Colca Canyon looks so much like Arizona’s Grand Canyon, which I trekked over ten years ago.
The difference? Colca’s more than twice as deep, at 11,000 feet.
And the Andean Condor – the national bird of Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador, lords over its powerful thermals.
These magnificent vultures, weighing 33 pounds with ten-foot wingspans, take advantage of the strong winds that run through the massive rock fins to lift their bodies, so they can fly for hours without flapping even once.
In the Andes, the condor is revered as the sun god who rules the upper world.They symbolize power and health. Hence, the Tomb of the Condor counts among Machu Picchu’s three sacred places. And the Incas summon the condor to escort the spirit of their dead to the nether regions.
Yet, condors have been hunted for their skins, bones and organs, believed to have medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. In some versions of Peruvian corridas, condors are tied to the back of bulls while matadors fight the animals – supposed to represent the power of the Andean people over the Spanish conqujistadores (the bull).
In one grisly ceremony in Southeastern Peru, the arranque del condor, a live Andean condor is suspended from a frame and punched to death by horsemen as they ride by.
Deforestation, poisoning of food and water sources as well as air pollution wreaked havoc on condor populations. Captive breeding helped but cultural beliefs still need to change.
Even here at Colca, a guide warned me condor sightings are not guaranteed. Some days you see a dozen, sometimes just a couple or none at all, especially in December and January, when the birds migrate to the Peruvian coast to feed on the afterbirth of sea lions.
When I reached the Colca Canyon viewing deck, a big crowd has gathered, waiting.
I don’t know why I positioned myself at the furthest edge but I just stood there and asked my angels for condors.
I used to ask them for eagles whenever I visit the wilderness, the mountains or the seas.
But now, buffeted by the freezing wind, I prayed hard to see the condors…
Please please, dearest angels of Peru, angels of Colca, please bring in the condors!
I came so far, halfway across the world, just to see them!
Voila! In a few seconds, a feathered shape, black and white, with the distinct white neck ruff, glided out of the abyss 4,000 below. (These mighty birds can fly up to 18,000 feet).
Then another and another, till I was gawking at half a dozen condors lazily riding the thermal winds. A couple were mottled brown – juveniles. The rest were adults. Some are mated pairs, nesting in the most inaccessible rock ledges.
And when I set out to trek down the canyon, the condors escorted me.
So far, that trek up and down the Andes was the hardest I’ve ever done yet.
From the trail head at Pampa De San Miguel, I downclimbed to San Juan de Chuccho Village. For the most part, I walked with the sun on my face. Instantly, the heat and the elevation wrought havoc on me. My heart raced like crazy and I gritted my teeth. I’m not having cardiac arrest on this trail! That’s not allowed.
But I had to rest ever so often, finding shade in the grottoes formed by rock overhangs or in the sparse shade of low bushes growing at the lip of the switchbacks without end.
Close to one rest stop, I asked another trekker to take my pic with the Colca valley as my backdrop.
The glaciated peak behind me, the over 18,00-foot Mismi, is the most distant source of the great Amazon River – the largest and longest on earth, running almost 7,000 kilometers through five countries before it empties in the Atlantic Ocean.
The Mismi’s meltwaters flow into the feeder streams of the Apurimac, a tributary of the Ucayali which later joins the Marañón to form the main body of the Amazon.
Midway, I encountered a local with a shovel dangling from in his multi-colored blanket which doubles as a backpack. His dusty dog took the cue and plopped down to rest as soon as his master stopped. Literally dog-tired!
Over the next two days’ trek, it’s never ending switchbacks for me, very steep, with very loose scree. Very exposed too. I can feel my skin burning up. But whenever I would look up the canyon, or down below, I would see the condors, gliding like black and white planes, sometimes close enough to look into their eyes. And there are the kestrels – gold and tangerine with the sun in their wings.
The whole canyon is in bloom. So, I’m treated to the spectacle of hundreds and hundreds of tiny butterflies flitting from tiny purple and fuscia flowers… locusts with whirring wings… ochre colored salamanders rustling among the cactus… And I plodded on.
In many places, I have to claw my way up the rocks to hoist myself over the high ledges or shimmy down on my behind. So unglamorous. But I thanked the mountains for each shade they offered.
