A 4am alarm and down to the bus terminal in time for the bus up winding canyon roads to Pampamarca. The journey is not far but the poor roads and frequent stops to drop farmers by their terraces made progress slow. The best way to experience the canyon is by one of the week-long hiking routes that we sadly didn't have the time to complete. With only three days here we stayed in Cotahuasi and took day trips out.
On this particular day we fell foul of the canyon's changeable weather conditions. As we neared the mountainside town of Pampamarce we were engulfed in heavy cloud and visibility on the road plummeted to 20 metres. On top of this we had risen 1,200m during the journey and we instantly found ourselves breathless on the relatively straightforward uphill sections of path.
We started climbing out of town towards Bosque de Piedras Huito (a lookout point 4,000m above sea level), but soon called no joy as the visibility worsened. Grumpy and disappointed, we dropped back down into town and headed for the Mirador del Uskune in the hope that the clouds would lift there and we would get a view of some description.
Pampamarca clings to a remote mountain side high up the canyon wall, begging the question why original settlers ventured here in the first place, but regular rains and north facing slopes offer perfect conditions for the cultivation of crops. The terraces here were some of the best tended and densely packed that we have seen.
Once we arrived at the Mirador del Uskune we were greeted by a wall of fog. Normally the lookout provides expansive views across the canyon to the Catarata del Uskune. No such luck today!
Pablo, our tour guide, was very cheap but not exactly forthcoming with facts, figures and funny anecdotes about the area.
We sat for over an hour waiting for the clouds to lift to no avail. We turned for home a little dejected but as we did so, the clouds lifted slightly, providing some moody views across the terraces.
The pride with which the land is maintained was staggering, the effort required to plough furrows, repair walls and harvest crops at 3,500m must make these some of the fittest farmers going round. They certainly ran rings around us sea-level dwelling wimps!
At first glance the lifestyle up here seems blissfully simple, but so much of the people's livelihood is subject to forces beyond their control.
Weather, crop prices, road conditions etc. all hold huge influence on these rural communities. In fact we saw a group of ten or so locals out mending a stretch of the road themselves, because if they waited for the local government to step in their only route down the canyon would be washed away.
After our wander around the terraces we retreated to the general store for hot sweet tea and a few rounds of play-fighting with the dogs, minding the place for our host as she went out on her morning deliveries.
Pablo and friend kept us company as we awaited our midday bus back down the valley to Cotahuasi. The bus timetable is designed around the farmer's working day, dropping them all off on its way up the valley early in the morning and collecting them all early afternoon so that they can avoid the heat of the day. It was refreshing to see such a straightforward economy at work, with all the different parts pulling in one direction.
Similarly the excellent road infrastructure between Arequipa and Juliaca was made possible by the power and influence of the mining industry. Single market economies do have their benefits I suppose, but there are plenty of negatives and fragilities to counter this. There was a unity in Cotahuasi that we in 'developed' economies lack due to the sheer number of moving parts in our economies, all of which seem to move in different directions!
As we descended below the clouds, the scale and beauty of the canyon reappeared. We were disappointed not to have got the views we had anticipated, but that's the game you play when you give yourself one shot at goal. Much like visits to Ireland or the Lake District, we had been reminded all too well that places like this are green and fertile for a reason: rain, and lots of it!