Peru is a country of many surprises. It’s a beautiful land of startling contrasts, ranging from desolate wastelands and volcanoes to dense rain forests. One of the many gems worth visiting is the Colca Canyon, which lies in north eastern Peru a few hours drive from the city of Arequipa.
The Colca Canyon, said to be the second biggest in the world, was formed millions of years ago by the shifting of two enormous geological plates and its deepest point of 3680 metres, beats even the Grand Canyon in the USA. It is washed by the Colca River, which rises high in the Peruvian Andes and gouges its way through the Canyon en route to the Pacific Ocean in the southwest.
On its own, the Canyon is undeniably beautiful, with a great diversity of flora and fauna, but it is especially interesting for birdwatchers, for it is here that one finds an abundance of humming birds, kestrels, falcons, partridges and its greatest attraction, the Andean condors.
The Colca Valley runs for approximately 100kms and is home to about sixteen small villages populated by Quechans, hardworking folks who rely on agriculture and tourism to eke out their living. At its highest point the valley is 4900m above sea level, which can cause minor altitude sickness problems for tourists who haven’t acclimatized.
It is worth visiting just to see the beautiful terraced fields built by ancient pre-Incan ethnic groups, the Collahua’s and Cabana’s, between 900 and 1400 AD. Their irrigation systems are a masterpiece of engineering. Along the wider sections of the valley, the ancient terracing resembles huge amphitheatres with a mosaic of colours formed by the different crops.
We had come here specially to see the condors and for this we endured the bumpy and often hair-raising bus trip to the Canyon. I have often read of buses coming to grief on the mountain passes in Peru, so it was with more than a little trepidation that I watched as the wheels of the bus often came perilously close to the edge of the road.
We drove through a number of little villages, but were most impressed by Chivay, the largest market town in the region. We stopped to photograph the colourfully dressed locals, who often posed with decorated llamas, tamed falcons or kestrels. Seeing these regal birds of prey tied to their owners with ropes, was sad though, as they are meant to be free.
Time has almost stood still for these simple people, so it is strange to see modern gadgets vying for attention on market tables displaying ancient remedies and skeins of brightly dyed alpaca wool.
At last we arrived at the spot where the condors are known to nest in the canyon below. Groups of tourists, not unlike a pack of paparazzi, lined the edge of the gorge, cameras of every size and description poised for that first glimpse of these amazing denizens of the air. Our guide had warned us that there were no guarantees that we would see any condors and this added to our anticipation. Would we be fortunate after having come all this way?
Suddenly a cry went out from the crowd and all heads turned to the left. Out of the canyon a condor rose majestically into the sky. The sound of camera’s clicking was audible in the cool morning air, and, as two more condors left their nests in the canyon the crowd cried out as if in unison “oh my God, they’re beautiful”. Within minutes there were eight condors wheeling about on the thermals above us. Often, as if curious, they flew low overhead, giving everyone superb photo opportunities.
With wingspans of up to three meters, they are amongst the largest and most magnificent birds of the air. The males look like parsons, with gleaming black bodies and white collars around their necks, whilst the females typically are a drearier grey/black colour. Although they can weigh over thirteen kilograms, they fly with all the grace and ease of much smaller birds.
Seeing eight majestic condors gliding effortlessly in and out of the canyon, as if surfing the thermals, is an experience that defies description. The emotions that are evoked by a sight like this range from one end of the spectrum to the other. I laughed and cried. With the deep canyon as a backdrop and the blue sky their canvas, it can only be described of as a totally spiritual encounter. It would be difficult not to feel indescribable joy seeing nature, in these creatures, at its most liberated and best.
The spectacle lasted for about thirty minutes and then the birds wheeled off in different directions in search of food. The crowd sat still for quite a while after the condors had left, obviously savouring the experience, reluctant to break the spell. In hindsight, I would have driven three times the distance to see what was undeniably one of the highlights of my life.
Andean Condors have been known to live for up to forty years. Their breeding is slow as they only lay one egg every two years. Condor fossils have been found, dating back sixty million years. Originally they were known as Teratornis Incredibilis which means “unbelievable bird monster”. And unbelievable they are. Unfortunately they are also now on the endangered species list, which means that they need to come in for special attention if they are going to survive into the future.