Flight of the condors

Trip Start Sep 17, 2007
Trip End Oct 08, 2008

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

There are two ways to visit Colca Canyon: on foot and by bus.  The 2-day trekking tour involved a 2am wake-up followed by a 3am wake-up.  The 2-day bus tour involved an 8:30am and a 5am.  Erin was in support of the latter. 

This was the first time since the beginning of the trip that we had shared a multi-day tour with a fairly large group of people.  We were travelling with Julie from France, three Americans from Seattle, and a Peruvian school group of 5 kids and 3 adults.  It was quite a combination.  Our guide was William, a rather serious fellow who would spout off facts to anything that seemed to be paying attention.  He preferred Spanish for said facts, and I ended up translating a lot of what he said to Erin. 

We climbed out of Arequipa and into the altiplano (high and flat).  It is a national park and home to a population of vicu˝as.  A vicu˝a is a smaller cousin of the llama and alpaca.  It is prized for its wool.  A scarf can fetch over a thousand dollars.  It was endangered but is recovering.  We would stop and pile out of the car to peer across the plain at tiny vicu˝a spots, then pile back in and pass another group two minutes later right next to the road.  Wouldn┤t stop a second time.  We also saw fat, rabbit-like creatures with tails, and Andean ducks (domesticated by the Incas).  Further on, we stopped to peer at llamas penned in a rock circle like fish in a bowl.  It was kind of strange.  We looked at them and they stared back at us.  Erin gets excited around anything resembling a llama. 

We also stopped for the obligatory coca tea.  Yes, the leaves are used to make cocaine.  But you need 500 grams of leaves to make one gram of cocaine.  The leaves are a stimulant and are also supposed to help with altitude sickness.  You can also ĘchewĘ coca leaves by putting them in your cheek.  I┤m sure we┤ll get to that later.  We needed the tea because we climbed to a pass at 4800 meters.  This is high.  We got out to see the snow-capped mountains around us.  People have been placing rock markers as petitions to the mountain gods for some time now.  There are thousands. 

Speaking of thousands, at every stop the bus makes there are thousands of women in traditional dress trying to sell you textiles.  Since there is only one road and the buses all stop at the same places, they just have to sit and wait for the tourists to walk into the trap.  But even worse are the cute little girls with baby llamas.  How can you resist?  They are evil.

Both of us began to feel the altitude as we came down from the pass.  Mostly a dull ache behind the eyes.  It isn┤t pleasant. 

We stopped once more over Chivay before heading down.  People began to protest that they had had enough stopping for the day.  We descended to lunch.  Did I mention that this was the tour in which nothing was included?  That means meals as well.  But they can bring you to any restaurant they want.  We ended up at a buffet.  I┤ll admit it was good and we got to try all kinds of interesting things, but it was a little pricey.  The Peruvians slipped off to find their own food, and so did Julie.  We splurged.

We were taken to our respective hotels.  The hotel depended on the travel agency you booked with, so we ended up at three different places.  It wasn┤t a bad place really.  A little while later we were picked up to go to the hot springs (also not included).

I┤ll admit I was a little sceptical about driving all the way out here to go to a bathtub.  Until I got in the water.  It was very nice. Then we got a beer.  It was nicer.  We soaked there for a while until I got out and dropped my lens cap through the slats on the hanging bridge.  Yeah, I┤m just that lucky.  Couldn┤t find it.

Next was dinner and the "folklore show."  The folklore show was the only thing that was included on the tour.  Turns out it was just a band playing while we paid for an expensive dinner.  They did dance for a little bit, and I got dragged up there a couple times.  But it was pretty poor.  We chatted with Julie and William and I had an alpaca steak.  The Americans had passed on both the hot springs and the dinner.  They were sleeping off the previous night┤s revelries.  We decided not to pursue the night any further due to headaches and the five o┤clock start the next morning.  To bed.

The next morning we had the standard breakfast of rolls with bread and jam, coffee or tea, and some fruit foam.  We talked with an Australian who had taken the 2 am public bus to get down here for the Cruz del Condor.

The Cruz del Condor is one of the major attractions of Colca Canyon.  This is apparently the last natural population of condors in South America.  These birds have up to a 3 m wingspan and circle effortlessly in the updrafts here in the canyon.  All the tourists and trekkers try to make it to the lookout between 7-9 in the morning to see condors circling in the thermals here.  We putted along, stopping a couple of times.  The first place was a town where children dance in the main square for tourists before going to school.  We couldn┤t resist taking pictures with eagles and owls.  Another stop was a lookout over the Pre-Inca agricultural terraces that lined the entire canyon.  The canyon gets deeper and deeper until you arrive at Cruz de Condor.  With the rest of the vacationing population of Peru.

We had 40 minutes for a condor to appear.  Some days the 30 strong population decides to give the tourists a show.  Other days they hide and laugh at them.  I thought it was going to be the second one.  About 15 minutes in a condor appeared across the canyon and banked in front of us before disappearing from sight.  A flurry of activity and then everyone went back to staring vacantly across the canyon.  Towards the end of our time we spotted a couple of birds circling farther down the canyon.  They swooped closer and closer until one made a pass over our heads.  Then they were gone.  It was pretty cool to watch them float over the canyon, soaring in circles while hardly flapping their wings.  The pictures of two black dots don┤t really do it justice.

Now that the birds were gone we took a short hike along the canyon with Julie and William.  The Americans stayed behind at the first lookout.  It was quite a magnificent setting.  So magnificent that Erin wanted to take a picture of the William, Julie, and me.  So she carefully positioned us and then took a couple steps back to frame the picture.

Suddenly she stopped walking and got a very surprised look on her face.  Yes, folks, she backed into a cactus. 

It was a nasty cactus, too, like a bush with big angry spines.  A good 10-12 of these had penetrated into her back.  And they weren┤t coming out.  This, naturally, put a damper on the rest of her hike. 

Don┤t worry though, because Julie came to our rescue with tweezers and we managed to extract the spines.  William told a story of a priest that fell in love with a married woman.  They ran away to Arequipa together and were happy for a couple days.  While returning, however, they fell off the road and into the canyon.  No one knew what had happened to them until the condors began to circle over the spot.  The place today is names Crus de Cure (priest┤s cross).

We stopped at another buffet for lunch (apparently there are six of them in the town), and then finished up with a long drive back to Arequipa.  It was a good time and the canyon is a very beautiful place.  I┤d like to come back here to hike through the small villages of the canyon someday. 

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