The Canyon of the Condors - Colca Canyon

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May 3rd 2013
Published: May 3rd 2013
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6 hours of busing took us from Puno to Arequipa, surrounded by a handful of volcanoes and double that in mountains. Arequipa is nicknamed the white city because of its unique brickwork made of the volcano deposits. But less of the facts and more about what we have been up to!

We'd made no plans for our first day in the town, simply to get there, find some accommodation, buy some food, eat and have a drink. The hostal that we got was one of the cheapest in Areqipa, £7 for a double room, looking out onto the main road and with a bed fit for a jail cell. Safe to say it wasn't the Ritz. On the food front though things were looking up, we found the supermarket and grabbed a load of food for that night and the next day, however the best made plans always change and for us they did. We bumped into Elke and Dennis that we did the Torres del Paine walk with in the middle of the supermarket and therefore we had to go for a drink! So with our food in the bags we hunted down a rooftop bar that overlooked the city. If this bar had been in England it would have cost a fortune for drinks, but being in Peru they came at the same price as a roadside vendor. The bartenders gave us all a thick poncho to keep us warm as the night sky set in and we had a very thorough catch up over a few beers and a pizza. It was hard to believe that we hadn't seen them in 6 weeks, and in the travelling world they are good friends to us. The usual travelling relationships lasting no more than a day or an hour.

We were more determined on our next day to keep it cheap, hoping to save at least £25 and level out some of our self owed debt. In the end it wasn't to be some how. I started off the day with a run, biting off more than I could chew at this altitude. The 40 minutes I did left me feeling sick and light headed, its good training though for the Tough Mudder in September.

Our first objective was to hunt down the travel company who we provisionally booked the Colca Canyon trip with and get it confirmed and paid for. We walked for over an hour to where the agency should be but couldn't find a trace of it, we tried to ring them only to be told to ring back the day later but that was when we intended to leave. They left us with no other choice than to go with a different company and so on our way back into town we stopped at a cafe to get some wifi and checked out other companies on offer.

Companies scanned and now it was dinner time, home made stir fry with a lime sauce, beautiful. With dinner finished we went to check out what had been tipped as one of Peru's highlights, the Santa Catalina Monastery. It was a town within a city, where the nuns of the past and present lived and live respectively. Once inside the monastery it was like a different world, all noise from Arequipa was blocked by the high walls and the modern surroundings of the city had been belittled by the antique beauty of the holy town. We were in and out of the old living quarters of the nuns, no more than a room with a bed, an attached kitchen and a small outside section. There were also narrow streets winding through the monastery, only a couple of meters wide and hedged in by terracotta buildings and walls. The roofs of the buildings made of red clay and the walls were all decorated in colourful flowers. It was an amazing place. We even had the chance to have a beer and a bit of cake, which we though may not be allowed but clearly the tradition of the nuns must have changed. One thing that we didn't see in our time inside the walls was where the modern day nuns lived, we didn't even see a sign of life in there besides the tourists. For the both of us it was one of the stand out places in South America, very different to anything we had seen before.

Out of the monastery and back into the real world we went to book our trip into the canyon. Of all those we looked at on the Internet we chose non of them, the staff seemed neither enthusiastic or inspirational so we went for the cheapest company possible that offered the same package. For 3 days all inclusive we paid 235 soles or around £60, not bad at all. We had been fed up of paying more and getting the same service as all those paying half the price, so it was about time we made up for it. With the trip booked we ran back to the hostal, packed our big bags and took them to the tour shop for storage over the next few days.

Our final task of the day was to book our bus tickets to Cuzco for the night where we returned to Arequipa. Another successful negotiation, getting a cama seat cheaper than a normal seat, winner! We'd managed to save a bit of money but nowhere near the amount we had hoped, still it had been an awesome day. We finished it off with a tea fit for a king, made by ourselves for under a couple of pounds. It was early to bed because the next morning, and we can barely call it that, we had to be up at 2.45am for the bus into the Canyon. It hurt getting up at that time.

