The Colca Canyon cuts a deep scar across the high mountain Peruvian state of Arequipa. About 3,400 metres deep, this incredible natural feature is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and dictates the nature of the world that surrounds it. Only its northern neighbor, the Cotahuasi canyon is deeper, dropping a massive 3,354 metres this little beauty is widely regarded as the deepest canyon in the world. So it seems painfully obvious that riding from the bottom of one to the deepest part of the other could be fun. Having plunged down into the Cotahuasi canyon with our last leg of riding, Cherry and I had little choice but to climb out again, our eventual goal being a route I thought I’d discovered down into the deepest darkest depths of the Colca canyon and hopefully back out again up the other side.
Canyons have stolen my heart on this tour. First came the mighty Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA and then the deeper Copper Canyon that nestles among the Tarahumara mountains, Chihuahua, northern Mexico. It is no exaggeration to say that the Grand Canyon changed my life. The most incredible piece of landscape I have ever seen (to this day), this iconic piece of mega-erosion humbled me to the core, sending me careering into an unscheduled life reappraisal. The Copper Canyon managed to have an equally profound effect. The riding there accelerated the evolution of my biking mindset towards the rough and rewarding while illness, bike mechanical issues and a chance meeting with the legendary Micah Truth (RIP) strengthened my soul against what’s expected. The route I sweated down to Urique in the bottom of the Copper Canyon and then back out the other side remains the toughest stretch of riding of my life. Beset with bike and health problems, the arid dusty conditions combined with remoteness, difficult roads and an overloaded and inappropriately set up bicycle to make this route a personal right of passage. Those days inspired me onto challenging routes and are a constant reminder of why a lighter bike is a funner bike. Since then the Colca Canyon has been sitting proud in my bucket list of places to ride.
There are settlements in the Colca Canyon but they are small and inaccessible. The possibility of a road that could negotiate both the steep slopes of the canyon and cross the Rio Colca by any route other than Chivay, was until recently just a dream. Then in 2009 the AR-106 appeared on the Peruvian Ministry of Transport and Communication (MTC) maps and the suggestion was that a route had been forged down the northern slopes of the canyon, through the Valley of the Volcanoes to the village of Ayo and beyond across the Rio Colca, along to Cango and then up the steep southern slopes to Huambo. Climbing out of the Cotahuasi canyon would be easy, a paved road switchbacks gently up to the canyon lip. Riding through the Colca canyon would offer up a whole other challenge. I set about my research, excited by what the MTC maps told me but disbelieving of their authenticity. I scoured Google Earth (a curious cycle tourists best friend) and searched the internet for information. The results were a mixed bag: Satellite images suggested two potential pathways heading up from the Rio Colca to Huambo and the main road on the southern side of the canyon but showed no way across the river. The blogosphere was completely devoid of information save for a couple of vague mutterings from hikers and no other official mention of the AR-106 road existed at all. Then I stumbled upon what I thought I needed, a YouTube video clip of a 2009 news item reporting on the Mayor of the district opening a road from Ayo (north of the Rio Colca) up to Huambo. This was the proof I needed. Attempting this potentially challenging new route straight through the guts of the Colca Canyon might just pay dividends.
Here is the story of mine and Cherry’s journey from the depths of the world’s deepest canyon over some terrifyingly beautiful scenery into the unrelenting clutches of the infamous Colca Canyon. Do my dreams come true with a hike and bike through the canyon or does it send us packing? You’ll have to see…
Be aware that distances and elevations are taken from my bicycle computer and barometric altimeters, thus they are in some ways an approximation.
Cotahuasi to Ayo
4 days, 100 miles (161 km), 9,711 ft. (2,960 m) of climbing
- Cotahuasi (2,710m) – Despite being a reasonably sized town with various accommodation options, plentiful shops and a bank that changes USD, Cotahuasi sill lacks the internet and an ATM. We were also unable to find Bencina blanca.
- 27.8km – A gentle paved climb up to the lip of the canyon at 4,000m (where the pavement stops)
- Once out of the canyon water is scarce. Make use of the stream at about 33.5km (4,130m)
- 37.8km – continue left around the hairpin ignoring the road right. There is a sizeable shelter at this junction that could cater a tent.
- 44km – Abra de Viscos (4,695m)
- An undulating descent with great views of Solimana and Coropuna continues 18.3km to a bridge (4,280m) after which there is a 0.6km climb to a junction (4,310m). Take the sharp left, ignoring the two roads that fork straight (to Chuquibamba). The turning is rudamentally signed to Angagua and Orcopampa. From this point the landscape really opens up as the road gently climbs for about 34km.
