My guide Marcello from Pablo Tours met me at the crack of dawn (6:00 a.m.) to take me to the Colca Canyon where we would do a little hiking (not the 2 day trek) and see the magnificent Andean condors. We left the city of Arequipa behind, but not before falling in line with a myriad of trucks and buses heading up into the Andes. It took about a half hour before we were able to leave them behind.
The climb up was going to be a tough one. Arequipa is at 7,660 feet while the highest pass we would be travelling through in the Andes pwas at 4,910 meters (16,108 feet). I was a little nervous about this since I had elected not to take any altitude medication. Instead, I was sucking on coca candies and drinking coca tea to combat the altitude. I was hoping it was going to be enough.
Anyway, the day was absolutely gorgeous without a cloud in the sky as we headed higher into the Andes. Not long into the drive the three volcanoes Hampato (where Juanita was discovered), Sabancaya (the active volcano) and WalqaWalqa (waka waka) came into view. I never realized just how many volcanoes are in thus part of the world, but it numbers at least 8. Now I had understood that Sabancaya was an active volcano, but I didn’t understand quite how active. The middle volcano was spewing steam into the air as it came into view. Yikes. This would be the pattern for the day. Every time, the volcano came into view again we saw another plume. At this point, I was just hoping that it wasn’t going to blow.
As we drove along a flat stretch grassy stretch between the mountain passes we came across a herd of vincunas. These highly endangered animals are prized for their coats (even more so than alpaca) and it is estimated that only 20,000 exist in Peru. Anyway, the herd turned out to be the first of two herds we would see in short order.
About two hours into the trip, we reached Patawasi, which at just over 12,000 feet was absolutely frigid. This is the winter season in Peru and although it is the dry season the temperatures in the mountains are very, very cold. And while it was the dry season, global warming had played a trick on the area last week with substantial rain storms in the lower elevations and lots of snow in the mountains. This made for incredible scenery with the bright blue sky and snow capped mountains (which are usually bare at this time of year).
Anyway, we stopped in Patawasi for breakfast. I had a superb breakfast sandwich on a freshly made bun with egg and avocado and some coca tea. I also purchased some more coca candies for the trip (just to be safe).
We were back on the road about 30 minutes later. The narrow road became VERY windy as we switched back and forth up the mountains (and I continued to keep an eye on the smoking volcano). The landscape was incredibly dry with lots of scrub grass and desert plants. As we climbed, we stopped a number of times to check out the herds of alpaca and llamas that were grazing in the short alpine grasses and desert sands.
Along the way we also passed a small lake, partially frozen over, where the Peruvian version of the duck were making nests and searching for food. We even saw a couple geese fly over and land.
As the vehicle took us higher into the Andes, the snow pack moved increasingly closer to the road. We saw a number of Peruvians stopping to play in the snow. Marcello even spotted a number of chinchillas by the side of the road sitting on rocks surrounded by snow.
We finally reached the summit (Patapama) around 10:30 a.m. where I got a beautiful picture of the smoking Sabancaya. We also saw a snowman with a Peruvian flag stuck in the side. Somebody still celebrating Fiestas Patrias. And the real good news … I was feeling just fine.
From the summit, we drove down a short stretch of road into a lovely valley and the little town (8,000 people) of Chivay. Chivay revolves around tourism. Most of the tour groups and others going to the Colca Canyon stay in Chivy. We, however, were only stopping for a bathroom break and a quick walk around the square before we continued on to the farming community of Ichupampa for a 1 ½ hr hike and then some lunch. I would be staying in Cabanaconde, only 20 minutes from the viewing point.
We reached Ichupampa around 11:15 and set off towards a large mountain. Uh … are we hiking that? Marcella advised me we could hike through the farms or we could climb to the mountain path. Marcello played coy with me and never really explained where on the “mountain path” we were going, but I figured I would give it a try. Now we were already at just over 11,000 feet and with the additional 900 meters that the path would take us on, we would be close to 12,000 feet. I was just hoping I wasn’t going to pass out.
About half way up the hillside, I was second guessing myself. The path was not that tough a few stairs, a few flat spots, some steep stairs some flat spots and on and on we went. The tough part was breathing. Seriously. I was gasping for air.
Anyway, with each step, I kept hoping we were nearing the end. Finally, Marcella pointed to what looked like stone caves up ahead and told me that we were at the end point. (No kidding Marcello, we can’t climb any higher since we are at the top of the mountain.) Anyway It turns out we had hiked to Yuraqqaqa, an ancient Incan burial ground. There were bones and skulls everywhere. And if that was not enough, the view front the top was spectacular. Everywhere I turned, there were Incan terraces that were designed for growing crops, which are still used by the local farmers today. Amazing. In addition, and what I found really surprising was the extent of the desert plants in the area. Cactus were everywhere.
After the requisite pictures, we hiked back down and got to the locals’ house where we would be having lunch just over 1 ½ hours after we left. And while the hike was fantastic, the food was out of this world: quinoa fritters, quinoa soup with little potatoes in a pumpkin broth and grilled alpaca (a first for me) with rice. The lady of the house, Josefina, supplements the farm income by hosting tourists on a periodic basis. My tour company is the primary benefactor of her incredible cooking skills, but there are others who stop by from time to time. Really an incredible meal that I am told was made from recipes that have been handed down for generations. (I am going to dream about those quinoa fritters for a long time!)
After the incredible lunch, it was off to Condor Cross to see if we could spot any condors in the late afternoon sun. Apparently the condors make their appearance early in the morning when most tourist visit and late in the afternoon when no one shows up. My guiding company has made it a practice to visit at both times. So we would be heading back up the mountains to the Colca National Park and the massive canyon to see if we could spot any of the magnificent birds.
As we zig zagged back and forth up the mountain and through a myriad of tunnels, I could barely keep my eyes open. I had been up early, hiked and hour and a half in thin air and eaten a massive, hearty lunch. Not to mention that the sun was beating down on me. Just as I was about to doze off, we pulled over so that I could get a glimpse of the valley outside the canyon. Rats! While it was indeed beautiful, a nap would have been a close equal.
Anyway, we made it to the entrance of the park about 3:15 and as we pulled into Condor Cross, Marcello spotted a condor overhead. We jumped out and pulled out our binoculars. It was one of the older birds (just like humans, the condors grey with age), and we were able to get a magnificent view of the bird as it flew directly overhead.
Now a little about Condor Cross. It is the narrowest part of the Colca Canyon, making an attractive location for the condors who like to nest in close proximity to one another. If one condor picks one side of the canyon, another can be close by on the opposite side. Each morning the birds leave their nests in search of food and each afternoon, the birds return. The morning is most popular because the birds fly very low over the viewing area while in the afternoon, the birds are high, high above.
After the first condor, it did not take long for two more to appear, followed by two juveniles and two that flew across the canyon straight towards us. The birds were absolutely amazing as they soared and swooped overhead and then disappeared from sight. And just when I thought the show as over, one more appeared and soared straight up before turning towards the sun and disappearing from view. Even if I did not see the morning show tomorrow, this was more than enough for me.
By now it was four o’clock and it was starting to become windy and cold despite the sun overhead. It was time to head to hour hotel in Cabanaconde, a 20 minute ride from Condor Cross, which was nice because it meant that I didn’t have to get up in the early, early morning like everyone else who were staying an hour and a half away in Chivay to make the morning condor viewing. I was done in and ready for an early dinner and bed. Tomorrow was going to be a long day with condor viewing, a hike and a 6 hour bus ride to Puno. I needed to get some rest.