For many, many kilometers the bus jerked, veered, slewed and jammed as the driver navigated the moonscape of potholes that pretended to be the road to somewhere. For more than 40 kilometers the road was a disaster – and the main reason, I figured, why we had to get up at 02:30 am for what is a 90km distance trip.
Dawn seemed a long time coming, but when it did, it came with a rush. Finally I could see our surroundings, rocky, grassy rolling hills with snow touched mountains far in the distance. My camera finger was itching and at one point I couldn’t take the frustration of seeing so much I wanted to take fotos of and not being able to. “Richard”, I called out to the driver, “can we stop for a few minutes please? I need to stretch my legs and maybe the others do too”. He pulled over and everyone piled out (no thanks from anyone, I noticed). I scrambled over the rocky field to see the area more clearly. At the top of the slight incline was a ceremonial rock pile, the type that in other cultures is used to mark a grave or a sacred place. The colors were stupendous – red rocks, the early sun flushing them with a suffused orange, the dark mountains in the distance, snow sparkling from so far away, the sky a wispy, frosty, icy blue.
The driver was in a hurry; we all headed back to the minibus. Not too much further along the road and we halted again. “This is the highest point of our trip today”, said Jesús, the guide for the tour. “We are now at the Paso del XXX”, he continued, “4810 meters above sea level.” Again we clambered out. I headed up the hill to see the stone huts at the top. The white stuff I had seen on some rocks earlier turned out not to be guano, as I thought it might have been, but wind sculpted ice. These huts must be set up as shelters, like in the Alps and the Rockies, their battered doors bright red against the now azure sky.
On we sped, heading down an ever steepening hillside towards a valley below. The driver was careening round the curves way too fast; one of the younger Canadian women was getting visibly worried. “Riccardo, slow down – we are very uncomfortable in the back here!” It worked for a few minutes. Once down on the valley floor we came through a toll where we paid to enter the Valle del Colca; quickly after that were in Chivay, parked by a hostal/restaurant. Breakfast was being served. That’s why he was rushing ..
I finished in about five minutes, leaving the others to carry on. I walked around Chivay a little, seeing some people gathering in what I suppose was a marketplace but in reality is a bare, muddy corner of ground; others were clambering into an open truck to head off somewhere. Many of the men were dressed in jeans and workshirts, the type you’d find anywhere; the women were mostly dressed in a more traditional style, black shows, stockings, pleated dress arching to the knees, blouse with two cardigans, brightly colored scarf and hat. The sun was bright, the air quite alpine, the temperature fresh. Half an hour later we were back in the bus, threading our way through the valley towards its ever narrowing neck.
Soon the road began to climb out of the valley itself, up along its southern slopes. I was fuming with frustration – I wanted to get out at every turn. Every ten meters. The scenery is absolutely tremendous here. In the still relatively early light (just short of 9am, the sun already high in the sky) every shade of green was visible – in the woodland, the fields, the cultivated terraces. With its clear sky and alpine surroundings, this is like an ever-abundant Swiss Oberland. I reckon that almost anything that you might like to grow here would grow here.
Here in the Andes I remembered a tale by HG Wells I read long ago, about a one-eyed man who found himself in a village of blind people, thinking himself king because he could see through his one eye. What I mostly remembered from the tale was the descriptions of a beautiful land, high up on the roof of the world. This could be such a place. The Valle del Colca is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
We stopped once, when Jesús stepped out to buy two different types of cactus fruit – ‘tuna’, which is sharp and acerbic, and another which is sweeter. I took the opportunity walk up the road to grab a couple of fotos, thumbing a lift to get back in. I don’t think anyone smiled at my bravura.
Eventually we came to the top of the long drive up the valley. The valley itself had narrowed into a gorge, the gorge into a canyon. There was a long drop down to the raging river below. “This Cañón del Colca is the deepest in the world”, our guide told everyone before we got out. “The total drop is almost 4,000 meters, more than the Grand Canyon in Colorado,” When we did get out and I looked down I commented “Doesn’t look like 4,000 meters to me.” “True, here the drop from where we are standing to the river below is only 1,200 meters. Further up the canyon, where the road doesn’t go, it gets more extreme thanks to the drop in the river and the closeness of the mountains. We are here for a different reason – condors.”
This is the Cruz del Condor where, regular as clockwork, condors that roost in the crags below take flight ever morning. We have to be here early (so, not just the breakfast, where there was no hurry) to catch them before the warming air thermals allow them to take off for other parts of the countryside. We were there at just after 9am. I heard once voice exclaim “you all should have been here at 8:30 – there were ten condors then!”. Yes, apart from our minibus there were at least ten others parked in the area provided. About as solitary an affair as visiting the Vatican….