Resting, I watched huge black ants farming aphids on the cactus leaves, spiders spinning webs over the thorns, their silk glistening in the sun. Butterflies duelled for nectar over the flower heads. A wild pigeon settled down on a doorstep of a house perched on the mountain flank, beside a neat veggie patch.
I wonder now if I can live like that… in the eternal silence, hearing only the river and the wind and the kestrels calling and the wings of locusts and bees buzzing.
Trekking up and down that canyon, I can’t help but admire the people who live there.
Everything in this sordidly angled place is brought in by mule – from the corrugated iron roof to wood, cement and heaven knows what else. Each household owns a mule but if they have a big project, or a big haul, they have to rent their neighbors’ mules as well. The river – shallow and full of boulders, can’t be navigated by boat. The road which can be accessed by cars is in another town, on the third mountain, where I’ll trek on my last day.
Second day, it’s up and down two mountains, a walk through a handful of towns and finally, an oasis…
Halfway, when I rested in front of a quaint white church, this huge black dog nosed at my pack. I stroked her between the eyes and apologized, I had no more food with me. But she plunked down on my very feet obstinately, so I can’t get away from her, soliciting caresses for as long as I can give them.
Afterwards…More zigzags. Lots of rockfalls covering the trail. I picked my way carefully over the loose scree, which can collapse any moment and carry me over the edge. Sometimes the the boulders have swallowed up the whole path.
Then the zigzag morphs to an overgrown path and alarm bells rang in my mind. Fresh mule dung was splattered on a path overgrown with cactus. Am I lost? No sign posts marked the way. The guide said I should climb up after the zigzag. So, I plodded ahead. Wrong directions, it turned out.
I came to the dead end, a gate barred with logs. I wormed through the opening, found a shovel leaning on a stone wall, beside a brook – a cactus farm. But there was no one there.
Looking up, on the face of the next slope, I made out more switchbacks. On a remote peak, glittered the corrugated roof of box like houses. It seems so far away. I turned around, out of the gate where two paths forked out.
Two girls lugging heavy packs materialized from the bushes. They confirmed it’s a cardiac arrest trail going up and that peak I’m seeing is two days’ walking. They just came from there. They consulted their topo maps, refilled my water bottle, fed me fruits from their stash and escorted me to the oasis – two more hours of rough trekking.
More tortuous narrow paths, down, up, down once more.
The landscape was spectacular but I have no more strength to take pics. My mouth dries up every few gasps and a bitter taste lingered,..Giant white chalk buttresses and fins, the wind and the water are sculpturing giant arches in progress,,.on the opposite bank , a cathedral gouged out of the sandstone. I limped into my lodge just before dusk.
It was still dark when I set out next morning. The final trek was on almost vertical up the face of the mountain and I knew that even on a mule, it will be a nightmare. But everyone who goes into the oasis will have to get up there to Cabanaconde. There’s no other way out.
The muleteer was in a hurry to beat the long train of pack animals clattering up the switchbacks. He gave me Roberto – one thoursand pounds of wild-eyed, glistening amber power. And I had no way to control him. No reins. No rope. Nothing.
I had misgivings about the ride from the start. I’ve seen mules lose their footing in the equally narrow and steep switchbacks of the Grand Canyon. But after hard solo-trekking for two days, I thought I had punished my body more than enough.
Now, in the muleteer’s haste to get ahead up the mountain, he failed to tighten my saddle straps after checking my stirrups.
I only realized the mistake after he ordered Roberto to gallop to catch up with the rest.
I wobbled on my seat and was almost thrown off the mule’s back as Roberto scrabbled up the very narrow switchback.
I grabbed the steel lip of his cantle binder with all my might and gripped his heaving flanks with my legs to stay on the saddle!
Worse, my mount constantly muscled his way ahead of the mule train, trying to push the animal ahead off the edge of the over five thousand foot vertical drop!
Of course, the other mule bared his teeth and pushed back!
View’s spectacular over the edge, one part of my brain said. The other part screamed: No way I’ll survive if I topple over!
So, don’t ask me why I had no picture of my two hour-climb. Not a single shot of the breathtaking scene from the top! Not even a single selfie of me or my mule. Nada! I can’t even get my camera out! All my appendages were busy. In survival mode!
I wanted to kill the muleteer but I knew murderous thoughts won’t get me off that precipice.
I talked to Roberto instead, stroking his sweaty neck to calm him down.
And I lived through the hairiest ride I ever had.
But go up another Andean mountain on a mule?