In search of Condors at Colca Canyon

One of the main attractions of staying in Arequipa is that it’s used as a based to do either a one, two or three day treks through Colca Canyon. Colca Canyon is about a three hour drive northwest from Arequipa. Tourism to the area was only established in the 90’s, about a decade after a group of Polish explorers managed to navigate the canyon in canoes and published Colca Canyon in their findings as possibly the deepest canyon in the world, with some areas as deep as 1,000m from top to bottom.

It is possible to just see the canyon in a day with a day trip but most of the tour is limited to seeing the canyon from the miradors (lookouts) close to the Colca Valley which is just outside the town of Chivas. The valley itself is impressive because you can take in the scale and just how amazing the farming terraces that have transformed the valley for agriculture purposes. I ended up doing a two day tour that would start from the top of the valley and take us down to the bottom of the canyon and through a section of the valley for the first day. On the second day, we’d leg it back on an intense uphill climb , followed by a tour of the northern region of Arequipa at an altitude of 4000m+ on the way back to Arequipa.

The other main attraction that most people also come to see are the Condors that fly through the canyon. Closely related to the vulture, these birds can grow up a three metre wingspan to are quite common to the area due to the winds that propell them towards the southern tip of the continent. We were lucky to see one as soon as we reached a lookout just after the valley. However it only did one pass and then kept on flying into the distance.

The first day’s descent is broken into two parts: The descent and then a relatively flat trek to the evenings accommodation in the valley. In my opinion, the descent was the hardest part. Call me old, but these old mans knees just can’t handle the steep downhill parts anymore. Luckily I had a ski pole to take some of the weight off the steep parts. These things may look uncool when you see people in their sixties using them but the fact that they are sixty and still hiking gets extra points from me and they certainly came in handy on this day.

I was one of the first to get down to the bottom where we throw off our boots and soak our feet in the cool freshwater river. It was pretty cold but I didn’t really care as my toes are aching from pounding themselves against my boots. Twenty minutes later the rest of the group arrive and we keep on hiking along the canyon bottom. Along the trail there are locals selling drinks and fruit which we sample. The local delicacy is like what we call custard apples back in Australia.

Back in the early days of the tours, the guide used to bring all the food and the groups would have to camp. Nowadays, there are refuges and accommodation along the canyon to cater for tourists. It’s not quite the Four Seasons, but it’s still a place to rest and be fed and watered. To be honest, the food wasn’t that amazing (we were in the middle of nowhere) however it still had some flavour. What the place lacked in food quality was made up in scenery with views of the canyon and a cross section of the rock formation from years of erosion and pressure.

Afterwards, we we continue way throughout the canyon valley, I can’t help but notice the number of fig trees which reminded me of northern Italy where they grow everywhere in backyards and in the streets. Also quite noticeable is mint and parsley that grow on the sides of the paths and along the streams that have been dug to divert water from the natural streams that come from the mountain and into the farming areas.

When we finally reach the accommodation in the oasis, nightfall is beginning to fall and it’s probably too late for a dip in the freshwater pool. We still jump in away but realise the water is directly from the waterfall and it’s freaken freezing. Luckily there is still hot water in the outdoor showers and we wash off the layer of dirt and grime that’s been caked on from the days hiking. The rooms are fairly simple. Three beds, in a hut with dirt floors and a light that barely works. To be honest we’re too tired to care less and all we want is a bed to crash in.

colca canyon

At the start

condor

A condor flies past the lookout

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Long way down just to get a view of condors

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Briefing with our guide

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The group

Colca Canyon

The start of the descent

Colca Canyon

Lunch position in the valley at one of the few refujios along the valley

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Fig trees everywhere

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Cactus is the main agricultural export here

Colca Canyo

The zig zag patterns are caused by donkeys traversing across the terrain

Colca Canyon

Our oasis in the canyon where we’d stay for the evening

With a 5am start on day two, the only thing we need to do hike up the valley. Pretty easy eh? From the bottom of the valley to the top is about 1,000m and at a steep ascent. After 10min of hiking the guide said we could go at our own pace from there one. At this point my thinking was the faster I got to the top the more time I’d have to rest at the top. So I put on the headphones and some tunes on and took off. By half way I was doing pretty good but then started thinking I should slow down and enjoy the view and the way up a bit more rather than being too competitive. Also every time I look up to enjoy the view I somehow always manage to trip over. It proved to be a good move to rest and enjoy the sun’s rays change the colour temperature of the canyon from a dark blue to pink and then a warming orange.

I had hiked the final part of Machu PIcchu the week prior and in my books this was a lot more difficult. The thing with Machu PIcchu was that the end of the trail was hidden and came out of nowhere. Here, you could see the top but it seemed as though I’d never make it as the path would zip zag endlessly and provide continuous psychological blows as you constantly walk and make up no vertical distance.

When I finally reached the peak, I was buzzing with a sense of accomplishment. Two weeks prior I was hesitant and unsure about my fitness levels or if I would enjoy this hiking business but by now, as exhausted as I was, I was feeling pretty chuffed with myself. If I could do the trek again, I’d probably book the three day trek to for some extra time to relax. There’s not much difference in distance between the two, it’s just that it felt like we were constantly rushing and had no time to enjoy it.  If I had done the trek  a few times already then it would be fine, but Colca Canyon isn’t a place you could just walk through without wanting to spend some time to appreciate it. There was the opportunity to visit a local village however, most of the villagers I had been told were out in the fields thus the village would be abandoned pretty much.

Cost: US$20 for the cost of the transportation, guide and one evenings accommodation, bookrf through Arequipay Backpackers. Includes lunch, dinner and breakfast. Additional US$25 for entry cost into the Canyon.

Bring: Daypack with change of clothes, 1 litre bottle of water and snacks for energy. There are locals selling fruit and drinks along the way so it’s good to buy things off them to save on weight and to show some support. There is also plenty of dust so bring something to cover your face/breathing passages if you get easily affected.

Fitness: Moderate to fit. You can take it slow on the ascent or if you’re not up for it then there are donkeys that can take you up. Unless if you’re injured, it sort of defeats the purpose.

Other considerations: Walking sticks help with the downhills and warmer clothes for when you get out at the look points outs at 4,860m.

Colca Canyon

The view down to the oasis from a quarter of the way up

Colca Canyon

Still all smiles..for now

Colca Canyon

Still a bloody long way to go

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Elated and buggered at the top

Colca Valley

A view of Colca Valley and the farming terraces on the way back to Arequipa

Colca Canyo

Stopping by the local markets

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Plate of local food. Rocoto Relleno, carrot puree fritters, rice and alpaca ribs

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Mirador Los Andes. A lookout at 4,860m altutude

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Shorts and thongs. Would have been about 0 degrees and windy

alpaca

Stopping to check out the local wildlife

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