufœ. He had a punkish blond haircut beneath his helmet and wore his zinc sunblock like war paint.
“So whaddya think?” he said.
“Not me, Johnny,” I said. “I was schooled once today already.”
It had happened a few miles back, at a gnarly constriction called Orange Juice. Last year a Peruvian kayak guide had gotten into trouble and bailed out of his boat along with a dozen oranges that bobbed behind him—hence the name. Now all the rafters got out and walked. I was routinely amazed at how swiftly Goddard and his crew got the passengers out of the boats and around the bigger rapids. The guides would then either line the rafts along the bank or “ghost boat” them empty through the run. Often they would unload the clients and paddle the lightened rafts themselves, deftly working the drops as if they were slalom gates.
On the right side of Orange Juice was a five-foot ledge that spilled into a nasty-looking hydraulic. Only one of the kayakers decided to boof the drop, sailing clear over the hole. I decided to follow. Before this trip, it had been quite a few years since I had paddled anything really demanding. I was a bit anxious, but after a day or so I got used to the boat and was surprising myself. I felt relaxed and strong and was running all the Class V. I was also feeling a little cocky.
I hammered through waves for the ledge, for the foot-wide seam along the right side, thinking, “Yes! Got it!” and was shocked when my bow collided with the wall of the canyon. I pendulumed out over the lip, fell sideways into the hole, and flipped. This was not a good place to be. I tucked into roll position and looked up at the light through the frigid 55-degree water and waited for the hole to release me, but it didn’t. I felt the boat vibrating in place. My breath expanded to an ache in my lungs. I had a vivid image of the hole, the shape of it, the way it was blocked off on either side by rock wall and boulder, and I thought, “Is this how it ends? Is this it? Dang.” I wasn’t scared or nonaccepting, just baffled. Then I remembered that there was no point in trying to roll out of a vertical hole, so I’d better try to reach for a deeper outflowing current. I extended the paddle. Nothing. Then I thought, “OK, swim for deeper water.” In my buoyant life jacket, that was probably wishful thinking. I unsnapped the spray skirt and wrenched myself out of the cockpit. The movement was enough to pull me clear of the hole, and I came up in boiling slackwater. The kayak had somehow popped free, too. Gian Marco’s brother, Piero Vellutino, threw a safety rope from shore and pulled me in.
For the next hour I beat myself up. I hadn’t swum a rapid in years. And then, on a stretch of playful green water between rapids, I looked around me—at the black rocks glistening in the current, at the high walls and the graceful, narrow-leaved molle trees along the bank—and I thought, “I’m alive!” The Cotahuasi had humbled me, but it had also been generous.
As I stood beside Johnny, contemplating the maelstrom that was Todo el Día, I surprised myself by thinking I might not portage after all. I began to look at the long rapid not as a single terrifying surge, but piece by piece, following the lines of current over ledges and through pourovers and holes and breaking waves. “You could run here, and then move left, catch the eddy behind the boulder and boof the ledge, and…” A paddler’s mind can’t help itself. I called down to the last kayaker on the shore, an American named Kipchoge Spencer. “Wait for me, I’ll run it with you.” By the time I squeezed into my boat, sealed the spray skirt, and paddled into the current, I felt focused and excited. The shore was empty—everybody had either portaged or paddled. Then everything went silent, the big breaking waves and the seething holes, and it was all motion, the thoughts clean and simple: Move left, catch the tongue. I caught up with Kipchoge and we ran down through the fury almost in tandem.
THAT NIGHT WE CAMPED on a bank of packed dirt edged with the stepped walls of ancient farm terracing. Gian Marco told me that if you pour water over these terraces it distributes evenly and flows from one level to the next like a fountain. There are many aspects of Inca technology that cannot readily be explained, he said. Take the Nasca Lines, vast depictions of animals scored into the desert in southern Peru. “They can only be interpreted from the air,” said Gian Marco. “How did they do that?” I pointed to the sky and hummed the theme song from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Gian Marco smiled and shrugged. He and his two brothers, Duilio and Piero, had been given their first kayaks in 1981 by the Polish team that made the first descent of Colca Canyon. Since then they’ve paddled some of the most dangerous whitewater anywhere, so not much surprises them. Twenty-two-year-old Piero nodded as he built the campfire and listened to his older brother. Though he had a ready natural smile, Piero didn’t talk much. Bearded and ox-strong, he rowed the heavy gear raft with complete self-sufficiency. Not once did he portage a rapid. If he got stuck on a rock, he never called for help; he’d just jump onto the slick boulders, pry the raft free, and leap back in, swiftly taking up the oars as the boat caromed away. The Vellutinos had paddled so much extreme whitewater together that they hardly needed to speak on the river. At the edge of a blind drop, Gian Marco would stand up in his raft full of passengers, look back at Piero, make a simple hand motion of the line he could see down the rapid, and disappear over the lip.
Just two weeks before this trip they had guided three Americans on the Moran River, a Class V and VI tributary of the Cotahuasi. One of the paddlers got pinned bow-down at the bottom of a long and dangerous rapid. Piero was the only one remaining upstream, and he could see the tip of the man’s stern shivering beyond a rock sieve. He jumped into the river and swam—through Class V water—to the spot where the boat was trapped. Straddling two boulders with his long legs, Piero shoved with all his might until the boat came free, and then somehow swam to shore. The American escaped with a broken leg.