I wondered over to the side of the upper mirador, one two jammed with people and their cameras, not really expecting to see anything, and not particularly interested either. I was more frustrated at not being able to take good shots of the countryside than focusing on looking for oversized vultures. I’ve seen vultures at work; it’s not a pretty sight. Anyway, with this little putt-putt camera I’d never be able to shoot anything more than a distant blur.
Irony of ironies, right below the people on the terrace, and just out of sight of them, a solitary vulture (sorry, condor) was perched, glumpily looking around. OK, then a couple of shots then, on maximum zoom. I blinked; it was no longer there. A wave of exclamations with whirs of cameras followed, as the condor glided along the length of the cliff edge and back to its rock. This it did a few times, occasionally sweeping low over the people who strained up to capture a foto or video of the great bird. By now I was hooked of course, sitting athwart a rock at the very edge of the cliff and scanning the canyon for a glimpse of the thing. Every time it passed I panned and shot like crazy, hoping that at least one foto might be in focus – and have a condor caught forever. Here’s one I managed:
Just in time too, as the park guard called me off my own condor’s perch with “You can’t sit there, it’s dangerous”. He was right too – no way to recover if i slipped.
While the others carried on condor-watching, I clambered up to the large white cross at the top of the hill above the miradores. From here I could see the length of the canyon proper, the valley we had come from to right, the deepening rift of the canyon curving away to the left. Back in the park I offered the minibus driver a cup of coffee, bought from one of the floridly dressed women who had set up their stalls in order to sell trinkets to the tourists. Richard, like Jesús, was a university student, working in the tourism business to earn the extra buck. Explained his driving anyway – the coffee was my peace offering for having told him to drive more carefully earlier.
Everyone gathered back into the minibus, we headed back down the same road we had traveled, this time with less of a rush. Twice we pulled over so the others could take photos of some places I had desperately shot out of the window on the way up. No point by now – the sun was brilliant and way up in the sky – no shadows, all the earlier shades and hues of green flattened into a singularity. I bought a couple more of the cactus fruit and shared them out between my fellow passengers. The most miserable of murmured thank yous. What a bunch. I made a couple more attempts at conversation during the outing but gave up.
On the way down we stopped at a town in the valley we had passed earlier – a place called Maca. Here, Jesús explained to us, was one of the classic churches of the zone, with its covered balcony above the main doors. I was more taken by the great Imperial eagle, trapped into a life as a tourist clown and trained to perch on the head of any tourist so stupid as to let the raptor do such a thing. Again more tourist trinkets, polychrome pettiskirts and ribboned ponytails.
We were back in the same hostal/restaurant for a long buffet, bursting with samples of the local food (all very good). Worth paying extra for but not the 20 soles (26 with coffee and desert) they charged. No-one was rushing any more. Jesús and Richard both grabbed to-gos as well. The weather turned bleak and cold, with rain hammering down in a mater of moments. After lunch there was one more place to visit according to the plan, a resort with thermal springs. Since it was still inclement Jesús asked who wanted to visit the place. Only the three elderly Canadians did, everyone else stoically not answering the question. Peer pressure won out and the minibus headed back towards Arequipa.
Up over the valley walls again, past streams torrenting down from the mountain sides as the rainstorm moved away. Soon the road turned to the equivalent of a magnified gold ball, pitted in every direction. Past the high point, past the high, soggy moors we barely saw in the beginning of the day, were the first glimpses of vicuña I had seen, slender miniatures of the llama in Lima’s park. Eventually Richard relented, letting us out to stretch legs and try to get close to the animals. I walked downwind of them, turned back up and managed a couple of shots. Then it was back on board, hell for leather to the next stop, a depot called Sumbay at the junction between the roads to Arequipa and Cusco. Behind us now was an impressive limestone cliff, the winds have blown its face into arches, columns and caves. I’m sure someone would have lived here in times past, some of the lines were too precise for nature.
Past the control post at Quiscos, down into the dry valley at Yura, dominated by a massive cement works, through fog that obliged me once again to tell Richard to slow down ‘or else’, we came back down into Arequipa. One by one the others were returned to their pick up points till it was my turn. Thanks to Jesús, a wave to Richard and a tip for them both (I think I was the only one to do this) and I was back in front of my hostal.
“Hola señor, would you like to eat at our restaurant? ” cried one of three women, dressed like the dancers in Lima, who blocked the doorway. “I live here! This is my hotel!” I grinned back as I excused my way though and headed up the stairs. Shower, shave, crash on bed, download fotos. Its becoming a routine.
As you can read from my description, I’m not one who takes kindly to organized tours. Still, this was probably the only way to see the Valle del Colca the first time round. Next time (I’m planning on it) the best way to do this is on motorbike and over a couple of days, staying in the valley at last one night. And in the end I’ll have a thousand images of exceptional beauty.
I couldn’t manage any more this day, my eyes were too full of what I had seen and my body was telling me it was a wreck. I keeled over without dinner and slept.