The minibus arrived to collect us from the hostel at 10am. We stashed our big backpacks in the hostel’s ample storage area and jumped aboard with just our overnight bags and a bottle of water each.
The minibus wound its way through Arequipa’s busy streets collecting the rest of our 20-strong group, then made a final stop at a shop at the edge of the city to give us an opportunity to pick up more water and coca-leaf sweets to help combat the effects of the altitudes we would be passing through. Arequipa itself sits at 2,335m above sea level, but during our journey into the mouth of the Colca Canyon we would be passing through the Andes at a maximum height of just over 4,800m.
All stocked up with coca sweets and biscuits, we set off on a modern tarmac highway out of Arequipa which soon gave way to winding mountain roads as we began our steady ascent into the mountains around the city.
Our guide explained that we would be making several stops on our way to the town of Chivay where we would be spending the night.
The first was a chance stop by the side of the road as the driver had spotted several vicunas, relatives of the llama, drinking from a lake in the distance. Everyone piled out of the bus, cameras at the ready, and proceeded to take pictures of the vicunas, the volcanoes, the landscape and each other. After five or ten minutes, we all piled back onto the bus and continued our journey.
At this point, our guide took the opportunity to explain a little about the wildlife in the area.
The national reserve we were entering contained four very similar animals: llamas, alpacas, vicunas and guanacos.
Llamas and alpacas are essentially farmed animals, bred for meat and fur, as well as being used (in the case of the llamas) as beasts of burden.
Vicunas are wild alpacas, now protected by Peruvian law from being hunted or killed, although indigenous tribes living within the reserve are permitted to shear their fur for sale or use.
The fourth type, guanacos, are wild llamas with a specific colouring; light brown fur, white bellies and black faces mean that you can almost immediately identify guanacos when you see them.
As we were digesting this information, we reached our second stop of the day, a small tea shop in the middle of nowhere to get a cup of coca tea. Everyone dutifully shuffled off the bus and into a wooden shack whose air was thick with the sweet smell of infusing coca leaves. We collected our mug of hot water stuffed full of leaves and wandered outside to drink it in the thin air as we tried to work out how the peculiar rock formations all around us had been made.
When all teas had been drunk, we returned to our places on the bus which continued its ascent while our guide used the next section of the journey to talk to us about the coca leaves, their usage among the local indigenous community who chew them almost constantly during their long voyages on foot through the mountains, and their fearsome reputation as the source of the psychoactive alkaloid cocaine. (There are actually some 16 other alkaloids in coca leaves alongside cocaine, which itself makes up less than 1% of the leaf. Intoxication from eating the leaves is mild at best, and partially due to the presence of the other substances.)
To complete the coca education, he invited us all to take a handful of leaves, together with a small ball of tar called lejia (an alkali made from the ash of burned quinoa which is used to change the pH of your mouth to enable the alkaloids in the coca leaves to be absorbed), roll them into a ball and put them in the corner of our mouths where we should chew them idly for around 15 minutes.
Katie and I rolled our dried leaves over with some difficulty and stuffed them in our mouths. The dry leaves were uncomfortable at first, with stalks and leaves jutting all around at unpleasant angles, but within a few minutes the balls was damp and more manageable, and a slight minty taste accompanied a gentle tingling around the gums.
Coca leaves have been used by native Indians for over 5,000 years as a mild stimulant to relieve fatigue and combat altitude sickness, as well as in traditional medicine. Addiction to chewing coca leaves has never been documented in its entire period of known usage and, somewhat ironically, it has been used recently to assist recovering cocaine addicts to wean themselves off the drug naturally.
As we were still “chewing” on this information (sorry!) another herd of alpacas and vicunas was spotted and we duly piled off the road once more for more photos.
Back on the bus, we continued for another half hour or so until we reached Patapampa – the highest point of our journey, at a mighty 4,800 above sea level. (For comparison, Snowdon reaches up 1,085m, Ben Nevis manages 1,344m, and the peak of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, is at 4,810m.)
At this altitude, simply getting off the bus was difficult. Every step required an extra deep inhalation to try and extract enough oxygen from the rarefied air. But it was worth it, for from up here we were surrounded by the snow dusted peaks of several volcanoes, and in the background we could see a mountain called Nevado Mismi, where a glacial stream from the summit at 5,597m has recently been established as the true source of the Amazon River.
After 15 minutes battling with the wind for our oxygen supply we eventually gave up and returned to the shelter of the bus which duly rattled on towards our final destination of the day – Chivay.
