This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Colca Canyon and Condors

Welcome to Colca Canyon

Having left the drama in Puno, we find ourselves in Arequipa, which I will write about in my next post. The most common tour from Arequipa is to go to Colca Canyon to see condors and nature. There are numerous tour agencies in town selling one, two and three day tours. We talk to some agencies, but the tours do not sound fun and contrived. We decide that we will do it ourselves which is a fairly easy option.

We take a long bus ride through Salinas y Aguada Blanca national park with beautiful mountain views, vicuña spotting and herds of alpaca. This is the one of the few points I find bad about not doing tours is that when on public transportation you cannot stop at interesting viewpoints or small towns for a quick look. Everything whizzes by seen through the bus glass window. If we do get off in a random place like the middle of a national park we better make sure beforehand that there is other transportation coming.
Alpaca Crossing as seen through a dirty bus window
We skip Chivay, a town with a cement hot springs pool and over-priced tourist buffets on everyone's tour list and go straight to Cabanaconde. Cabanaconde is the closest town to the condor viewing point and the trails heading down to an oasis at the bottom of the canyon. At 3,191 m (10,469 ft) Colca is one of the deepest canyons in the world. And we are going to walk down to the bottom. Some perspective for my American comrades... it's twice the depth of the Grand Canyon.
If you can make out the little blue spot near the bottom of this photo that is our destination
Before starting our descent we make a care package of bread, avocados, canned fish, energy bars, bananas and water. There are five hotels at the bottom of the canyon, but we do not want to be forced to eat their grub so are bringing our own.* All of the hotels have swimming pools which are not only great for cooling off after a long hike, but also the bright blue water makes a great reference point because they can be spotted from the top of the trail. The problem is that as we head down the gravelly, dusty path walking switchback after switchback after switchback the pools just never ever seem to be getting closer. Did I mention that this is a really deep canyon? Another problem is that I find going down worse than going up. Always applying the brakes puts tremendous pressure on the knees. But eventually and thankfully we arrive and now need to find a place to crash.

The first hotel we check is off to the right from the trail. It is not so nice. The cabana is thatched with dirt floor a bed and table. Garbage is not picked up around the grass. It just feels dumpy, but I am too tired to even want to think about walking anymore. Mika really cannot imagine that anyone would make all this effort to hike down this huge canyon just to stay here so we move on and find a cheap, new little place. The next day instead of going up the canyon to sleep in Cabanaconde again we move hotels to spend one more night below. This place has nice cabanas with stone floors, a large pool built in between two giant boulder and a trail leading to the river.
At the very bottom of the canyon:
Zen art rock sculptures are a popular thing to do around Colca
I usually never recommend hotels because everyone has their preferences. But if you are really going to schlep all the way down Colca Canyon I recommend staying at this place. They have a lush garden, big pool and is clean. The hotel names are confusing because four out of the five use some variance of 'Oasis' and 'Paradise.' so pretty much just go to the very last place you'll see on the left side while heading down the trail.
The limited sky views from inside the canyon is slightly
claustrophobic like being in an aquarium with painted sides

I Think I Can, I Think I Colca Canyon Can

Any way you look at it the thought of going back up the canyon is daunting. Even the ever optimistic Little Engine That Could would be seriously doubting himself. But as we all know, 'what goes down must come up' including us sitting at the bottom of one of the deepest canyons on the planet. Just two options: we can either go straight up the way we came or choose the circuitous route.

If we choose the round about way it means that we have to walk up half way to one village, cross over to another village, down again to a third village at the very bottom of the canyon, and then an arduous 4-6 hr hike all the way back up to Cabanaconde. I am good to go, but Mika balks at this plan and chooses the lesser of two evils - climbing back up the trail we came.
What goes down must come up
It is before 5:00 AM and everyone at our hotel is already awake getting ready start the trek uphill. Still dark we use a flashlight for the first half hour uphill. The narrow, gravely trail is slippery and their seems to be a precipitous fall if we step too far to the right.

