Seeing the world, one country at the time

El Condor Pasa, at a distance

We weren’t only looking for landscapes in the Colca Canyon, but the famous Condor, the namesake of the song Simon and Garfunkel made famous. They are known to fly in the Colca Canyon early in the morning, as they search for food. Despite the lovely tune of “El Condor Pasa”, Condors are really carrion. You may wonder why we would go to the trouble of traveling for hours to see birds that eat dead animals.

They’re big, for starters. Their wingspan is 2.8-3 meters and they weigh 15-22 kg. When they fly they are truly impressive, gliding on air currents and rarely flapping their wings. They live to be 60 or 70 and have one to two babies every two to three years. Condors can be seen in the Colca Canyon from April to December, so we were just in time. Nevertheless, we were forewarned that we weren’t guaranteed a sighting. The tour company didn’t order flights from willing condors. We would have to hope for the best.

As we traveled by bus to the Mirador Cruz del Condor, our guide Raul continued to explain the cultures that settled this area. The Colquinos live here now, producing important crops such as quinoa, potatoes, corn and beans. When the planting season begins in August and September, they pay offerings to Pachamama, the mother earth. There is an important festival during which they follow the main aqueduct, which helps irrigate their crops, to its source in the mountains. Despite the grueling journey, there is dancing, music, and drinking. When they return, they repair the canal. From September to November, they plant. From November to March, it rains. May and June are the harvest months.

Two pre-Incan groups inhabited this area; the Coyabas and the Cabanas. The Coyabas worshiped the volcano Coyata and tied boards on each side of the heads of their babies to make them coneheads, to imitate the shape of the volcano. The other tribe the Cabanas worshiped the volcano Hualca Hualca and tied their babies’ heads to make them the shape of that volcano which is flat, so the boards were attached on the top and bottom of the head.

This habit of worshiping volcanoes was typical of the pre-Columbian peoples, who gave them tithes and offerings, including young virgins when times really got tough.
The mountains were referred to as Apus, or gods. In colonial times the Spanish conquistadors moved people from the mountains to flat areas so they could build Spanish-style towns, centered around the Plaza de Armas or main plaza, and better control the Indians and centralize political power. They also prohibited the Indians from reshaping their babies’ heads, considering it ridiculous to honor a volcano.

We saw traces of these people in Colca today. The Coyabas were, even 700 years ago, accomplished architects. They chiseled architectural plans onto stone before they built their terraces. These lito-maquetas (stone models) show where the water is located. There are 14 of these in different places. It was also common for the Pre-Incas to build cemeteries high on mountainsides in order to be nearer their gods. (Apu Inti) They buried the bodies with their personal belongings, such as clothes, food, and pottery, and in the fetal position in order to make reincarnation easier. The red paint on the wall near the cemetery was to scare away bad spirits. These peoples were rock climbers hundreds of years ago before the advent of harnesses and Prana clothing. These cemeteries, along with most other pre-Columbian ruins, have unfortunately been looted and often destroyed.

Outside our comfortable tour bus, I could see that boulders had fallen into the road. I wondered when the next one would fall. We entered a dark tunnel with no lines or lamps and without headlights, similar to driving into a dark cave, where you expect to hit a wall at any second. It felt surreal. The infrastructure here is basic. Many roads are just dirt and rocks, so it’s incredibly dusty. Dust covers everything and sits in your nostrils, clogging them. There is little water or electricity. Houses are simple constructions of rocks and tin and boulders hold down the corrugated tin on the rooftops.

We finally arrived at Cruz del Condor. We all waited patiently to see these birds, leaving their nests across the canyon to feed. I couldn’t believe I forgot my binoculars. When one finally appeared, as tiny as a swallow, I couldn’t spot it for several minutes, as it slowly made its way across the gorge. While the bird is camouflaged, its shadow isn’t, allowing us to follow its course. After an hour standing at the designated miradores, I felt a bit cheated at having only seen three at a far distance. Lars and I walked farther off to sit by some rocks, and that is when we got our special treat. A condor flew up close – just a couple of seconds before it disappeared behind a ledge, but it appeared twice, and seeing that huge creature gliding on wings longer than me was worth the whole trip.

We pulled ourselves away and walked the gauntlet of women selling woolen wares. I stopped to talk to one about her outfit, which was more beautiful than anything the women were selling. She wore the typical costume of women in Colca, a very fine type of embroidery. The vest itself takes two to three years to sew. She saved her money and sent for her vest to get sewn by machine for 150 soles. The whole outfit; blouse, skirt, vest and hat can cost up to $500.

On our return trip, we saw cows everywhere, including the middle of the road. Andean animals don’t seem to distinguish roads from the range. More dogs kept appearing on the road, just staring us down. They’re mangy and look possessed, seeming to challenge us to run them over, but finally ceding. With no buildings as far as the eye can see, they’re either lost or wandering in search of adventure. They stared at us as if wondering where the heck we came from. We passed hundreds of farmers with their bright colored shawls, either on horses, on burros or walking with burros, sheep or cows; always herding them. Women of all ages were working hard, often carrying babies in a shawl or a load of shrub wood on their back.

This area is still primarily agricultural, but they supplement that with revenues from tourism. I wondered if the discoveries by anthropologists like John Reinhold have been all positive, developing tourism and causing looting, but also building pride and creating other sources of income in a very harsh climate and geography. It is important to understand their culture, but these people are just going about their lives as they always have, probably cursing at our noise and dust, forcing them to move their herd out of the road. Regardless of climate, they always have on an elegant hat, dress and vest. They have been here for hundreds of years and not much has changed. It’s dust to dust, though here you don’t always return to dust, as hundreds of mummies can attest.

The ground is covered in green, spongy moss and white, red and purple stones. Alpacas and sheep were grazing side by side on green pastures. They are free to roam. Elvis masterfully circumvented boulders, potholes, goats, burros, dogs and alpacas, zigzagging and rounding tight curves. Still, I was thankful there wasn’t more traffic coming toward us. It could have been worse around those treacherous cliffs. We were slowed down by three by five-foot dirt piles that blocked our lane so we had to drive on the cliff side of the road to avoid them and bulldozers, which were parked here and there to indicate that at some future time they’ll spread the new dark earth over the current white dust and fill in the potholes. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

As we drove back into Arequipa, the back of a bus in front of us stated philosophically “transportando vidas y esperanzas” (transporting lives and hopes). Hopes of arriving safely, I’d say. Raul and Elvis were in a rush to get back in order to vote in the city’s referendum. The polls were close to closing and not showing up would mean a $40 fine.