Chivay is a small town situated at the entrance to the Colca Valley, which in turn gives way to the Colca Canyon. Its main attractions are its location, which makes it a logical base for travellers into the valley and canyon, and the nearby thermal baths at La Calera, which we were also due to visit that day.
We dropped our bags off in the hotel and waited for the bus to drop off the rest of the group at their various accomodations. An hour later we were back on board and making the short journey to the picturesque valley which provided a stunning mountain backdrop to the baths themselves.
On arrival, we bought our tickets and made our way past the pungent egg-smell of the sulphur fumes which marked the source of the boiling spring. From here, the water is cooled to a suitable temperature before being piped directly into several baths which maintained at different temperatures.
We changed into our bathing gear and shivered in the brisk winter mountain air as we shuffled towards a large blue pool where we gratefully immersed ourselves in the steaming waters.
An hour later, feeling totally relaxed after basking in the warmth of the springs and drinking in the majesty of the mountains around us, we forced ourselves back out into the cool breeze and ran to the lockers to dry and dress ourselves as quickly as we could.
Our final activity of the day involved food, wine and music in the form of a folkoric show called a “Peña”. Wined, dined and thoroughly exhausted, we were in bed by 10pm and not looking forward to our 5am wake up call…
…which never came!
Fortunately, Katie was woken up at 5.45am by the sound of people shuffling around outside. We jumped out of bed and threw our belongings together and staggered wearily downstairs to see if the bus had arrived yet. Luckily it hadn’t and we had time to throw down a cup a coffee and a bread roll before we heard our names being called.
We were up at this ridiculous hour in order to make the 2 hour journey from Chivay, through the Colca Valley, to the Cruz del Condor – a lookout point in the Colca Canyon where sightings of the Andean Condor, fourth largest bird in the world by wingspan alone, were frequent enough to be sold as the highlight of a trip in the Canyon!
After an hour or so of travel, the tarmac gave way to a rough dirt track, and our guide explained that even this hadn’t been around long but had been created around 30 years ago to assist with a project to divert water from the Colca River for irrigation elsewhere. Had this project not required the road, there would probably be no way for tourists to get in and out except on foot and by llama – as is still the case on the other side of the valley.
As we were making good time, we made several short stops on our journey to the Cruz del Condor. The first was at a small village called Yanque, where young girls were already dressed in traditional dress and dancing round the fountain in expectation of a few small pennies.
The second was at Maca, where we tried a drink made from a fruit called sancayo. Three of the fruit were skinned and dropped into a blender with boiling water and several large spoonfuls of sugar. The resulting green mush tasted a lot like hot kiwi fruit drink, and Katie looked on confused as I finished mine with gusto and considered going back for seconds.
A further stop was made for photographs at the point where the valley became the canyon, and the lush green terraces that had lined the valley gave way to steep mountainsides which had been carved out by the river far below us.
Finally though, we arrived at the Cruz del Condor, a series of man-made viewing platforms on the edge of the canyon, some 1200m above the floor of the canyon. At the top sat the ubiquitous South American Cross, and people streamed from one platform to another straining for a view of the condors.
On the way, our guide had sensibly warned us that there was no guarantee we would see the birds.
“We have no contract,” he had told us, “so we cannot confirm that they will be here.”
However, he went on to explain, we had picked probably one of the best days of the year to come. The skies were clear, meaning that the sun would provide plenty of warmth, needed to provide the uplift which would carry the condors through the canyon. The condors, with a wingspan of over 3.3m (10ft) do not flap their wings, but rely on the uplift of warm currents to soar in search of carrion and, unlike other vultures, small mammals to kill and eat. On overcast or cold days, we would stand much less of a chance of seeing them.
We took up a position on one of the lower viewing platforms and before long were amazed to see a giant pair of wings in the distance. Cameras at the ready, we waited for this magnificent bird to come a little closer. After a few minutes of shallow breathing and crossed fingers, we had a second sighting, almost immediately followed by another.
For the next hour, we were treated to aerial displays by not one or two, but five or six condors soaring above, below, past and around us, sometimes not more than a few metres from our desperately snapping cameras. The crowd ooh-ed and aah-ed as if it was bonfire night, and all too soon it was time to head back to the minibus.
On our return journey we took a short half-hour trek along the edge of the canyon to get a better look at the depth of this huge drop. The Colca Canyon is twice as deep at its deepest point as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, but does not boast the same vertical walls.
Back on the bus, we made one further stop on our way home, for lunch at Chivay, before completing the rest of the journey back to Arequipa in contented silence.