Travels with Mikey, Day 5: Flight of the Condors

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March 30, 2013 by jiejie768

The viewing platform was crowded with about 300 spectators waiting for the condors below to put on a show. They would not dissapoint.

The viewing platform at Condor Crossing was crowded with about 300 spectators waiting for the condors below to put on a show. They would not disappoint.

The morning of March 15 came early, like 4:30 a.m. early. Mikey gamely took the first shower, grumbling as he left the bathroom that he had nothing but curse-filled negative thoughts for the condors at that particular time of day (we were told repeatedly by our guide, Ali, that only happy thoughts would bring out the condors).

Nonetheless, the three of us were showered and ready to go by about 5:15, giving us plenty of time to drink coffee and try to pry our eyes open at the continental breakfast in our hotel. Meg and I once again shared a nice chat with the Peruvian couple from our tour, while Mikey, again, pretended to understand what the Peruvian man was saying to him in rapid-fire Spanish.

As promised, our van, along with a unnaturally chipper Ali, arrived at our door at 6 on the dot. Bleary-eyed, but resigned to our fate, we boarded and ignored Ali as we dozed along the way to Condor Crossing. We made a couple of stops along the way to the condors, including one at a little village where Mikey had the distinct pleasure of putting an eagle on his head.

Something about donkeys always makes me chuckle and reach for the camera.

Something about donkeys always makes me chuckle and reach for the camera.

Also, baby donkeys are pretty darn cute.

Also, baby donkeys are pretty darn cute.

We also saw a few donkeys. I’m not quite sure what I find so fascinating and photogenic about donkeys, but for some reason I’m always tickled at the sight. Maybe it’s just the residual refrains of “Burrito Sabanero” floating through my head.

At about 9 in the morning we arrived at the day’s main attraction. Condor Crossing is a point which rests about 1,000-meters above the canyon floor and is a favorite place for the titular birds to spread their wings. We were traveling near the end of the low season, and the sad reality was we’d be lucky to see even one or two of the majestic birds in flight. Luck, however, was on our side.

Condors - On a Ledge 5

A pair of condors sit on a ledge in front of the mountainous scenery in Colca Canyon.

A pair of condors sit on a ledge in front of the mountainous scenery in Colca Canyon.

When we first got there, we noticed two condors perched on a little outcropping about 10 meters below the main viewing platform. This, in and of itself, was pretty exciting and we wasted no time snapping off a bunch of photos. We were to spend about an hour and a half at the viewpoint before returning to the van, and eventually, Arequipa. For about the first 30 minutes, the birds on a ledge were the highlight, but just as I’d exhausted every possible angle and use of our zoom lens, a third condor entered the fray in full flight. The new bird took a couple of laps in the open air above the canyon before landing among his brethren in what looked like an attempt to goad his fellows into flight as well.

This is Meg's favorite shot of the condors. The Andean Condor is the biggest of the condors with wingspans reaching 10 1/2 feet.

This is Meg’s favorite shot of the condors. The Andean Condor is the biggest of the condors with wingspans reaching 10 1/2 feet.

This is my favorite shot of the condors soaring in the thermal drafts above the canyon.

This is my favorite shot of the condors soaring in the thermal drafts above the canyon.

The brown feathers indicate this is an adolescent condor.

The brown feathers indicate this is an adolescent condor.

We took this in from a lower platform, about a 15 minute walk from the bus and the main platform. After a couple more tours from this bird, and several dozen rapid-fire photos, we decided it was best to return to the viewpoint near the van as our time at Cruz del Condor was drawing to its end.

Once we reached the higher ground, however, we realized our show was just getting started. First one, then two, and eventually about 10-12 condors swooped in and soared on the thermal drafts rising from the valley floor as the sun came out and warmed the air. It was pretty amazing. Short of a brief snafu with a touchy memory card, this was the shining moment for Meg’s dad’s camera. Certainly it takes amazing pictures under any circumstance, but its ability to grab two to three frames per second was key as I simply opted for a shoot-first, examine later strategy during this truly spectacular aerial display.