- 2.4kms from the junction stay straight (not left) and continue on 5.1kms to the village of Mauco Llacta.
- Mauco Llacta – a small Inca village and designated archeological site. Take a left at the junction with the standing tap to sweep around to the only tienda (has limited stock but useful for eggs, gaseosas, snacks and toilet paper). I recommend filling up water in the village but it’s not strictly necessary as there are a couple of clean water streams still to cross. The main route continues straight at this tap.
- 22.6km from Mauco Llacta stay right at a junction and then continue towards the large hill with a mast. In 4km is another larger junction. At the junction (4,860m) 26.6km from the village take the left option towards Orcopampa. Right goes up to Abra Viraco (4,940m) and continues on to Aplao (see Pikes route). As the road gently climbs from Mauco Llacta its condition generally declines. Although all rideable some rocky sections require a bit of concentration.
- Following the junction you’ll sweep around to the right to the head of a dramatic series of switchbacks. Take care on this descent, it’s sandy in places and generally quite rocky. After about 10km (from the junction) the switchbacks straighten out and you’ll pass some farm buildings before the road joins a stream. It’ll then continue to lose altitude following the stream down through a winding valley. 14km from the junction (4,218m) stay straight (not left). 17km from the junction the route crosses the stream (4,090m), a short climb then takes you out of the valley and into some amazing views of the Valle de Volcanes.
- The descent towards Andagua is generally sandy and very sandy in places. 4.5km from the stream (3,819m) a signed junction offers left to Orcopampa and right to Andagua. Taking the right fork leaves a further 4.4km to the topiary filled central plaza of Andagua.
- Andagua (3,587m) – A friendly laid back little town with 3 accommodation options (I recommend Casa Grande for its friendly owners, hot shower and spacious courtyard). Although there are no banks or ATM, nor internet, the shops are well stocked. The east side of the plaza houses a good restaurant and useful shop selling (amongst many other things) petrol, bicycle rims, pedals, tires and numerous other (low quality) bike parts.
- Continuing through Andagua, 4.5km from the central plaza is a mine sponsored mirador and information point – ‘Mirador de Pequenos Volcanes y Lavas Congeladas’ (3,522m). This includes a map and can be a good place for Condor watching.
- 2.5km from the mirador the road passes through the tiny village of Soporo (3,415m) before descending another 1.8km to the Chachas junction (3,316m). The right-hand turn to Ayo is clearly signposted. Continuing straight would take you to Chachas (16km) and onto an alternative as yet unexplored high altitude route north-east up through Abandonada to Caylloma.
- The road then descends through an incredible cactus strewn lava field into the waterless and dusty Colca canyon. The going is rocky and sometimes steep. I strongly suggest checking your brake pads before leaving Andagua.
14km from the junction (2,789m) continue straight ignoring the signed left turn to Subna. From here look out for the impressive pre-Inca terraces and ruins.
- About 11km later is another junction with a signed left to Laguna de Mamacocha (8km). Continue straight. Take no notice of the sign to Huambo, there is neither a way across the Rio Colca nor a passable route up to Huambo.
- 3km from the junction is Ayo. From just below Ayo the road continues left down to the Rio Colca where it stops. Despite what signage suggests, there is no route beyond the river.
- Ayo (1,956m) – A quiet little town of narrow streets and thatched single story buildings. If you’ve been up at altitude you’ll enjoy the balmy climate. The central plaza was being rebuilt during our visit and the town had been without electricity for a few days. Ask around to find the 4 accommodation options (all universally asking 20 soles a bed). We stayed in Hospedaje Oscar for a negotiated 15 soles. There is a restaurant just up from the church and basic shops near the plaza.
NOTE: Despite what government maps may suggest there is not currently any road from a few km beyond Ayo. Take no notice of the signage to Huambo. If somehow you manage to cross the Rio Colca (there is no bridge) then it may be possible to hike with your bike to Cango. Beyond Cango a steep and narrow path can be hiked up to Huambo. Guides in Ayo refused to entertain the idea that the hike could be done with a bike. Although we didn’t have time to explore the option my research suggests that they may have a point. There is plenty to keep you occupied around Ayo if you find yourself waiting for one of the two weekly buses back up to Andagua (leaving Mondays and Thursdays). We were fortunate to snag a ride with a dump truck (two very bumpy hours).