Soaring with the Condors in Colca Canyon

Imagine gazing out over an enormous canyon, while dodging giant dive-bombing birds. Well, if that sounds exciting, then Peru’s Colca Canyon is a great destination for you.

Colca Canyon lies in southern Peru, about 112 miles from Arequipa, and is the deepest canyon in the world. Over the years, the canyon has been called many names, including The Valley of Fire, The Valley of Wonders, The Lost Valley of the Incas and The Territory of the Condor. While most of the canyon remains in its natural state, people have occupied some small areas for millennia.

The area features a volcanic landscape, with arid mountains and moderate temperatures throughout the year. The canyon is spectacularly beautiful and attracts more than 150,000 visitors each year. Peruvian tourists have ventured to the area for decades and in recent years the canyon has seen an influx of foreign visitors.

While many tourists visit Colca Canyon to trek its rugged trails, or explore its pre-Hispanic ruins, most also hope to catch a glimpse of its super star resident, the Andean condor.

Colca Canyon

Extreme heights and depths define Peru’s geography. Nevado Huascaran is the country’s highest point, ascending to more than 22,000 feet above sea level. In contrast, Colca Canyon descends into the earth to a depth of more than 13,000 feet.

The first known inhabitants of Colca Canyon were nomadic hunters and gathers. Archeologists have determined that the Cabana and Collagua societies lived in the canyon approximately 2,000 years ago. Both cultures constructed agricultural terraces, which local residents still use for farming today.

The Incas hunted and farmed in the canyon during their rule in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. After the Spanish conquered Peru, settlers established small towns in the valley and constructed roadways that connected the canyon to cities throughout the Andes.

After Peru achieved independence from Spain in the nineteenth century, human inhabitants abandoned Colca Canyon. In the 1930s, explorers of the American Geographical Society rediscovered the canyon. A hydroelectric project expanded roadways during the 1980s, which created the infrastructure used today by the tourism industry.

You can arrange Colca Canyon tours and treks with dozens of tour agencies in Arequipa. The trip from the city takes about 3 hours and most tours stop in the towns of Chabanaconde and Chivay, which lie on opposite ends of the canyon.

The scenery between Arequipa and Cola Canyon is breathtaking. You will pass through several of Peru’s prized ecological zones and might get a glimpse at some of the desert wildlife along the way, including eagles, giant hummingbirds, flamingos and Andean geese.

If you want to take a guided tour, you can usually choose trips ranging from one to three days. Treks typically begin in Chivay. Groups usually arrive in the afternoon and spend the night in a hotel to acclimatize to the canyon’s altitude.

You can expect mostly cool and dry weather in the canyon. However, the sun at high altitudes in Peru is downright brutal, so always pack plenty of sun block and wear a hat to shade your face. The canyon often receives rainfall in the afternoon, which typically lasts no more than an hour.

Andean Condor

The Andean condor is native to Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia. It is an imposing and majestic creature and the national symbol of several Andean countries, including Peru.

The Andean condor is a member of the vulture family and has a wingspan of up to 10.5 feet. Males grow to weights of up to 33 pounds, while females can tip the scales at up to 24 pounds.

The male Andean condor has black feathers covering most of his body, with patches of white feathers on his neck and wings. He has a featherless head and neck and a red comb on the top of his crown.

Female Andean condors have red irises in the center of their eyes, while males have brown irises. Females lay eggs that weigh up to 10 ounces and nest at very high altitudes to protect their young.

Andean condors are carnivores and feed on the carcasses of large animals, such as deer and alpaca found in inland regions. Those living in coastal regions often feed on dead mammals that wash ashore, such as seals or whales.

Archeological excavations in Peru have uncovered artwork featuring the Andean condor that dates back as far as 2,500 BC. Indigenous religions teach that the Andean condor is a deity. It rules the upper world and its organs and bones have healing powers.

The Incas associated the Andean condor with power and often used its image in artwork. It remains revered by all Peruvians and continues to play a role in modern culture. While visiting Peru, you will likely see costumes depicting Andean condors at traditional festivals.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature placed the Andean condor on its “near threatened” list in 2004. It often faces the threat of secondary lead poisoning when eating the carcasses of animals shot by hunters. In some regions of Peru, people use the Andean condor in traditional ceremonies, which typically end with the bird’s death.

For many visitors, a trip to Colca Canyon is a once in a lifetime chance to see an Andean condor. The birds sometimes give tourists a thrill, as they swoop down close to groups to let them know who owns the canyon.

Other Attractions

Rugged trails and giant birds are not all that Colca Canyon has to offer. A series of caves in the Callalli region feature ancient paintings that date back as far as 4,000 BC, some of which depict the first known domesticated alpaca. You can also pay a visit to Fortaleza de Chimpa, a pre-Hispanic citadel located above Madrigal.

While trekking is the most popular outdoor activity, you can also hire a private guide or join a group to go horseback riding, mountain biking or mountaineering. If you long for adventure, take a whitewater rafting trip down the Colca River or grab a rod and go fishing for trout.

If you visit Colca Canyon in the first week of December, do not miss Chivay’s Wititi Festival. The event includes traditional dancing and features craft booths, which sell hand-knitted and hand-embroidered clothing.