We were picked up by Ignacio, our friendly but reserved guide on the morning of 20 December ’05. For the next 3-odd hours, the bus weaved the 100 miles (160 km) of mountainous roads between Arequipa and Colca Canyon while passing by a variety of landscapes and scenery. I saw lush greenery around a natural spring, and herds of alpaca and vicunia around the watering hole. I saw mountain peaks peeking from behind the veil of cottony clouds. I saw local musicians boarding the bus and playing lively Andean tunes in the hopes of receiving donations from the passengers. I saw, I photographed and I sat mesmerized as we left Arequipa further and further behind.
Located northwest of Arequipa, Colca Canyon at 10,725 ft (3,269 m) is only shallower than 2 other canyons in the world – Cotahuasi Canyon at 11,488 ft (3,501 m) and Yarlung Tsangpo Canyon in Tibet at 16,650 ft (5,075m). To set things in perspective, Colca Canyon is more than twice the depth of the Grand Canyon in the United States. The head of the popular Colca Canyon trail is located near Cabanaconde, which was where we found ourselves after a butt-numbing bus ride.
A Walk in the Park Canyon
We spent almost 4 hours hiking on the first day – from the rim of the canyon all the way downslope to the first village where we stayed the night. Along the way, Ignacio never stopped pointing out to us the flora and fauna along the trail. So rapid and steep was our canyon descent that most of our 5-member party felt sore in our knees by the time we reached the canyon floor. A simple vegetarian Peruvian dinner was soon followed by an early night’s rest for all of us.
The next morning, we set off shortly after sunrise, bustling with excitement at the prospect of diving into a natural spring-fed pool at the settlement we would be spending our second night at. All of us had opted for a quick powder bath and a change of clothes to stay civilized the night before, so a dip at the end of our second day really got us going. We made good progress along the canyon floor, hiking past several villages along the way. One of my traveling companions was even able to make a call to his girlfriend in USA at a solar-powered satellite telephone booth! We made it to our stop for the second night well before sunset and promptly hopped into the pool to rid ourselves of the past two days of dirt and grime.
We were woken by Ignacio at 3am the next morning to begin the ascent back to the canyon rim. Ignacio had informed us the night before of the need for an early start, so as to be back at Cabanaconde before 8.30am to catch the bus to see the Andean condors. We ended up starting our hike under the bright glow of moonlight, back up the 1,800 m (5,905 ft) that we lost on our descent 2 days ago. Our party formed up in a single file and trudged up the narrow and often precipitous trail. The climb back up was easily the most strenous of the entire 3D2N hike – we lost count of the switchbacks and alternating sandy and rocky trails that we had to overcome. Periodic stops soon became a necessity for us to catch our breaths, unlike Ignacio, who hardly broke a sweat.
Two-thirds of our way up, we were feeling somewhat drained and thirsty when we came across a local lady and her son selling a variety of snacks and soda at a bend. Everyone’s eyes lit up like lost travelers who had caught sight of an oasis in the desert. We rushed forward and cleaned her out of her day’s supply of chocolates and soda. This hiatus allowed us to regain our drive and complete the final one-third of the ascent. By the time we returned to Cabanaconde, it was already 7.15am, and we had taken more than 4 hours to return to the canyon rim.
In retrospect, I didn’t find Colca Canyon particularly captivating. Despite being deeper, its landscape was not as stunning as that of the Grand Canyon. The tight hike schedule also didn’t leave us with a lot of time to explore the villages along the canyon floor. The absence of meat from our diet, coupled with the almost constant physical exertion muted any of our notion to try and smell the roses along the way. It was tough trying to enjoy my hike and partake in serious photography at the same time.
Valley of the Condors
After a hearty breakfast to make up for all the fat we lost over the past 3 days, our party boarded the bus towards the mirador Cruz del Condor – a popular lookout point for the highlight of our sidetrip – the vultur gryphus, commonly known as the Andean condor.
When we alighted from the bus at 9.40am, the lookout point was already packed with binocular-totting tourists and locals peddling handicrafts and textiles. I found a nice spot, whipped out my carbon fiber tripod and my big white Canon EF 70-200F2.8L IS + Canon 1.4x Teleconverter, and waited. Everyone was eagerly anticipating the bird’s appearance and not wanting to leave without catching sight of the winged beast. The sun climbed higher and higher overhead, and the crowd grew increasingly impatient. My eyes continued to scan the surroundings while my fingers hovered over the shutter release, ever ready to track the first condor that appeared in my sights.
Our collective prayers were answered after slightly over an hour. A pair of condors appeared at the far end of the canyon and glided lazily in circles, out of reach of any of our cameras. Over the next half and hour, the condors continued to play hide and seek with us, dipping in and out of our line of sight. A bus came by and picked up a large group of tourists who were contented to have caught sight of the famed beast. I continued waiting for my ‘money shot’ under the scorching afternoon sun.
Perhaps I had the smaller, less menacing crowd to thank – one of the condors broke away and flew across the mirador. My camera went rat-tat-tat-tat, firing off what must have been hundreds of shots in the following 30 minutes. Other tourists snapped away futilely on their puny point-and-shoots, only to approach me at the end for my contact information, requesting that I email them my best shots.
My skin turned an angry shade of red the next day, but it was well worth it. As they always say, no pain, no gain!