Southern Cross – The Colca Canyon

Trip Start Jul 30, 2010
Trip End May 29, 2011

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Flag of Peru  , Arequipa,
Thursday, April 7, 2011

"Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs."
Susan Sontag

The trip to Colca Canyon from Arequipa took about four hours with stops. I'm tempted to call them 'pit-stops' as our driver clearly thought he was in AMG Mercedes rather than in a Mercedes minibus. His approach was to take the racing line whenever possible, even on blind corners. Our guide, not our tour-leader, was a character. With hair that seemed to be two sizes too big for his head he could not stop talking. Unfortunately he rarely finished whatever subject he was talking about. As we drove out of Arequipa he kept being distracted by whatever the minibus was passing so we went from schools, to the [now recent] presidential elections, to the Spanish conquistadors, to architecture, to taxis and to global warming. Quite entertaining in a random kind of way but as we drove on the constant one-way conversation started to become a bit draining.

The first stop was to stock up on snacks, including coca leaves to chew on to alleviate the efforts of altitude sickness (as well as countless other aliments apparently). The second was in the National Reserve of Salinas and Agua Blanca and was at 5000m asl. Needless to say the 3000m climb from Arequipa had an effect and we stepped off the minibus feeling light-headed and a bit dizzy. It’s a bit like being drunk but without the beer.

On route we’d stopped to take some photos of Vicuna’s – a bit like Llamas – which roam the plains munching on grass. Because they are so few in numbers and their wool so fine it’s become, in the words of our guide, the second most expensive wool in the world. We saw a scarf made of Vicuna in Lima for $900!

We drove thru’ Chivay which is at one end of the Colca Canyon and onto Coporaque where our hotel for the night was. After dumping our stuff we were out on our first walk. Our tour leader described this as a good little test for the Inca Trail as we would be walking at about 3600m asl. Thankfully it didn’t prove too difficult but given the walk only lasted a couple of hours it probably wasn’t a good test.

The scenery was wonderful in the late afternoon and we looked down on Inca terraces – some of which were still being used for farming – and up to snow capped Andes.

The next day was even better despite the early (6.00) start. We drove along the canyon to Condor Cross. Unfortunately emboldened by no-one asking the guide to maybe lessen the amount of talk our big-haired guide rambled on even more, threatening at one stage to talk for 3 hours about a church we had just passed.

On a more positive note it was along the canyon road that eventually led us to the start of a short trail where our guide had told us we might be lucky and see a condor or two coasting on the thermals in the valley. And if we had no joy at the start of the trail then if we followed it we might have more luck.

Well the luck was with us right from the start. As we walked to the starting point two huge adult condors swooped over us. Condors may not be the prettiest of birds – looking much like their vulture cousins – but their sheer size make them a magnificent sight.

We stood and watched as more, younger, condors joined and at one point there were 10 or 11 cruising overhead looking down over the canyon for food to scavenge. As they allowed the thermals to carry them they didn’t fly too fast for a photo or two and as they were indifferent to us (or perhaps they were sizing us up for lunch) they flew quite close. As we set off on the trail we could see their shadows overhead.

At each of the lookouts we could see down the canyon and as I’ve already said the view was wonderful and was one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. Lush farmland growing in terraces at the canyon floor and snow-capped mountain ranges reaching on into the sky.

And yes it really was a perfect place to accumulate photos. I could have spent all day taking pictures it was that photogenic. Just grant me more talent and a better camera and lenses and I'd have been happy to stay all day snapping away.

As we came to the end of our trail it was time to turn back and our driver had decided that it was such a fine day that he could probably beat his personal best time in getting back to Cusco. The minibus sped over the unpaved road leaving a trail of dust and debris that anyone following would have struggled to see thru’. This was all well and good, albeit it a little nerve racking, until we got to the mountain pass (at 5000m) where a thick mist had descended and his taking the racing line became stupid when we could barely see more than 50m ahead of us. Along the road were little crosses and kennel-size shrines to people who had not survived the risks the road presents in the mist. Thankfully our tour leader told him to slow down which he just about did.

We arrived back in Cusco and after a dropping our stuff off in our rooms we sat down for our briefing for the Inca Trail, the point at which I realised just how daft I must have been to sign up for 4 days of trekking.

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