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Monday, December 16, 2013
In the shadow of the condor
by the Scottsman
In the shadow of the condor
Since returning from South America, I have been haunted by Simon and Garfunkel. I cannot walk down a city street without some long-haired Indian peña band cloaked in kaleidoscopic, test-pattern shawls launching into a folkloric instrumental of the duo’s 1970 hit, El Condor Pasa. Each time I hear their lilting panpipes, it evokes memories of the first time I heard the song in southern Peru.
I was seated in the Los Nidos restaurant in the southern Peruvian town of Chivay, slapping my thighs and stomping my feet with a cosmopolitan assortment of tourists while a pea band of five brothers belted out an upbeat set of Andean folk songs.
However, just as the crescendo approached fever pitch, the band altered tack with the melancholic ballad about the flight of the condor. The crowd was transfixed by the music and its appropriateness to our location. The condors were the reason we all went to Chivay, the "place where the birds nest".
My journey had originated from the city of Arequipa that morning. With my guide, Guillermo Rendon Cuadros, we hitched a ride out of town in a jeep along a rutted dirt road to the altiplano above.
There, the scenery was on a monumental scale. Herds of vicuas‚ the wild cousins of the domesticated llama‚ appeared as specks beneath the symmetrically perfect volcano of El Misti, which rose above the grasslands of the Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reserve like an oversized chocolate mousse.
We passed through the flats of the Pampa de Arrieros and detoured around marshes before starting our slow descent towards the Colca Canyon, the yawning 60-mile-long cleft wedged between the 20,000-foot volcanic giants of Coropuna and Ampato. Formed by seismic activity and earthquakes along a fault in the Earth’s crust, it measures twice as far from its valley floor to its rim as the Grand Canyon and ranks only behind the neighbouring Cotahuasi Canyon as the world’s deepest.
Archaeological records indicate some human habitation in the canyon as far back as 7,000 years ago. Since the first natives settled in the Colca Canyon, they have pursued a mostly subsistence lifestyle‚ developing a simple but effective form of agriculture to suit the harsh terrain and inclement conditions. Their tranquil seclusion was shattered by invading cultures twice; first by the Incas some time around 1450 AD and then by the Spanish conquistadors the following century.
Before its colonisation by the Spanish, the indigenous Collahua and Cabana people lived on and tended private plots of land that were scattered throughout the valley rather than settling collectively in villages. Typically, they resided in the valley’s upper reaches, harnessing the water that flowed down from the mountains to irrigate their maize, potato and corn fields.
"Every person believed that they were protected by a hill or a mountain," Guillermo told me. "The people respect the mountains because they give them water, and human sacrifices were made as homage to the mountain gods."
The most famous of these sacrifices, discovered in September 1995, is that of an almost perfectly preserved teenage Inca girl, nicknamed Juanita. Five hundred years ago, she was carried to just below the summit of Ampato; in itself an extraordinary feat, without the aid of modern climbing equipment. Archaeologists believe her sacrifice may have been a prayer for rain after a prolonged drought had almost starved the valley.
At the time, there were an estimated 70‚000 people living in the Colca Valley. After the conquistadors overthrew the Incas‚ thousands of Colca people were taken from the valley to work as slaves in silver and copper mines. The remainder of the population were herded into the 14 villages that were built on the orders of the Spanish viceroy. Each village was designed around a Catholic church, with grid-patterned streets that allowed guards to watch in several directions at the same time.
The first of these villages that we visited is one of the largest: Yanque. Built in 1700 with funding from the Spanish king, Philip V, its whitewashed walls depict stone relief monuments that honour members of the Spanish royalty and clergy. As with other villages in the valley, its dusty streets are relatively deserted by day, as its inhabitants set off early to toil in the fields.
The Collahuas and Cabanas are recognised for the superb agricultural techniques, irrigation channels and terraces that they developed in the valley. Before the Spanish arrival, the land was carved into terraces covering 8,000 hectares, but when the people were herded together, most of these were abandoned. The only terraced fields tilled today are those in the immediate vicinity of the villages.
