From the city of Arequipa we visited Colca Cañon, the second-deepest canyon in the world. To give you some perspective: it’s twice as deep as its more famous and much more visited counterpart in Arizona, the Grand Canyon. Apart from enjoying the beautiful Andes landscapes, most people visit Colca Cañon to see condors. This is how it went for us.
Getting to the Colca Cañon is quite easy; it’s the most touted tour in Arequipa. After being picked up from our hostel the minibus makes a first stop just outside the city so we can stock up on coca candy and coca leaves. No, we’re not encouraged to partake in some illegal activity, but chewing coca leaves is the traditional way to prevent altitude sickness. Do as the locals do. They can’t be wrong. Right?
Coca leaves, coca tea, coca candy
Maybe not, but their taste buds over generations probably have gotten immune to the foul taste of the leaves. I try to chew the stuff two times, but both times start to retch after about twenty seconds. Eugénie sticks to it a little bit longer, but doesn’t like it either.
Luckily we have more cards up our sleeves, like Diamox (altitude sickness medication), drinking plenty of water, sucking on the coca candies and drinking a big glass of coca tea at a rest stop after two hours of steadily climbing into the barren mountain landscape where we see vicuñas, alpacas and llamas. The first of many more to come.
Suffering from altitude sickness
All to no avail. I am slowly developing a numbing headache that deepens the higher we get, which at the highest point at the Mirador de los Andes is 4.910 meters. I can still register the impressive views of the volcanos in the distance, but I only want one thing: to go down. But descending to Chivay (3.600 meters), the base for the night, doesn’t alleviate my headache much.
I feel horrible, can hardly eat lunch and decide to go to bed, hoping that I’ll feel better later on that evening (alas) or at least the next day. Fortunately I don’t miss much about Chivay, at least that’s what Eugénie tells me as he gets back after a few hours of exploring on her own.
Flying condors, a sight to remember
Despite a cold and restless night I feel a little like the old me again the next day. Just as well, because we have to get up early, 5.45 AM, in order to be able to get to the Cruz del Condor, one of the most accessible places in the Andes to see condor up close. The one hour drive through terraced mountainscapes west of Chivay is beautiful.
At the 3.000 meter high viewpoint, 1.200 meters above the canyon floor, condors nest. The mighty raptors put on most of their show before 9 AM. The warmth of the morning sun creates thermal air currents which enable them to glide graciously through the canyon. With a maximum wing span of 3.2 meters the condor is considered to be the largest flying bird in the world.
It’s a majestic sight, that lasts too short on this overcast morning. Apparently the cloudy conditions don’t create enough thermal lift for the eights birds that make an appearance to put on a really big show for the few hundred spectators that have gathered. But it is memorable nonetheless.
Travel tips Colca Cañon
Sleep – he hotel we stayed at during the tour had no name, was very basic, but had hot a shower which was very welcome.
Tour – Tours to the Colca Cañon are sold at almost every street corner in Arequipa. Unless you have specific requirements or want a tailor made trip, it doesn’t make much difference which travel agent you go with. They group their bookings into one minibus to be able to conduct the trips as economical as possible.
The quality of the trip really is a luck of the draw. Ours was OK considering the price we paid for the two day trip, 30 US dollars (including breakfast, excluding lunch, dinner and the 70 soles (19 euros) entry ticket to the canyon). Another, time consuming, option is taking public transport into the canyon.
Most tours offered are one day trips (very rushed, very tiring and not really advisable) and two day trips, with or without hiking to the bottom of the Colca Cañon and back up again. We opted for the no hike option and were glad we did. Travelers we spoke to who had hiked down the canyon told us it was exhausting (but rewarding at the same time).