The Colca Canyon and the soaring Andean condor.
Sounds impressive right? Well it was!
I had wanted to go to this place from day one, but circumstances kept it just out of reach. Finally, the opportunity and timing was right for a mini adventure.
Official tours run from Arequipa daily, but we chose to do it ourselves in the end.
160kms northwest of Arequipa is the little township of Chivay, the mid-way point in the Colca valley. Its roots date back to before the Inca arrived. When they showed up, in about 1300 AD, they softly made their presence known by marrying into the local tribes. They bought their main language with them, Quechuan, and to this day it is still the language of choice for most of the locals in this Andean area. In fact over 9 million people speak this ancient language now throughout Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. It is very different to Spanish and most Spanish speaking people I've spoken to about it, say they find it difficult/impossible to understand.
In the late 1500s, the Spaniards turned up and took control of the people by forcing them to move from their homes in the mountains to more centrally located villages, where immediately churches and chapels were built so they could bring in their religion. Until the 1940s there was no easy way to get into the Colca region, but all that changed when silver and copper were discovered and soon a road was built from Arequipa to Chivay. The same road we travelled on.
The land, as you are heading deep into the canyon, is dominated by terraced gardens with a million ancient stone walls sectioning out paddocks. The local people still actively harvest these terraces as well as farm alpacas, llama, some sheep and a small amount of cattle. Inhabitants here, particularly the elderly, wear traditional dress everyday. I'm still unsure whether its to please the tourists or to keep their culture alive .... maybe its the same thing.
The Plaza de Armas (town centre) in Chivay has a nice harmony between the essentials of modern life and the beautiful ancient architecture, people and dress. Its easy to while away the hours, just people watching and listening to the sounds of this isolated region.
The canyon at is deepest point is 3,270 meters however the most popular point is of course the 'Cruz del Condor' which translates to 'cross of the condor'. It is the 'mirador' (or lookout) where over 200,000 tourists a year stand to watch these spectacular birds in flight. The condor has a wingspan of nearly 3 meters and lives to about 60-70 years of age. For the Incans it was a symbol of eternity, of a long life. The mirador stands at 1200 meters above the valley floor and the birds can be seen at close range as they fly past the canyon walls searching for prey. In the evenings, some of the locals occasionally deposit live animals on a paddock across from the lookout point, although it is very rare to see a kill in action.
As we arrived, there was a large number of tourists on the viewing platforms and the fog was just starting to roll in, obscuring the view. Since we had to wait a couple of hours for the next public bus we decided to grab a café con leche (a coffee) and wander the markets where the local ladies were selling their handcrafts. My heart sank a little as the fog seemed to get thicker and thicker and the temperature plummeted. One by one the tourist busses and minivans arrived picking up their tired passengers, who had been up and travelling since 3am that morning. One of the reasons I was reluctant to go on the 'guided tour' was that it only allows for 1 hour at the mirador. I knew in my gut that this just didn't feel right. But now I was starting to think I might have got it wrong. That an hour was enough. And how vital it is to get there at the right time in the morning. Had we made a big mistake? Trusting in ourselves instead of the local guides who had been doing this for years?
In that moment of self-doubt, the universe answered me and an amazing thing happened; as each tourist climbed into their comfy bus and departed, the mist seemed to lift also. We moved from our sheltered spot and wandered over to the area the fog had lifted from. And there popping out of their burrow to grab a few moments of sun was 2 of the cutest things I've seen in a long time ….. vizcacha's. A big rabbit sized cousin of the chinchilla. As I tried to take pictures of these shy creatures, all they seemed to want to do was soak up the sun and stare at me! I swear if they could have operated a camera, we would have been mutually taking photos of each other.
With each passing minute the fog lifted more and more and apart from ourselves, there was only a couple of families left on the mirador. The place became eerily still. In the background, the mountain birds were chattering away and the locals ladies were gossiping in Quechuan as they packed up their wares for the day.
We moved over to the viewing platform and within minutes were greeted by a giant hummingbird. These birds are about 20g in weight, which is almost twice that of the next heaviest hummingbird and ten times that of the smallest in the species. The birdlife and mountain geckos kept us amused until about 20 mins later we heard the familiar cry of an eagle. As I held my phone up to the whiteness of the remaining fog, a beautiful sight gradually took shape through the clouds; the first Andean Condor to grace us with its presence. The bird rode the air currents from the bottom of the canyon to high above us, so effortlessly, the power of its 3m wings obvious. (see video 1, with sound up and you will hear the eagles cry)
As the next hour or so passed we were privileged to experience many more of these astounding birds in action. So much so, that we missed our 10.30am bus and had to wait another 2 hours for the 12.30 one. We didn't mind one single bit!
The sun was out, the tourists were gone and all that was left in this amazing location was us; another lady; a local man; the vizcachas and geckos sunning themselves on the rocks; a friendly hummingbird; 1 eagle and 7 condors flying above us. Magic.
We stayed the night in Chivay and explored the town centre and markets the next morning. We found great little art shops, run by local artists selling their traditional work, one of which let me take a photo of an actual condor feather. We discovered an overgrown and dilapidated (thank goodness) bull arena, made from the stones that so strongly dominate the landscape here. It felt incredibly sad to wander around and as I turned and saw the artwork on the big metal entrance doors, it nearly broke my heart. It appears once a year an ancient ceremony required the condor to be captured and tied to the back of the bull, representing the dualism of joining sky and earth. Unfortunately, although this ring in no longer in use, some are. The tradition is still carried out in villages high in the Andes today. The Condors are like Gods to these people, so they are not 'harmed' and are set free to fly at the end of the ritual. But as any good animal lover knows, the traumatic experience for both bull and condor is barbaric in itself.
Meanwhile, there were still things we ran out of time to do here such as; the thermal hot pools; zip-lining; an archaeological cave where 6,000 year old rock art depicts the taming of the alpaca; the Infiernillo Geyser that sits on the edge of one of the volcanoes; the spring that bursts forth from a rock face and is the most distant source of the Amazon River; and hiking above Sibayo to see the ancient mummy of Paraqra.
Oh well, we'll just have to get up at 2am again and jump on the bus for another visit …..
Raewyn McGee Mishel, you are having such an amazing time. Your blogs are so well written and informative it's giving us the images that we are on this journey along with you, and conjuring up images of the people and sights around you.
Jessica That sounded amazing, and the way you wrote about it made me feel like I was there! What an awesome experience chicken :-)
Lushy That was such an amazing image I was feeling the excitement with you! What a fantastic experience, never to be forgotten. X
Sue Vaughan Would loved to have shared that experience with you Cuz. I love birds and would have been in a photographers paradise. So pleased you are finding the true essence of life and its majestical beauty and simplicity. A true wonder.
Mish Hi All - thanks so much for your super kind words! Love you all and I wish you WERE with me!! Note: the videos are now working, apologies for the fail .... user error :-)
Byron Krause Awesome! Great pics too!
Yvonne That sounds amazing Mish.
Leah Loving the adventure! xo