Canyons & Condors

Fresh from our success with James’s haircut in Nazca, we wended our way next to Arequipa, a rather lovely colonial city in the south of Peru. Whilst Arequipa is a nice enough place in and of itself, the reason we (and I’m afraid most other people) went there was as a convenient launch point for the Colca Canyon. I’d been to the Colca Canyon on my last visit to South America some 15 years ago, and the memories of condors flying close enough over my head to make me duck (they’re big those condors) remained sufficiently vivid for me to be pretty confident that, yes, this should be included on our whirlwind “Highlights of South America (well, the northern bits anyway)” tour. A chance for a hiking side trip also made perfect sense in the middle of this, one of our heaviest travel weeks (two overnight buses…euurrghh).

After much debate, we decided that our best option for Colca, rather than taking the 3 day tour that’s an almost compulsory feature of this part of the gringo tour, was to get a little bit of our intrepid on and go it solo. What I’d conveniently forgotten / omitted to tell James is that the Colca Canyon is a 6 hour bus ride from Arequipa, in “local” buses. This is definitely a step up from the Bolivian chicken buses (30 year old American school buses, complete with rotund Bolivian ladies taking, yes, you got it, their chickens to market. For the curious, the chickens usually ride on the floor, upside down and tied in pairs. Seems to keep’em happy), but still lacks certain luxuries – seats that stay upright, legroom, that sort of thing. Also they tend to operate as to / from work rides for the locals, meaning that by the end of the journey it’s not uncommon to have 40 or 50 people standing in the aisle. All this I’d expected (James less so), although I have to admit that the shouts of “Ciao” by 50 or so quaintly dressed locals into 50 or so mobile phones was a novel touch to the experience this time around.

This was also our first foray into the world of the Traveler. For the uninitiated, this personage is a rare but friendly beast commonly found in certain unique habitats worldwide; their preferred food includes pizza and banana pancakes, with maybe the occasional touch of granola for the mornings, and they can be easily identified both through their brightly coloured plumage (assembled from a mix of hard core hiking gear and locally bought tat) and their unique braying call, particularly after consumption of one or several of whatever the local brew happens to be. Our hostel in Colca fulfilled both the pizza requirement and was apparently the Lonely Planet’s 7th best “out of the way bar” worldwide. We expected gringo horror – we got a rather lovely little place with an enormous stove (key at 3,000 metres) and friendly owners who quickly helped us work out our best hiking option.

Which was, apparently, to hike 1,200 vertical metres down into the Canyon (the world’s second deepest, some 50 foot less deep than the world’s deepest, Cotohuasi, which is about 40 miles away), admiring the agricultural terracing along the way, lunch and swim at the oasis down there (that much vertical descent = an entirely different and vaguely tropical subclimate at the bottom of the canyon), then hike back up again. Which we duly did. Note cheery looks for both of us on the way down and at the bottom and rather less cheery looks on the way back up! Took 7 hours or so in total and made us feel well’ard (as they say in Scouseland).

Next day was an early rise to see the condors before heading back on the bus to Arequipa. We arrived at the lookout point at about 7.45, and I spent the next hour biting my fingernails as the condors singularly failed to put in an appearance – had I imagined them last time around and is that why they were so vivid in memory??! Fortunately, right on cue at about 8.45 the condors showed up with a leisurely yawn and a stretch of their wings. Circling higher and higher above us with an apparent utter disdain for the hundred or so homosapiens below madly clicking their cameras at them, they absolutely lived up to their billing. Unfortunately we were low on camera battery so not many photos – the ones below are by no means the closest that we saw the condors (which was probably about 10 foot overhead).

Magical. So much so that I think James has forgiven me the bus ride!