From the beautiful Spanish colonial city of Arequipa, the mini-tour promises a short journey to a canyon twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and with magnificent condors in full flight. I tend to dislike tours but some locations are much easier to see that way.
A few hours into the trip through the bleak Peruvian altiplano on rugged roads and reaching a lung-busting 4,800 metres (15,000 feet) above sea level, the moans of headaches, the cold and the early morning start dominate conversation. Even the local coca tea seems to have little of its claimed effects to ease the altitude illnesses though the liquid warmth is welcome. The thought of soaring raptors and spectacular canyons seem far away. Herds of llama (or are they alpaca) look on, continuing to extract sustenance from the bare rocky fields.
The minibus plunges towards the small village of Chivay, the reducing altitude providing warmth and relief from the headaches, and the mountain vistas providing inspiring views. Nearby are the startling burial grounds of the local Indians, their bodies buried into steep cliff faces in the fetal position. Relaxing in the natural hot springs in Chivay soaks away the tiring day of travel and soothes the bumps and bruises caused by the worn suspension of the minibus.
Refreshed from a good sleep, next morning we rise early to a crisp and clear day. Around breakfast time, the condors also rise. At 13,000 feet above sea level (4,000 metres) at Condor Pass (Cruz del Condor), the condors ration their energy, gliding effortlessly in the morning thermals and updrafts. Their huge wingspan (9 feet for larger birds) catch the most subtle of drafts lifting them above the canyon rim, their eyes feast upon carrion in the depths below rather than the heady scenery of this Andean travel wonder.
Though lacking the steep walls and stark-coloring of its American cousin, Colca Canyon plunges to over twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. Large tracts of Colca Canyon have been exploited for centuries with the Incan terraced fields still supporting agriculture and family life. The women of these canyon-bound villages sell their fruits, vegetables and Peruvian handicrafts at a nearby market, resplendent in their local dress and impressive headwear.
The canyon is staggering in scale, the mountain backdrop leaving long-lasting memories. But it is the majestic soaring condors and the immense travel wonder of Colca Canyon that would guarantee that I’d once more venture into the rugged heights of the Peruvian altiplano.