After a six-hour ride across the barren Alti Plano, spending more time airborne than seated, we reached Chivay, gateway to the Colca canyon, 12,000 ft above sea level. This part of southern Peru was unknown to the outside world until the late Seventies when a team of Polish canoeists paddled the length of the Colca river in kayaks. Now, would-be David Attenboroughs flock here for a rare glimpse of condors in the wild. They say the ones here are trained by the Peruvian Tourist Board.
After a freezing night in Chivay, we caught an early-morning bus to Cabanaconde, a village perched at the far end of the canyon. This bus looked already full when it arrived from Arequipa, and by the time it left Chivay it was. Every conceivable square centimetre was filled by bodies, luggage and livestock. We even had a dozen sheep tethered to the roof.
As the overloaded bus pitched and rolled wildly along the narrow, twisting road, it wasn't easy to keep our minds from dwelling on the prospect of plunging over the side of the deepest canyon in the world. We tried to admire the passing scenery. There were giant amphitheatres of pre-Inca terracing cut into the hillsides. The parched pampas browns progressively gave way to the lush greens of alfalfa and the yellow of corn fields. Away in the distance loomed the grey, smoking mass of Ampato, one of the most active volcanoes in the Americas.
Several years ago an ambitious Frenchman came up with the crazy idea of building a hotel at the foot of Ampato so that he could take similarly crazy tourists on guided tours to the crater rim. The plan backfired when the volcano took exception to such intrusions and erupted, spewing out enough volcanic ash to bury the hotel, along with 2,000 head of precious alpaca and the Frenchman's dreams.
The canyon narrowed to a precipitous gorge. From a thin green strip of river it rose some 3,500 metres to jagged peaks towering overhead and showing a modest glimpse of petticoat-white glacier.
The suffocating bus ride finally ended in Cabanaconde, ancient centre of the Cabana people, who populated this part of the secret valley centuries before the Inca came to dominate. Dazed and crumpled passengers staggered off into the blinding sunlight. The plaza was brimming with life. Women squatted, selling bruised fruit and a few root crops. Their bright, flower-
patterned hats, voluminous skirts and intricately embroidered blouses brought a splash of colour to the uniform brown adobe buildings. Children tended sheep, goats
and llamas. Old men led burdened mules into town while pigs lazed in the sun and chickens pecked frantically at the stony ground.
Accommodation was not difficult to find. There were three 'hotels' in the village, ranging from basic to hygienically-challenged. My girlfriend and I opted for the Hotel Solartex, where the bed- linen looked as though the previous occupants had wiped their boots clean on it. The old woman in charge agreed to change the offending articles - for a small fee.
The word on the busy plaza that evening was that the condors would make an appearance at 9 o'clock the next morning at the appropriately named Cruz Del Condor (cross of the condor), about 10
km back along the road we had come. There was a short cut by a mule-track cut into the side of the canyon wall. Then I asked a daft question: 'How long does it take to walk?' Such enquiries rarely receive a consensus response in the Andes. We decided to play safe and attempt to set off just before sunrise, at 5.30.
Any fears we may have had about oversleeping were soon dispelled at 3am - then again at 3.30 and at 4 - when each departing bus for Arequipa thoughtfully drove round the square sounding its horn until it was full. So at 5.30 we were ready and waiting to climb out from under our heavy blankets into a bitterly cold Andean morning.
By the time the sun's first rays were peeking over the tops of the surrounding Cordillera, we had been joined by four other condor-seekers, including a Danish couple who soon bored us with the financial details of their trip. The mule-track was easy to follow at first but then deteriorated. In places it had been swept away completely by rockfalls, leaving a precarious, loose scree. This did, however, rid us of the tedious Danes - not to the bottom of the canyon but to the safety of the main road above.
Two-and-a-half hours after setting off, we could see our destination in the distance. A small crowd had assembled, zoom lenses at the ready, so we followed a faint path below them to a more peaceful spot on an outcrop of rock. Nine o'clock came and went with no condors to be seen. Had they overslept?
Then, around 9.30, came a shriek of excitement from the packed gallery of spectators. A tiny, black dot could be seen far below. Then it disappeared. Disappointment spread; zoom lenses were put on hold. Suddenly it reappeared - this time closer, larger. We could see it circle slowly, motionless on the warm morning thermals. Gradually it rose, growing with each circuit until it reached gigantic proportions.
Silently it glided towards us, wings perfectly horizontal, like a bomber. There was an eerie silence, broken by an alarmed cry. 'It's coming straight for us]' I yelled, and ducked. But at the last moment it veered off with a great whoosh from its three-metre wings. The threatening talons, the white ruffle of feathers round the neck, the bald head and huge, hooked beak were all in startling close-up.
It turned its head and fixed us with dark, piercing eyes. Then it banked and climbed once more before soaring off into a brilliant blue sky to begin the day's search for food.
A dozen more condors appeared at the cross but none came as close as our first. Had it mistaken us for breakfast? Or had we mistaken the significance of this place? Perhaps this was where the condors came to look at the tourists.
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