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Ruins on the Rapids Volume 56 Number 6, November/December 2003
by Justin Jennings

A white-knuckle, down-river ride to save Peru's past

As our raft began to wrap around a boulder in the middle of the rapid, I looked down at the water rushing below us. My four companions and I were piled up against the front tube in an attempt to squeeze the raft through a narrow gap between our boulder and the one next to it. Crushed by some 600 of men, wetsuits, life jackets, and helmets, I felt icy water beginning to rush over my legs. For a giddy moment, I thought we were going to make it. Then, the raft lurched up against the rock and I tumbled out into the rapid. It was my first baptism in the Cotahuasi, a river that I knew well.


Over the past five years, I have done archaeological fieldwork in the Cotahuasi Canyon of southern Peru. Descending violently from the top of the Andes into the Pacific, the river has carved the deepest canyon in the world (11,500 feet from mountain peak to river bottom). Shaped by volcanic eruptions, tectonic uplift, glaciers, and the relentless flow of water, the valley is a spectacular landscape of sheer 2,000-foot cliffs, towering waterfalls, and unstable hillsides.

My colleagues and I work in the upper reaches of the valley, from the towns of Cotahuasi to Puica, tracing the region's prehistory from the earliest Paleoindians to the Incas (11,000 B.C.-A.D. 1532). However, the remote middle area of the valley, from the towns of Cotahuasi to Iquipi, remains an archaeological mystery. There are no roads into this section of the valley, and the foot trails are often cut by landslides or swept away by summer rains. The only way to explore this portion is to ride the 80 miles of whitewater that churns through it.

A continual cascade of challenging rapids, the Cotahuasi River was only first successfully navigated by a small group of kayakers in 1995. The trickle of adventure enthusiasts that followed was drawn to the river because it offered, in the words of kayak guides, "the ultimate river trip"--a week-long whitewater journey through a remote and beautiful canyon. These adventurers left the valley not only impressed with the river but also intrigued by ancient terraces, tombs, and ruins they visited on the valley's flanks. I have heard tales, seen photos, and read accounts of various expeditions. The existence of pristine, undocumented, archaeological sites down-river piqued my interest but also raised concern about the impact that these people have had on the sites they visited. Some rafters have collected potsherds, ripped textiles off mummies, and climbed on top of fragile walls. These visitors are a new threat to remote sites already damaged by looters. One of the kayak guides I met, Marc Goddard, shared my interest in the ruins and my concern for their preservation. We developed a friendship and he invited me to join a trip down the Cotahuasi earlier this year.

Goddard and his partner, Laurence Alvarez-Roos, own Bio Bio Expeditions, a company that organizes river trips in Africa and South and North America. Their business is part of the burgeoning adventure rafting industry that is making it easier and less time consuming for people to travel off the beaten path. One result is that adventure tourists are now exploring archaeological sites that not long ago were protected by their isolation. Convinced that archaeologists needed to be more aware of the damage such tourism might inflict on ancient sites, I accepted Goddard's invitation. A trip down the river would give me a chance not only to visit the sites but also to understand how the rafters experienced these places. I was fully aware that the first attempted commercial descent of the river by another company in 2001 had ended tragically with the death of a client. Nonetheless, my curiosity, combined with Goddard's spotless safety record, overcame my fears and I started packing.

Justin Jennings is a lecturer at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a research associate at the Cotsen Archaeological Institute. His work focuses on the impact of the Wari and Inca empires on the people of the Cotahuasi Valley.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America