Above our camp, built into a mud cliff near the terraces, were some crumbling rock walls and alcoves. A few of us clambered up through the deepening shadows, the day’s heat still pulsing from the dirt and stones. Twenty feet from the ruin we stopped cold. A human skull sat in one of the square niches. Another winked in the parched scrub like a giant egg. I felt a crunch beneath my foot and looked down at a long, splintered bone. Weathered bones lay all over the ground, along with shards of ancient pottery. I picked up a slender rib honeycombed with age then gently put it back. A couple of us crouched inside a barrel-shaped niche that had been stuccoed with river mud. On the floor of the hollow, emerging from the dirt, was a shape wrapped in stiff, ivory-colored cloth. It looked like a mummy, and we respectfully backed away. Marc Goddard broke off a piece of the cloth to take back to be dated by an archaeologist. He said he didn’t think of it as despoiling the grave, because it is the intention with which an artifact is taken that counts. He didn’t sound sure.
That night, lying in my sleeping bag, I watched the sparkling desert stars, the Southern Cross sailing down-canyon like a kite over a sea of pitch. There wasn’t a single plane or satellite. The breeze was warm on my face, and I could hear the rush of the river. Now in the dry season, it was the sound of snowmelt. I’d never been in a place where every motion, every sound, followed only the slow wheeling of the earth and the insistence of the season. I thought how this canyon was full of spirits, and how it was best to have those spirits on your side. The next morning Marc told me he’d put back the piece of cloth.
I OFTEN THINK OF paddling as a dialogue or a dance with the river, like two partners who murmur to each other in the closest moments. After the first few days of rising confidence, then humility, now, on the fourth day, the river and I had come to an easier intimacy. The Cotahuasi had taught me, very simply, to be present. When I beat myself up for missing a line through a rapid, I was not present. When I patted myself on the back, I was not present. Whenever I was not present I got schooled. I’d bang a rock or drop into a sticky hole. On the fourth day, as I paddled, I thought, “There is only this.” And the “only this” unfolded into a series of steep, constricted rapids of reverberating beauty.
There was a river-wide hole and a sharp ledge dropping onto an enormous rock, just a thin channel of water running down its side. There was Centimeter Canyon, a complex Class V rapid that squeezed through a five-foot gap at the bottom. At every one of these runs I’d shake my head, decide to portage, then be transfixed by the simple magic of seeing a clean line of current. And I’d hear the question, “What are you here for?” Each time I picked up my boat to walk the rapid, I’d find myself putting it right back in the water. It was perhaps the best day of river running I’ve ever known.
On the sixth day we paddled out of the canyon into a broad moraine edged with trees. The walls fell back to dry mountain slopes and the river widened and braided through beds of gravel. We could smell the sea. Lining the banks were lime-green vineyards and low adobe houses. At one bend I heard dogs barking and looked up to see two women in bright orange skirts and sweaters waving from the shore, two tiny children in wool hats beside them. Then came a wide side canyon cutting in from the left. Iquipi, the take-out.
I’m always amazed at how quickly expeditions end. In less than an hour the rafts were rolled, the bus and van were loaded, and we were jouncing down a dusty road past farm fields and shacks made of poles and bound rushes to the Pan American Highway at the coast. We turned south, with the Pacific on our right, and in the first bustling town we piled out at a white-tiled ice cream shop and each came away with a quadruple-dip cone.
THREE NIGHTS AFTER I got back to the States I heard the news that Peru had suffered an 8.4 earthquake. The city of Arequipa, where we had begun the trip and where the Vellutino family lived, was badly damaged. The epicenter was near Oco-a. The name rang a bell. It was the town where we had turned onto the Pan American Highway, at the mouth of the Cotahuasi.
I waited two days out of respect for more urgent emergency business and then called Gian Marco. His wife, Lillian, answered. She said they were all OK. The steeple of the colonial cathedral in Arequipa had fallen literally at her feet. The burro trail we had followed was cut by slides; crews were trying to restore it. At Camana, where we had eaten ice cream, the ocean had abruptly receded 300 yards from the beach and then came thundering back in a 20-foot tidal wave. At least 26 people drowned. They were finding bodies a half-mile into fields.
I thought about the Cotahuasi, the vast, deep, unstable canyon. The condor and the skulls. The two women and the children waving from the bank, the reed huts along the shore built under rockfall. There would be new dead buried among the old. “And Iquipi?” I asked. “And the river?”
“There is no word yet from Iquipi,” said Lillian. “The river is all right. No wall has fallen to dam it up, but the water is muddy.”
The water was muddy, and wide. It was still flowing. I imagined it emerging from the deep gorge, spilling into gravel beds and braids. The water was brown with dirt and came from a place I remembered as a dream, and it told a story I could not decipher.
Running the Cotahuasi, the Colca, and More
Bio Bio Expeditions (800-246-7238; www.bbxrafting.com), the only company offering commercial trips on the Cotahuasi, will run the river twice next summer, in June and July ($2,900 plus airfare), and lead trips down the Class III-V Apurimac in south-central Peru and the Class III Tambopata River in southeastern Peru ($1,850-$2,900). Bio Bio screens clients to make sure they are fit to handle the strenuous paddling required on the Cotahuasi and the Apurimac.
EarthQuest (206-334-3404; www.earthquestadventure.com) runs 2- to 14-day trips down the Apurimac, Tambopata, and the Class II-VI Urubamba River during summer (call for prices).
Earth River Expeditions (800-643-2784; www.earthriver.com) offers a nine-day trip in July on the Class V Colca River, about 100 miles southeast of the Cotahuasi ($2,900).
Mountain Travel Sobek (888-687-6235; www.mtsobek.com) is making the first commercial rafting trip down the Class III-IV Puyango-Tumbes River, across the border between Ecuador and Peru, next July ($3,150-$3,450).—Christian Nardi