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I shot, literally, hundreds of photos during this time, but I picked 20, or so, of the best to share on the blog. Some of the photos were selected as they demonstrate the stunning, 10-foot wingspans, while others were picked not because of exquisite detail, but for the fact that I was able to get multiple condors in the same frame. Once back on the bus, we were told that what we saw was an extremely unusual occurrence in March. During July and August, such displays are part of the daily program, but in the rainy season, only the combination of sunny morning, warm temperatures and happy thoughts (right, Ali, whatever) could bring the condors out in such numbers.

Whatever the reason, we were extremely pleased, and quickly agreed that the early morning wake-up call was more than worth it for this once-in-a-lifetime experience; our friends Bill, Kathy and Katie Collins had ventured to Condor Crossing in January and told us they didn’t see a single condor.

Just as the birds begin to return to their roosts, Ali told us it was time to get back in the van. Before returning to Arequipa via the route we’d come the day before we had two more stops. First, was a hike just down the road from Condor Crossing where we walked along the canyon edge and took in the breathtaking depth and abundance of snow-capped mountain peaks rising in every direction. It was pretty cool and I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of regret, wishing we had the time and energy to venture further into the canyon.

The Colca River winds through the Colca Valley on its way from Colca Canyon to Chivay.

The Colca River winds through the Colca Valley on its way from Colca Canyon to Chivay.

The Colca Valley is full of winding rivers, towering mountains, and picturesque hillsides dotted with Inca agricultural terraces.

The Colca Valley is full of winding rivers, towering mountains, and picturesque hillsides dotted with Inca agricultural terraces.

The next, and final stop (outside of lunch and bathroom breaks) was at a viewpoint looking back out of the canyon at the Colca valley toward where Chivay and Yanque sit. I’m a sucker for viewpoints and this one was no exception. I simply love being up above civilization and getting that bird’s-eye peak at life below. It’s similar to how I’ve always loved being in an airplane looking down at a big city.

Meg, myself and Mikey pose for a photo at a viewpoint on the way from Condor Crossing to Chivay.

Meg, myself and Mikey pose for a photo at a viewpoint on the way from Condor Crossing to Chivay.

By about 11 a.m., we were back in the van and headed for Chivay. We were given a little more than an hour in Chivay to grab lunch. We once-again eschewed the place arranged by the tour, and headed back to the pizza place we’d visited the night before. We ate quickly and used the rest of our time to snap daylight pictures (seen in yesterday’s post) of the sights we’d seen the night before on an after-dark tour of the town.

Though we missed seeing that actual mummy found frozen atop one of Peru's tallest peaks, we did get to glimpse this statue of Juanita in Chivay's main square.

Though we missed seeing the actual mummy found frozen atop one of Peru’s tallest peaks, we did get to glimpse this statue of Juanita in Chivay’s main square.

We also got our only peak at Juanita, the mummy we’d missed in Arequipa, as there is a statue of her in Chivay’s city center. Bellies, and camera memory cards, full, we piled (yet again) into the Mercedes van and headed back to Arequipa. As we were retracing the same path we’d traveled the day before, Ali finally took a break and let us doze for most of the three hour drive back to the White City; he couldn’t resist, however, telling us once again why Arequipa is the White City (either the sillar rocks used for the construction or the fact that only white people were allowed in the city center during Colonial Spanish rule). He also informed us (again) that Arequipenans considered themselves an independent republic and that we’d need our passports out (we didn’t) as we were leaving Peru (we weren’t).

The bus deposited us back at Las Torres de Ugarte surprisingly close to the promised time of 5 p.m., and we had about 15 hours left in Arequipa before boarding the bus to Puno at 8 a.m. the following morning. A highlight of this leg of the trip was the exchange rate we got when changing dollars to soles. It was 2.595 soles to the dollar, which is the best Meg and I have encountered anywhere at any point on our trip; though, Aunt GeGe likes to wax nostalgic about the good ol’ days when Carmen Alto had no paved roads (and they were all uphill; actually, that part is still true) and a dollar would get you 3.12 soles. Crisp new money in hand, we headed back to Tacos and Tequila for one last Mexican meal (interestingly, we never had tacos nor tequila there), bought some water and returned to the hotel for an early night in preparation of (yet another) early morning and (yet another) bus ride on Saturday, March 16.

This photo is in the gallery above, but I just really like it, so I included here, too.

This photo is in the gallery above, but I just really like it, so I included here, too.

Catch up on all our travels with Mikey:

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