Marianne and the Golden Condor

Trip Start Oct 13, 2010
Trip End Feb 22, 2012

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Flag of Peru  ,
Saturday, September 17, 2011

Ever since I first watched the Mysterious Cities of Gold with Estaban and the Golden Condor I have dreamt of coming to Peru and finding a condor for myself. Unfortunately I couldn't ride one but I did manage to see lots of them swooping down over the Colca Canyon :)

After Puno I took a bus to the beautiful White City of Arequipa. From here every other shop is a travel agent selling identical trips to Colca Canyon. I opted for a two day trip with an overnight stop in the small town of Chivay. It was one of the best trips I’ve done, really well organized with a great guide who showed us all how to try coca leaves. You take about 10 of them and wrap them into a ball with a piece of a chalk-like substance which activates the coca (and gives you a numb tongue!), then you chew it or just keep the ball of leaves in your mouth. I thought it tasted disgusting and didn’t feel any effects whatsoever despite the local’s claims that you feel energized with no hunger or thirst – I still needed a coffee and a bar of chocolate! Apparently if you chew a lot of it you might test positive for cocaine use and athough you can bring back coca tea, which I actually liked, the guide suggested that we don’t try to bring the leaves back into the UK :s

We drove a few hours to Chivay making numerous stops at scenic looksouts – the views were breathtaking. Chivay is a tiny place but the 'basic’ (i.e. cheapest on offer) accommodation was one of the best places I’ve stayed! We paid a visit to the hot springs, very nice! Then we went for a meal at a local restaurant with traditional dancing, which was just bizarre – a man and a woman wearing masks proceeded to lay down and take turns whipping each other and at one point the woman just stood there with her skirt over the man’s face. Ooh err!! We were all a bit shocked and just handed over a tip without question. The next morning we had to leave at 6 in order to reach the main hangout of the Condors by 8 and have the best chance of seeing them. The highest point we went to was almost 5000 metres and at this height I could feel it. As soon as we set off we encountered a group of Condors circling so all rushed off the bus to have a look – words cannot describe how amazing it is when a bird as big as the Andean Condor (its wingspan is over 10 feet) swoops down so low you feel you can almost touch it although in reality it is nowhere near. We hiked for about an hour and were lucky enough to see more Condors enroute to the lookout. Lots of people were gathered at the lookout and the Condors did not disappoint. When it was time to leave, I was turning away when I thought to myself ‘the moment I turn away one is bound to come’ so I turned back and sure enough one was swooping down again – I snapped with the camera without even looking through the lens and ended up with the best photo :) We stopped at a few villages and sadly there were loads of women and children dressed up in traditional clothes with their llamas, just waiting for tourists to pay for photos. Worse, some had massive birds of prey that they have captured. Our guide strongly advised against participating but still you could see tourists posing for photos. He suggested we buy crackers for the kids if we want a photo of them.

Back in Arequipa for a few days, I ran into Rebeca and Cameron again, randomly going to the same coffee shop at the same time. Despite having heard that Arequipa has the highest murder rate in the country, it was a lovely city and felt very safe! There are three volcanoes surrounding the city. The Plaza de Armas is very grand. I took the great open air tourist bus around the city and the countryside and visited some beautiful churches, had a look around the Santa Catalina Monastery, like a Spanish style small city that used to house over 450 people (only one third were nuns, the rest were servants), and went to the museum housing the famous Inca mummy ‘Juanita’, or the Inca Ice Maiden. Juanita was discovered in 1995 when the ice on the mountains melted away after a volcanic eruption. The body and artefacts were amazingly well preserved because they were frozen in the ice. Scientists could even tell that she ate a meal of vegetables 6-8 hours before she was killed by a blow to the head. She had been sacrified aged around 12-14 by the Incas to appease the mountain Gods between 1450 and 1480. More children were later discovered, some buried alive. Apparently the family and the child would have believed their fate to be a great honour, and walked up the mountain themselves. That they made this journey is incredible given  the altitude of over 6,200 metres and the harsh conditions in the flimsy shoes that were found in tact with the mummified bodies.  The museum is good – student guides show you a video about the discovery then  take you on a guided tour of the articles that were found, before finally viewing Juanita herself who is in a freezing cold compartment in a darkened room making it a fairly creepy experience but one you kind of feel you have to see. After seeing a pre-inca mummy I was now ready for the next stop, Machu Picchu itself …

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