Colca Canyon, Peru: Part One, The Cross of the Condors
At 1 am we rose groggily and prepared to depart our hotel. Close proximity to a cobblestone main street, through which traffic never stopped rolling, had denied us any real possibility of sleep. Not exactly how you want to start five days of rigorous hiking, but such is the way of things in remote places like Peru. Everything is always far from everything else, and usually involves driving in a cramped, smelly vehicle over bad miles of bad roads and sometimes staying in less than ideal places. If you want to visit someplace convenient, I highly recommend the local shopping mall. If you want to visit someplace remote, beautiful and different…don’t expect that place to be convenient. I highly recommend Peru…indescribably beautiful and thoroughly inconvenient.
Anyway…our guide, Eli, arrived first. She turned out to be petite woman who appeared at first glance to be approximately 14 years old, but is both an experienced mountain guide and a stout hiker. The bus arrived not long after, and the driver was both behind schedule and furious at everyone. After hurling our backpacks into the rear of the vehicle, resulting in Sylvia’s glasses case and glasses hitting the ground, the driver hit the gas and off we went!
But it was another hour before we were on the road to Colca. First, the bus made a tour of hostels in the Arequipa area during the early morning hours, at one point having to backtrack a full half hour for someone. All the while the driver kept shouting at everyone. Apparently, he was upset because several people on the route were not ready when the bus arrived. In fact, it appeared NO ONE was ready. This probably had to do with the fact that everyone had been told a different pickup time. The only reason we were early was that we’d gotten the message thanks to Eli and the tour company…if not for that, we would have been hours behind schedule.
Eventually everyone was either aboard or had been left behind for later buses to extract, and we were in fact on our way. The driver eventually brightened up enough to start joking with Eli and another guide named Roy who had grown up in the canyon…we would later stay in the hostel owned by his family.
We arrived soon at a restaurant in Chivay where were given breakfast…here, we were allowed to leave behind some of our gear for later retrieval. This came a great surprise to us, one of those things that would have been very helpful to know in advance but never seems to be communicated. We cached several pieces of gear that we simply did not need for the Colca trip, but would need later for Misti. Only after would we learn that all this had been arranged between Eli and some of the staff, and the people who ran the restaurant were not entirely pleased with it. But our knees and backs would thank us later.
The first stop on the tour would be the Cruz del Condors, or Cross of the Condors, a popular viewpoint atop one of the deepest sections of the canyon. As the name implies, you can see Condors here. And not just a few Condors…in the Grand Canyon a few years back, I had seen a couple of these birds at a distance and had been impressed. Here you can see a whole flock. Sylvia had visited this place before and told me that the trick was to stay quiet, and with luck, you can see the condors rising majestically out of the Canyon.
Well, since then the condors must have become a bit more used to humans. It was ANYTHING but quiet on the rim. There were scores of buses lined up on the road idling amidst a cacophony of horns, alarms, beeping backup warnings, voices, cameras clicking, people yelling and screaming and tourists from every point on the planet lining the rails, jockeying for position. It’s a miracle more people don’t fall to their death here, and for all I know, maybe they do and that’s how they keep the condors fed. (The Condor, for all its majesty, is basically a large vulture.)
But not long after we arrived, and despite the chaos on the rim, here came the condors rising out of the canyon like performers in a well-rehearsed act. And not just a few, and not just far away…at one point we had at least eight in view, with more sitting on a ledge below, and some of them passed within fifty feet of our view point. There is absolutely no doubt this is a HUGE and majestic bird…check out our video if you don’t believe me. Kiss doesn’t put on a more choreographed act than these birds.
After thirty minutes of condor-seeing we were herded back into the buses and we moved on. It was time to get hiking. It was our turn to go down into the canyon, but unlike the great birds, we were taking the earthbound route.
NEXT: The Long Walk Down