They’re Not the Prettiest Birds, But They Are HUGE!
Along the south rim of Peru’s Colca Canyon, midway between Chivay and Cabanaconde is a place called Cruz del Cóndor. We stopped there late one morning waiting for the thermals that bring that condors up from the canyon below. I had a hard time focusing on the birds when they were against a dark background, so I was not able to take the above picture. Below is the best of the ones I shot, up against a blue sky:
Condor at Colca Canyon
To be a good wildlife photographer, you have to be patient … and you have to have the right equipment. Unfortunately, I have only a digital rangefinder camera, and I wasn’t able to stay put and wait for the right shot to happen. So it didn’t.
Condor on the Dining Room Wall in Chivay
Here’s one condor I was able to photograph—at the restaurant where we ate lunch after viewing the condors. Then it was on to the high point of the trip—Patopampas at 15,000 feet (4,600 meters)—enroute to Puno and Lake Titicaca.
Coporaque, Peru with Volcán Sabancaya Erupting in Background
On my kitchen table, I have two guides to Peru which I consult from time to time. Even at my advanced age, I am thinking of going there once the coronavirus is but a dim memory (should that time ever come). I see in my mind a tour I took from Arequipa to the Colca Canyon area back in 2014.
We were in the Andes at between 12,000 and 15,000 feet (3,600-4,600 meters) altitude. I was chewing coca leaves with an alkaloid to keep me from suffering the effects of soroche, or altitude sickness. With meals, I would drink a tea of maté de coca, which had the same effect. Man was not made to live at that kind of elevation without some assistance. Please note that the difference between coca leaves and cocaine is like the difference between Lipton’s Tea and Bath Salts. At that level, it is simply not a narcotic.
Colca Canyon with Farming Terraces Created by the Inca
As it works its way down to the sea, Colca Canyon becomes even deeper than the Grand Canyon. At its deepest point, it is 10,730 feet (3,270 meters) deep. And the whole canyon is only 43 miles (70 km) long. (Just north is an even deeper canyon: Cotahuasi Canyon at 11,004 feet or 3,354 meters deep.)
There is a place west of Coporaque called Cruz del Cóndor where you can see giant Andean condors rising on thermals from far below. At a wingspread approaching 9 feet (3 meters), it is one of the most incredible things I have ever seen. Later this week, I’ll show you some pictures I took there.
A Fiesta in Chivay, Largest Town Around Colca Canyon
The Colca Canyon area is inhabited by the Cabana and Collagua peoples. It is only about three hours from Arequipa along a high, desolate, and unbelievably picturesque route.
I spent only a single night in Colca, and I would like to remedy that. There are scheduled intercity buses that go from Arequipa to Chivay along the same route I took, and I can probably find a tour guide in Chivay. He might not speak English, but my Spanish is tolerable—if the person I’m talking to is patient.
As I promised you, here is one of my photos of the condors at Cruz del Condor in the State of Arequipa. We were standing on the south side of Colca Canyon at a place that is famous for its thermals, which the condor population uses in the mornings as if it were an elevator to reach maximum altitude with minimum effort.
Because I do not have a super-telephoto lens that weighs half a ton, I had to enlarge the condor in this image. Even when they’re rising on a thermal, condors are lightning fast—at the same time that they are gigantic. The Andean condor has a wingspan of up to 10½ feet. Curiously, there are larger birds: the Southern Royal Albatross and the Dalmatian and Great White Pelicans, whose span can be as much as a foot longer.
Still, it is the condor that captures the imagination of South Americans. I’ll never forget seeing my first ones in Argentina in 2011, while Martine and I were taking a bus from El Calafate to Puerto Banderas to see the glaciers on Lago Argentino. Then, too, there is that most pervasive of songs, “El Condor Pasa,” a zarzuela composed by the Peruvian Daniel Alomia Robles in 1913 and popularized by Simon and Garfunkel in their Bridge Over Troubled Water album. If you’re not familiar with the tune, click here. In Lima, at the Palacio de Gobierno, I even saw a Peruvian military band goose-stepping to the music as they played it.
Paintings of archangels done by the Quechua painters of the Cusco School of Art are wearing the wings of mature condors, which are two-toned.
We in California have our own condors, which we are trying desperately to save from extinction. I saw a couple of them once at the Santa Barbara Zoo (below) looking very disconsolate from their extended captivity.
California Condors at Santa Barbara Zoo
God knows they are not the most beautiful of creatures, but they come close to being among the most magnificent.
Even before my plane ever landed in Peru, I knew that there was a lot more to see than Machu Picchu. In fact, some of the sights were probably more interesting than Machu Picchu—and a whole lot easier to get to.
It could very well be that the most interesting place I visited on my travels was Colca Canyon in the State of Arequipa. It is, together with nearby Cotohuasi Canyon, the deepest on earth—at points more than twice as deep as our Grand Canyon (though certainly not in the above photo). It was interesting not only from a cultural point of view, but for the range of activities available, the quality of services, and the outstanding scenery.
Two native groups dwell in the area, often interspersed: the Collaguas and the Cabanas. From the time one approaches the altiplano at Patapampa (altitude 15,000 feet or 4,600 meters), one encounters them selling their handicrafts by the side of the road. One could buy quality alpaca sweaters, scarves, and other handmade objects for a few dollars. Around the canyon are a number of villages, including Chivay (the largest), Coporaque, and Maca.
Along the south bank of the canyon west of Chivay is the famous Cruz del Condor, where one can see condors riding on the thermals in groups of two or three. (Look for a separate post on this later in the week.) The scene above is on the way to Cruz del Condor. Visible on the other side of the canyon are agricultural terraces designed by the Incas. The Collaguas and Cabanas maintain them faithfully. This picture was taken at 12,000 feet altitude or 3,650 meters.
I actually took a guided tour to Colca with Giardino Tours of Arequipa. I don’t usually do this sort of thing, but I had no cause to regret it. Our tour guide, Luis, was funny and intelligent, and I deliberately arranged not to participate in some of the strenuous uphill hikes (at high altitude) that were part of the program. (As I would frequently say, my intention was not to be buried at Colca Canyon). One useful feature of the tour was that we were dropped off in Puno, eliminating the need for a separate bus.
Andean Condors, like all members of the vulture family, are not exactly cute; but with their 10-foot wingspans, they are awe-inspiring. The only time I ever saw Vultur gryphus was on in Argentinian Patagonia, on my way to the dock to take a cruise to see the glaciers that feed into Lago Argentino. There were two of them a few miles out of El Calafate visible from the left side of the bus. Of course, by the time I got my camera out, they had swooped around the hill and out of sight.
In Peru, I hope to photograph them at Colca Canyon, about a hundred miles northwest of Arequipa. The Canyon has a depth of 13,650 feet (4,160 meters), making it twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in Arizona. I will try to take a tour that stops at Cruz del Condor, where they tend to glide in large numbers past a viewing point looking for their favorite carrion. I hope I can get a few pictures to bring back and post on this blog site.
Colca Canyon is probably the third most popular tourist destination in Peru, after Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca.