Condors, Fiestas and Canyons

Trip Start Nov 15, 2006
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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Opting out of the organised tours that the tour agents in Arequipa are so keen to sell, we jumped on a rickety old bus bound for the Colca Canyon town of Chivay. From the dusty desert roads, we had great views of the Arequipa volcanos and some vicuñas (llama-type animals) wandering around.

With immaculate timing, we arrived in the village of Chivay on their annual festival day. The main plaza had huge temporary altars which seemed to mix Christian and Pagan themes - lots of religious imagery, but also ribbons, dolls, silver plates etc. The dolls probably represent fertility and the silver-coloured plates, wealth. We think it is clever how the indigenous people hedge their bets mixing both beliefs!

The party kicked off as soon as the sun went down, with lots of villagers (mainly women) wearing beautiful traditional costumes. Streetside stalls selling dirt-cheap ponche (fruit punch made with local firewater and aniseed) fuelled the dancing. We found the ponche a sure remedy for keeping out the cold.

A somewhat inebriated gorilla tried more than once to draw me into the parade for a dance, but I preferred to stay on the sidelines and watch what was going on. Several men rode beautiful horses around the plaza with a pecular high-stepping gait.

The music consisted of brass bands that seemed to know one or two tunes and repeat them with gusto. To our ears, these brass bands were much more skilled than others we have heard recently. The musical highlight was an acoustic traditional group of musicians featuring guitars, charangos (Andean guitars), huge harps hoisted on shoulders, accordian and harmonised voices. A really magical sound.

Next morning, we had been advised to catch a 4.30am bus to get to the famous condor viewing point, Cruz del Condor, in good time. We had also been advised to get in line just after 4am to make sure we got a seat. All this we did - did we get a seat? NO. A tough 2 hours standing in the bus over gravel, dusty roads followed. This is the type of journey that really needs to be the exception, not the rule! I think I got close to emulating the locals' habit of sleeping standing up.

Arriving at the viewing point, we staked our claim on a rocky vantage point shared with a few intrepid backpackers who had also gotten out of bed at a ridiculous hour. We felt a little more human after a breakfast of yoghurt and fruit and more able to appreciate the scenery of what is claimed to be the second deepest Canyon in the world. The first deepest by a few metres is some hours travel away in Peru - Cotahuasi Canyon.

After 7am, the first of the huge condors began to circle above and around us. While impressive creatures, an hour later I really felt I had seen enough condors to last me the rest of my life, but Ed was not to be denied this golden photographic opportunity. He made us hang around until after 11am, but to be fair the birds just kept getting closer and close and one calmly perched on a rock nearby as if posing for photos.

The people-watching was just as interesting as the condors. Waves of tourist buses coming and going - with the tourists having varying degrees of success with the condor viewing dependent on their schedule. At one stage, a particularly keen photographer almost shoved me off the cliff top in his eagerness to get a shot. The least popular group of tourists were some Italians who couldn´t conceal their admiration for the birds and expressed all their opinions loudly, earning some glares and stern ´sshhhhhh´from the local tourists.

Another shortish bus trip to the next village of Cabanaconde, our stop for the night. Lunch, nap and a relaxed walk around the canyon area for the afternoon finished off the day. The village is still very traditional and we saw farmers ploughing their fields with horses or oxen and a wooden plough. After a long day, we had really earned our alpaca steak that night - great flavour and a little more delicate than llama meat.

Next day, we took an early bus right along the canyon back to Chivay. There are some lovely traditional villages perched around the canyon along the way - mainly adobe buildings and whitewashed colonial churches, and small farms where chickens, cows, sheep and llamas all share the same fields.

Our reason to stop at Chivay was to fit in a visit to their hot water pools. Good value and a pleasant soak, but not a patch on the jungle-surrounded sulphurous hot springs we enjoyed in Guatemala and other places. It was a great opportunity to practice our Spanish there with a precocious four-year-old who also had a few words of English. Meeting her in the town later at lunchtime, she greeted me with a ice-creamy kiss on the lips - Latino children have little fear of strangers, even tall skinny gringos!

Our return to Tula´s house in Arequipa was a sombre one, as we had just heard about the huge earthquake in Peru - killing over 500 people, injuring more and destroying huge numbers of homes (mainly of poor people). We hadn´t felt a thing at the Canyon when it struck. It was also sad saying goodbye to Cesar and Claudia at their home - their hospitality was outstanding.
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