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Published: October 19th 2007
OK guys, a quick quiz to start the day! What is the deepest canyon in the world? No, it's not the famous Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA, nor the Copper Canyon of northern Mexico. It is indeed the Colca Canyon, situated high in the Andes in southern Peru, which for 100 km averages 3,400 metres deep.
The only practical way for us to get to this fairly desolate location, some 300kms round trip along windy roads in only average condition, was on an organised tour. And if you want to see the condors in flight (and who doesn’t?), it requires an overnight stop and a very early start on day 2. So our intimate little tour group of a Dutch couple, an Israeli couple, a Frenchmen and a guy from Uruguay duly joined us for the two day tour in a minibus with the Santa Catalina tour group, with our guide Hubert (pronounced U’ber) at the helm.
The initial drive was from Arequipa to Chivay, the principal city of the Colca Valley, where we were to spend the night. This was an approximate 4-hour drive, that passed through the very desolate altiplano (highlands), where we stopped several times to
check out some very primitive villages, to admire the distant volcanoes amidst an area strewn with little stone cairns built by the Indians, some fantastic views down into the Colca Valley, as well as getting up close and personal with the local animals (llamas, alpacas and vicuñas). We passed through a maximum height of 4900 m, which to put in perspective, is higher than the highest mountain in Europe. We reached Chivay for lunch, and had a pretty leisurely afternoon, including a small and easy walk through the terraces around the village, which helped us to acclimatize to the altitude (while Chivay was a trip down to 3500 m above sea level, it is still well above the accepted threshold for altitude sickness of 2,700m). We also spent some time at the thermal bath in the hot-spring pools, before retiring for dinner and a somewhat orchestrated and touristy folklore evening of Peruvian music and dancing.
Next morning saw a fun wakeup call at 5am for our drive out to the Mirador de la Cruz del Cóndor (a 1.5 hour drive). This is the point where you get a great view on the Colca Canyon, but more importantly, it is also
the place where we were able to observe several high flying condors taking flight, using the early morning thermals to assist them to gain height. There was probably a crowd of over 300 people out there at that hour to check out these graceful birds in flight, and after a couple of false starts, a total of 7 birds appeared around 8.40am, soared back and forth for around 15 minutes, and then duly disappeared, as did then all the spectators. At this particular point, the river is more than 1000 m under your feet and, in front of you, you can see escarpments more than 2500 m. The trip then returned to Chivay, passing and making a few stops in some small villages in the valley, before returning to Arequipa late on the second day.
Each town that we passed through had a beautiful stone church and central plaza, with a rectangular street plan of adobe houses sited on a natural river terrace. Outside of this however, they were pretty primitive, with most residents being farmers of some description. The major terraces on the sides of the mountains and volcanoes have all been further terraced for agriculture, producing maize, beans
and potatoes, dating back thousands of years to pre-Inca times.
There was no shortage of llamas, alpacas and vicuñas to be seen in the Reserva Nacional Sainas y Aguada Blanca, grazing on the flat and often boggy terrain of the altiplano and generally watched over by shepherds, who also watch out for tour buses. These Indians, usually women and children, are dressed in fancy traditional costumes and readily pose for photographs, thus deriving an additional income source. Llamas are the larger white or brown woolly animals, having longer necks, bigger ears and a longish nose, and without wool on the face or lower legs, whilst the alpaca is smaller and has wool on the face and legs. The vicuña is a wild and protected species similar to the alpaca, light brown but with a distinctive white hairy mane in front.
The Andean condor at close quarters is not a hugely attractive bird, but in flight is incredibly graceful. It is a huge vulture with a wing span over 3 metres, colored a sinister black, with some white under the wings and a white collar like a clergyman. It inhabits the Andean mountain chain from Venezuela to Tierra del Fuego,
whose snowy peaks and volcanoes border high plains, or altiplanos, which stretch for hundreds of kilometres, ranging from treeless and barren to grassy and boggy to sandy desert with salt pans. A photographer’s delight!
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