Overland miles: 13494 Bus hours: 399.5 Empanadar: 82
Back in Peru for the first time since Christmas, we found ourselves very much on the tourist trail. And by tourists we don’t just mean the backpack-toting, llama cardigan-wrapped travellers we’d seen across Bolivia. Retired couples, adventurous families and parents whose children had flown the nest all joined the throngs that were all making their way round the country’s sites.
We found ourselves in Peru’s second city, Arequipa (known as the white city, but that’s only if you manage to see any of the historic buildings through the clouds of pollution that plague it), and decided to book one of the many tours to the nearby Colca Canyon. One distinct advantage of there being so many tourists around meant that tour operators, desperately competing for custom, were offering temptingly good prices. We toyed with the idea of doing the two night hiking tour, which took you over a thousand metres down into the canyon, but when we found out our pick up time would be 3am, we as usual chickened out and opted for the standard tour, which had a slightly more reasonable pick up time of 7.45am. So early the next day we found ourselves being whisked off on a minibus in the general direction of the second deepest canyon in the world.
One thing we should make clear at this point is that the Colca Canyon isn’t strictly what you would describe as ‘nearby’ by English standards. In this case, nearby meant a mere four hours drive away and that’s only to the gateway town of Chivay, our first destination. Consequently, we were glad that our minibus was relatively comfortable, our tour guide had plenty of local knowledge to share with us and we had some spectacular views as we drove across the Andes, nearly 5,000 metres above sea level.
One of the main draws of trips to this area is the chance to see the elusive condors that swoop down near Cruz del Condor (Condor Cross) which also boasts some sweeping views of the canyon. However, as we’ve already said, we’re talking Peruvian distances now and our destination was another four hour drive away. As the best time for condor spotting is apparently between 10am and 12pm, we were to spend the night in Chivay and get up ludicrously early the next day to make the second half of the journey.
Fortunately, Chivay was the kind of place you’d struggle to stay out much later than 10pm. The town’s token Irish bar, which claimed it was the highest bar of its kind in the world, sold Guinness by the can for the equivalent of about £8 (US$13) so a drink of the black stuff was out of the question. The town’s night food market beckoned and we sampled large glasses api, a thick sweet soup-like drink made from corn and spices. Then Jovian sniffed out one of his favourite late night South American combos, cheese sandwiches and hot chocolate.
The following day, still blinking away the sleep after our early start, we were rewarded with the sight of a couple of condors who had deigned to make an appearance for us and the hundreds of other tourists who were making the same trip. Our ever-informative guide told us that condors are amongst the laziest birds of prey, using their impressive three metre plus wing spans to soar on hot air currents while looking for carrion, rather than killing their food. After a couple of hours gazing down into the rocky chasm and admiring the views it was time to get back on our bus and start the long drive back.
As we were whisked back to Arequipa we couldn’t help feeling slightly short-changed. The condors had been an incredible sight but we felt we’d merely scratched the surface of the area. Trekking deep into the canyon itself, rather than briefly busing in then out, would have made the experience more complete. Next time, we vowed, we’d do things differently and brave an early start.