Next morning, Guillermo roused me before dawn to join the rush out of Chivay to the Condor Cross. Although the Colca Canyon derived its name from the 500-year-old Inca corn and maize deposits found buried in sealed vaults (called colcas) in the canyon walls, it is synonymous nowadays with the world’s largest bird of flight. Thousands flock to the canyon every year to witness these majestic birds soaring on thermal updraughts rising from the valley floor.
It was barely 8am when we arrived at the Cross, which, at more than 10,500 feet above the valley floor, was the canyon’s deepest point. A convoy of minibuses had raced ahead of us, spilling dozens of camera-toting tourists on to a rocky outcrop overlooking the canyon rim. The daily condor show had already begun.
The condors zig-zagged in front of the lookout, creeping ever higher until they could gain sufficient uplift from the swelling thermals to launch their hefty torsos over the mountains. As large as they were, they were still dwarfed by the mountains, and it was only when one of the adults passed within its three-metre wingspan that I could adequately appreciate its impressive bulk. This giant of the vulture family grows to a height of around four feet and weighs up to 25lbs.
"The condor can go without food for 14 days," said Guillermo. "Sometimes they fly to the coast 90 miles away to look for seal placenta. Strangely, they would rather commit suicide than die of hunger or cold. They do this by flying high and plunging to their death."
"Does that happen often?" I asked.
"I have seen it twice."
An army of Collahua and Cabana women huddled behind a wall of alpaca wool pullovers, rugs, socks and hats nearby, waiting to sell their handcrafts to tourists. Each group was distinguishable from the other by their dress. While Colca men wore nondescript trousers and shirts - a legacy of a 1780 rebellion against the Spanish who consequently banned them from wearing black because of its affiliation with mourning - the women’s clothing was infinitely more elaborate. Richly coloured embroidery adorned their hats and blouses, worn over voluminous skirts.
Collahua women, who inhabit the region east of Pinchollo to Chivay and beyond, wore boater hats decorated with rosettes to indicate their marital status. Two rosettes symbolised that the wearer was single while one denoted a married woman. From that, it was fair to say that the married ones had been deflowered.
After the condors had departed, we continued on towards Cabanaconde at the canyon’s end, 40 miles from Chivay. The hillsides were dotted with wild chona cactus, which produces a sour-tasting fruit favoured by the emerald-feathered Andean parakeet. The village of Pinchollo, whose name translates as "area of the walls", had adapted a different variety of cactus as a crude form of fencing. Rows of the prickly tuna cactus were spread along the tops of the village’s stone walls, deterring all but the most determined of trespassers from thinking of climbing over them.
The further we travelled from Chivay, the more primitive the villages became. We descended a gravel road into the natural amphitheatre cradling Cabana-conde, in the shadow of Hualca Hualca (meaning "the necklace" because of the permanent ring of snow capping its summit). The village’s drab, chocolate-brown buildings matched the earthen colour of its streets.
Contrasting with its primitive adobe constructions was the two-storey, concrete shell of my hotel. Like all hotels in the valley, its heating was non-existent and hot showers were sporadic. A better option was to bathe in the hot springs of La Calera, two miles north-east of Chivay.
After exploring the town on foot, I retired for another sub-zero night cocooned in layers of blankets. If only one of those condors could have wrapped one of its massive wings around me. Surely, then, I would have been warm.
To contact Guillemo Rendon write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to get there
Online flight finder ebookers.com offers flights from Edinburgh to Lima via Amsterdam on KLM for 580, including taxes.
Where to stay
Stay at the Hotel Colca Inn, Salaverry 307, Chivay (tel: 51 54 521111), Hotel La Posada del Conde, Calle San Pedro, Cabanaconde (tel: 51 54 180372). Accommodation from 2-20 per night.
Tourist information office, Plaza de Armas, Arequipa (tel: 211021, ext 113). Tour options
GAP Adventures visits the Colca Canyon on its 21-day Highlights of Peru (1,050), Inca Heartland (915), Absolute Peru (1,115) and 31-day Altiplano Expedition (1,185) tours. Email email@example.com or visit www.GAPadventures.com
British passport holders do not require visas. A tourist card, obtained on flights into Peru or at the border, allows for stays of up to 90 days.
1 = 5.70 Peruvian soles. It is best to change money in Lima or Arequipa before arriving in the Colca Canyon. Traveller’s cheques and major credit cards are accepted and ATMs are available in cities.