Reluctantly we awoke on time, still zombified and made our way to the outside of the hostel to wait for the pick up transport. They were on time (good sign of things to come) and within 5 minutes of being sat down on the bus we were back asleep again. When we were woken up it was 6.30am and we had made it to Chivay, where we got our breakfast of bread and jam (an egg for Laura) and then got back in the bus to move onto the next stop, the Cruz del Condor. It was this place that I had been looking forward to.

The Cruz del Condor lived up to its name, as soon as we offloaded from the bus we saw the first one, followed by 3 or 4 more. At first they were maybe 30m away, cruising below in the canyon, rising slowly using the thermals and not flapping their wings other than at take off. Of the 5 there 4 were young, brown in colour but still massive, the other 1 was black all over with white on its upper wing and a white ring around its neck showing its seniority over the youngsters. Its wingspan was well in excess of 3m and watching it glide around below us was magical. Our guide had told us before we got out the oldest bird in the canyon was over 100y/o (debatable) and stands at 1.3m. As we were about to leave the condors started to get closer and just before we called it a day 2 of them flew straight at us and over us by about 2-3m letting us see the hugeness of their bodies and wings. Incredible birds that memorise even the non bird fans.

We couldn't stay there all day no matter how much we wished it. We were boarded again and on to the starting spot where we met our guide, Armando and the rest of the team. On our bus taking us to the canyon had been Matt and Owen who we met in the jungle, but unfortunately they hadn't been put into our group, we would still see them along the way though.

In our groups we finally set off at 10am. The first day of the walk was the easiest, 3 hours of down hill to the village where we were to stay. The views on the way down were awesome with the mountains spanning out as far as we could see and the canyon dropping over 1500m to the bottom. The Colca Canyon is the second biggest in the world at over 3000m deep, its victor only slightly bigger and less than a hundred kilometres away. It doesn't have the wow factor of the Grand Canyon because it looks more like a valley than anything else, but even still, it is massive.

Down and down we went, winding our way slowly but surely to the bottom of the canyon. It had taken us a couple of hours to get down and we were glad for the end, everyone's legs were aching from the constant downhill walking making the old calves extremely sore. The river at the bottom looked more than tempting to go in, a bright blue dazzling before us, but we were warned not to go in for two reasons; one, it was filthy from the mine and village deposits further upstream and two, it was hellish cold. If we had gone in we probably wouldn't have got out. We met Owen and Matt at the bottom who were having a contest who could keep their foot in it the longest, neither winning and giving in at a draw. From this point to the village it was a half hour walk up some pretty steep stuff, which took us all by surprise after 2 hours of downhill and then we were done for the day. 10 minutes in and we saw a God, a man selling chocolate and so we put to bed our sweet tooth cravings with a twix....or two.

We'd made it to the village, where we were going to spend our first night. As we arrived we almost instantly sat down to lunch and by this point, even with the twix's, we were famished. The food was the only disappointing bit of the whole trip; a breakfast of bread and jam and now a lunch of rice, Llama and chips which may sound good and it was but the portion was enough only for a toddler. Laura wasn't happy and neither was I. We had another 6 hours before tea and absolutely nothing to do. We passed the first few hours by wandering around the hills near the town and after that we were stumped for what to do. In the end the guide took us for a walk around, showing us countless flaura and fauna and their uses. It was pretty interesting seeing how the fruit of a cactus can be used as food dye and how a parasite, which was everywhere, takes over and kills the trees it intrudes. With the walk over we had an hour before tea, just enough time to have a beer or two and play cards.

Tea again was disappointing, this time it was rice and vegetables, and again it wasn't enough for a youngster. We carried on with the cards after tea, had a shower and we were left with nothing other to do than go to bed hungry.

