The Flight of the Condors
“There’s one.” “There’s another.” And, before your eyes are soaring some of the rarest and most magnificent creatures on Earth: Giant condors. The viewing area is almost a mile above the Colca river running through Colca Canyon in Peru, and the canyon walls make a perfect backdrop to the soaring birds.
Colca Canyon is one of the few places in the world to provide such an up-close view of the giant condors. You and the other tourists in the area (fewer than 100), have been sitting on the ledges 3,900m (13,000 ft.) above sea level, at the scenic Cruz del Condor in the cool morning air waiting for this moment. Then, as the sun warms the air in the deep canyon and creates the proper thermals, about two dozen giant condors leave their nesting ledges on the steep canyon wall below you, spread their 2.7m (9-ft.) wings, and soar like gliders. You can spot the younger ones because they are still brown, while the more mature ones have developed white collars and white wing markings. After 20 to 30 minutes, they soar off in search of food and you sit there a bit awe-struck. Personally, it was one of the most memorable moments of my life.
Andean condors, the largest birds in the Western Hemisphere, are rare, but lucky travelers may see them circling overhead, or flying off nests on mountainside ledges in such places as Perum, Ecuador, and Colombia. These birds are actually vultures with a ruff of white feathers, white patches on the wings, and a wing span that can stretch up to 10 feet. The San Diego Zoo sponsored a breeding program based in Colombia and about 70 condors have been released in that country’s highlands during the past 2 decades. In the U.S., the California condors are endangered. It’s estimated that about 350 are left; some are flying free while others are in a breeding program.
Colca Canyon, located in southern Peru, for years was called the world’s deepest canyon. Based on recent measurements, some surveys indicate it is now ranks number two (many geologist say that Cotahuasi Canyon in southwestern Peru is deeper), but even so, it’s still approximately twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. With the exception of hotels built for tourists, the area around the canyon is predominantly primitive Peru. The pre-Inca manmade terraces are farmed by hand as they were 600 years ago. The villages are much the same as they were in the mid-1500s, when they were created by the order of the Spanish Viceroy Toledo. Most of the roads are unpaved and it’s not unusual for your car to move at the pace of the local woman driving her cow and calf down the road.
Aside from viewing the giant condors, Colca Canyon offers great trekking and it’s possible to arrange rafting on the Colca River. It’s also possible to take bike trips along the narrow, rugged roads in the canyon. Several hot springs along the river are wonderful to soak in any time.
Once known as the Lost Valley of the Incas, Colca Canyon is usually reached via Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru. Contrary to what might be implied in some local literature, this is not a day trip and a minimum of 2 or preferably 3 days is suggested. A leisurely trip from Arequipa to the Colca Valley took us almost 5 hours. The road goes through Salinas y Aguada Blanca National Reserve, where you can usually view vicuñas, and climb passes that are in excess of 3.2km (2 miles) above sea level.
Peru Tourism Bureau (www.visitperu.com).
Tour: Dasatariq Tour Operators ( 511/5134400; www.dasatariq.com).
When to Go: Apr–Nov (avoid the rainy season, Dec–Mar).
$ Colca Lodge, Fundo Puye-Yanque-Caylloma, Colca Valley ( 51/54-531191; www.colca-lodge.com.) $$$ Casitas del Colca, Parque Curiña s/n Yanque, Arequipa ( 51/610-8300 or 51/54-959-672-480; www.lascasitasdelcolca.com).