On our itinerary between Lima and La Paz we knew we wanted to spend a few days in Arequipa. It’s sometimes called “the white city” because of the beautiful buildings made from the local white “silla” volcanic rock. The architecture is beautiful in a very Spanish Colonial sort of way, it reminded me of some of the Andalusian hill towns we visited while in Spain.
I noticed our bus company offered a tour to “Colca Canyon, the second deepest canyon after the Grand Canyon” which sounded interesting but not compelling. Until I read the more detailed description. Colca Canyon is one of the places you can see Andean Condors. Ok, sign us up!
The first day is spent getting to the town of Chivay, in the middle of the canyon. On the way you travel through the high desert, where we saw the four camelids of Peru, llama, alpaca, vicuña, and guanaco. The llama and alpaca are domesticated (alpaca look like a cross between a llama and a sheep, they’re very cute). Vicuña and guanaco are wild, and it’s unusual to see a guanaco.
There are some unusual plants as well including one plant that looks like a moss, but is actually a succulent that grows in a thin hard layer over rocks. It grows a few centimeters a year for the first few years, then a millimeter or so a year after that.
Mirador de los Andes
On the way, you pass through Mirador de los Andes or “Andes lookout.” It’s one of the highest highway passes in the world at 4910 masl (meters above sea level) or 16,100 feet. You definitely feel the altitude! The guide suggested back in Arequipa that we buy coca leaves and told us how and when to use them. They definitely help, but you still feel slow and exhausted at that altitude.
Chivay is the little town that’s the base for exploring Colca Canyon. What we hadn’t realized (due to our own lack of planning…) is that there are thermal hot springs in town! We weren’t going to miss that, so we went to the local mercado and bought swimsuits and towels, we were concerned that it might be difficult to find a swimsuit that fit, but it worked out just fine.
While there we looked for chuñyo, the andean freeze dried potato. Farmers will freeze harvested potatoes then leave them out in the sun to dry. The resulting freeze dried potato comes in two forms, white and black, with the black being harder to digest. Chuñyo can be used whole or ground (molido) as part of soups or stews. Local advice is to eat chuñyo for your midday meal to avoid trouble digesting it as you sleep.
Aguas Termales “La Calera”
We are huge fans of natural hot springs, having spent time in them in New Zealand, Japan, Jordan, and Iceland. These were quite nice. The main outdoor pool was spacious and clean, there were mandatory showers, lockers for your stuff, changing rooms, everything that you could want really and the setting was magnificent. Next to a stream, in the forest, in a canyon. The source emerges at about 80ºC and the main pool is 37-40ºC and deep enough to stand with the water up to your neck.
The next day we drove down the canyon, stopping at villages and scenic views along the way. Our guide explained how the valley had been more actively cultivated in Inca and pre-Inca times, and you could still see their terraces on the upper reaches of the valley. Those terraces were not currently being used due to frost and lack of water, but you could see how this area had been an important food production area since pre-Inca times.
Our guide had been preparing us for the possibility that we wouldn’t see condors. They don’t always come out since they can go as long as five weeks between meals. Additionally it was nesting season so they didn’t come out as much. Apparently the local rangers will seed the viewpoints with carcasses to encourage the condors to put in an appearance for the tourists.
Juveniles are all brown, though males may already show the flattened crest. Subadults will have black in the wings and may have a white ruff, adults will have a white ruff and white spots in the wing feathers. Most of the condors we saw were juveniles though there was one adult.
We were lucky or maybe there was a recent carcass. We first went to a lesser used viewing point and there were at least seven condors! Mostly juveniles, a couple were sitting on a rocky outcrop, but basically we got to see lots of condors. In March and April you can see as many as forty condors flying in the canyon, but we felt like seven was luxurious enough. Afterwards we visited the main Cruz de Condor (Condor Cross) viewing area where there was one more condor but it was nothing compared with the first stop.
Besides the Andean Condor (Vultur Gryphus) we also managed to see an American Kestrel (Falco sparverius), Mountain Caracara (Phalcoboenus megalopterus), giant hummingbird (Patagona gigas), a Rufous-collared Sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis) some andean swifts (Aeronautes andecolus) and andean swallows (Stelgidopteryx andecola). We also saw coots, ducks, black ibises, and an Andean eagle called a caracara. Surprisingly to me there’s a lot of wetland up there.
Cactus Ice cream
At every stop there are local vendors mostly selling the same tourist items, some handmade alpaca hats and blankets, and local foods. At one stop, one of the local foods was a Helado de Sancayllo or Sancayllo Ice Cream. The sancayllo is more commonly known as sancayo or “sanky” and is the fruit of a columnar cactus corryocactus brevistylus. It has a tart flavor and a slightly mucilaginous texture that makes a delicious granita.
I’m really glad we did this trip. It’s possible to do it as a day trip out of Arequipa, leaving super early in the morning, and returning late at night but it would be exhausting. Condors, Hot Springs, and a new flavor of ice cream – that’s a must see combination for us!
Here are two videos of condors flying. The audio has a lot of wind noise so I’ve muted them, and they’re not particularly well edited or stabilised. But condors! Flying!