Round 2. Breakfast at 8am meant that we had a lie in, and the breakfast itself was a nice change from the previous day, banana pancakes and dulce de leche. By 9am we were on our way again, this time we had an hour of up hill and then 2 hours of flat and down. We made our way through some of the local villages, trying local fruits along the way, one of which was cactus fruit and the other a pomegranate looking thing with an inside similar to frogspawn. Despite the appearance it was gorgeous and the cactus fruit wasn't half bad either. We had a load of stops along the way, looking up and down the valley of the canyon, seeing the 50* walls shooting up thousands of meters either side of us. We took endless amounts of photos, a lot of which went into the delete pile but many of them show the scale of the canyon. Another hour later and we had descended into the valley bottom again to what they call the paradise oasis. Its a small patch of semi tropical land at the canyon floor where there is a load of hotels all with swimming pools and individually thatched roof rooms. It was amazing to say it cost less than £10 a night to stay here and ours was included!

When we first arrived it was gloomy above, even with the odd crack of thunder but after 10 minutes it all cleared up and we had blue skies and sun. So it was shirts off, shorts on and into the pool for a quick swim followed by a pre lunch sunbathe. Lunch followed suit from the previous day, rice and pasta!!!! PASTA AND RICE!!! It was wierd but apparently normal in Peru. The afternoon sun quickly vanished so I finished my book (Game of Thrones which was epic) and then we utilised the rest of our time in a massive 6 a side game of volleyball with Owen and Matts camp. Once that was over, Laura and I had a game of kick tennis, had a shower and then it was happy hour. There was one problem with this promised happy hour, the owners didn't understand the concept of it so from6-7pm during the happy hour we had drinks at.......the normal price! 7pm meant one thing, a chance to relieve the hunger and this time it was with a minuscule portion of spaghetti Bolognese of the vegetarian kind. Dinner over and hunger still present we bought a load of biscuits, had a brew, talked for a few hours and went to bed again hungry. Finding our way to the room was a challenge in the dark, we had to negotiate a volleyball net and all the ropes in the pitch black. We managed, lit the candle in the room and nodded off. It was to be another early start the next morning.

4.45am and we were all awake, dressed and ready to go at 5am. We had to be at the too of the canyon before 8am and without having eaten. It wasn't a smooth start, we had a de ja vous moment from the salt flats as our guide didn't appear at the set time. We gave him until 5.15 before we searched him out and even once we found him it took us another 15 minutes before we set off. We all went up the hill at our own pace as the hill was pretty damn hard going up a meter every 3-5m covered.

After an hour and a half we were almost at the top of the 1300m climb but not before trying to get one of the cactus fruits for some energy. I had volunteered to get them for the 3 of us in our small group. Stupidly though as I cut it away from the main leaf I caught it in my hand, not seeing the thousands of nanometer thick spines that it was covered in. I'd caught a prickly pear in my hand and was now left unable to close it because every time I did tens of spines would bury themselves into my skin. Clever boy! We ate the fruit still being careful not to get spines on our hands and finished the last of the hill over the next 10 minutes.

At the top I had one job, to get the spines out of my hand with the Swiss Army knife tweezers. It required patience and a keen eye but half an hour later and I could move my hand without pain. I had the movement back and so I had a twix to celebrate. It was another half an hour before all the group got to the top, which gave us enough time to get changed and cool down. With the ret of the team at the top we got a group photo and then walked the last flat bit to the village here breakfast was to be served. All we wanted was a bacon sandwich on brown bread with Lurpac butter but we had no chance. Instead it was shitty meal number 6, bread and bloody jam. The food has not been good.

Once we had finished breakfast it was to the bus and onto the road to Arequipa. Along the way we made stops to see the origin of the canyon, to see some of the local villages and to visit a church if you wanted. It was then onto the thermal pools which we passed up, they looked more like a swimming pool and for the cost completely not worth it. From there it was onto the lunch spot back in Chivay but this time we could pay for an all you can eat buffet. Time to make up for the last 2 days of starvation and make up we did. The food was amazing and we could help ourselves as much as we wanted, more than worthy too of having a few platefuls. Once it came to leaving the buffet we were stuffed and all that stood between us and Arequipa was a 3 hour drive.

Enough time, just, to write this blog! A whopping 2 hours and 50 minutes later, its finished.

Hope it wasn't a drag!


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