We soon see flashlights below of groups starting their hike. I do have to say that from all the volcanoes and such I have conquered and have been conquered by (see Baños and Quilotoa posts), I think that I am in pretty good hiking shape and can move faster than most others on the trail. The same cannot be said for Mika. She is dragging early and soon passed by others. When light comes in I move on ahead and can actually spot her about five switchbacks down from me. Suddenly I remember that I am carrying the food so must wait...and wait. We have a long break as the sun finally rises over the mountains and starts to warm the canyon. We then slog on together.
She'll be coming around the mountain when she comes
Fifteen minutes later arriving at the half way point there is a cement bench where Mika takes another break. Her energy completely sapped Mika has concluded that she'll need a few more hours of intermittent walking between constant rest breaks to get to the top. We make the decision that I will go on ahead. At least one of us will catch the condors again. Then suddenly, like something straight out of Scripture, her guardian angel arrives to her rescue in the form of a muleteer**. For 20 Soles (US $7.15) she can ride his stubborn steed the rest of the way up and he'll walk. She quickly accepts the offer without even trying to bargain (a rarity for Mika), jumps on the mule and leaves her ass (me) behind. I try to keep up with them for a little while like a dutiful minion scrambling to stay with the queen's entourage. But in the end, I am no match for a muleteer and his pack who make this trek almost daily and soon get left behind to sweat it out with everyone else.
See you at the top
I finally reach the top of the sweaty shirt-soaking, calf muscle-busting canyon where Mika is waiting with only some minor saddle sores top show for her effort. Back in Cabanaconde we have an hour to kill until our bus so sit at a table on the sidewalk of a lady who is selling coffee and cheese avocado sandwiches. We end up having breakfast and an interesting political conversation with an old, opinionated farmer and a young soldier who is in town for tomorrow's presidential election.

The Flight of the Condors

The main activity around Colca has to be Andean condor watching. There is one point, Cruz del Condor, where it is possible to get great glimpses of the world's largest flying bird. There are two viewpoints that sit on the edge of a cliff and condors can be seen from a great distance flying below and above. They start early in the morning and then around 9:00 am leave to go find food for the day. I am told that these eat dead donkeys and horses. But how many dead equine can there be in the area to support a healthy condor population?

We end up going twice to see the condors. Once really early before the tourist rush and the next time later in the morning to catch the condors at their peak flying time. The first time we go to the point we arrive at 6:30 am. It is very peaceful with only eight tourists here, but windy. Condors are soon spotted, but like us they are cold and waiting for the sun to warm them up. Two are perched for awhile within very good viewing distance while a few others are flying about. Actually, I hardly ever see condors fly. They glide like giant paper airplanes on the wind streams for long distances without almost ever flapping their wings. It is very elegant for what is essentially a 'fancy vulture.'

As the morning hour lengthens handicraft sellers begin arriving and setting up their wares. By 7:30 AM the group buses start to show up and by 8:00 AM the tourist circus is full on with many people coming and going. 9:00 AM is when the condors get most active. There must be twenty of them and some are making what seems like very close passes over the heads of the people.

By 9:30 AM most of the condors - surely disappointed that none of the camera-toting mammals are dead - have gone off to look for breakfast. By 10:00  AM the tour buses have disappeared and the handicraft sellers have packed their bags and are waiting for their buses back to their villages. We hop on the 10 AM bus and make the long journey back to Arequipa.
Take a shopping break while condor watching

*Since there is no waste disposal system it is suggested that you carry all of your garbage out of the canyon because if you don't it will just get dumped somewhere in the canyon. As good citizens we brought everything all the way back to Arequipa.

** Mule rides can be arranged to ride all the way up or down the canyon. Some tour groups use mules to carry their backpacks and food which is then waiting for them when they arrive at the oasis.


  1. Colca Canyon is a wonderful place for tourists.This is also true the it is a hilly area and one has to walk so long otherwise animals are used to carry peoples

  2. Thanks for the comment Dacey. Glad you appreciate the beauty of Colca.

  3. Really a very nice place for tourism.These rocky mountain and hilly areas attracts people to this place.I really love to visit this place.

  4. You're right Maria. It really is great. It will probably get more and more popular as tourism to Peru grows.

    Thanks for the comment.