First, two notes. A commenter asked me to describe the local corn. I´m not completely sure what he´s thinking of, because we´ve seen so many varities of corn. There´s a very interesting black corn, the kernels are a purple-y black, and it´s used to make juice, chicha (a fermented drink, like beer) and many desserts. Mike in the Middle, please feel free to fill in with your own memories.
Peruvians also eat a lot of quinoa, the very healthy grain that´s only recently becoming known in North America, although any celiac reading will know it well. In the US and Canada, quinoa (pronounced keen-wa), where it´s used at all, is a side dish, like rice. Here, it´s made into soup, drinks, breakfast cereal (both hot and cold), and many other dishes. The ancient Peruvians were the first people to cultivate quinoa. I hope it catches on more in the north, as it would help the economy here.
By email, someone asked me to describe the folk dancing we saw in Chivay. I don´t know any technical dance terms, but the music was very fast, 2/4 time, and the dancers were bouncing on their toes and twirling a lot. There´s a lot of spinning, making colourful skirts flare out, lots of changing hands and directions - much like folk dancing everywhere.
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On Saturday, we woke up very early, had breakfast with our guide (the guides and drivers stay in the same hotels at no charge), and were in the truck by 6:00 a.m. Every tour does this, as we all have a date with some condors at 8:30.
As we drive out of Chivay on the dirt and gravel road, there are beautiful views of the Colca Valley farms. The farmland extends up the mountain slopes, using 900-year-old terraces. Because of the terraces, there are differences in elevation and temperature on the same farm, so farmers can grow varied crops.
However, the terraces can´t support machinery - the farms can only be worked by hand, with simple hand tools. As young people leave the area for larger towns and cities, there are fewer farmers to support the local economy. Tourism, relatively new to the area, helps pick up the slack, but it doesn´t literally put food on the table. One potential solution is local institutes that teach tourism, restaurant and hotel management, and agricultural engineering, so young people can get an education and still have the option to stay in the Valley.
On the way up the mountains, we see pre-Incan burial sites that have been exposed by landslides and tremors. These must have been well-hidden, because they were not destroyed by the Spanish priests who forbid the traditional death rituals.
We also see mapas de piedras, stone maps, which the Incas used to map out their irrigation and terracing systems. The maps are scale models of the systems cut into the valley. Modern engineers have studied them, compared them to what was built, and pronounced them perfect.
It´s a heavily seismic area, prone to tremors, landslides, rock slides and full-blown earthquakes. The area got electricity, running water, and high schools only in the 1970s. There are no paved roads. Fields are separated by stone walls, often with cacti growing on the tops of the walls, for extra protection against dogs and foxes.
We drive about two hours, stopping a few times for amazing views of the Colca Valley, then arrive at La Cruz del Condor, Condor´s Cross. Tourist buses and vans are filling a small parking lot, and everyone is lining up on a stone ledge, waiting for the birds. The ubiquitous selling women (present at every rest stop and scenic lookout) are out in full force, many of them selling film, batteries, water and bananas (food tourists can eat) alongside the sweaters, fabrics and hats.
The view of the Colca Canyon from here is absolutely amazing. At 3,269 metres (10,725 feet), Colca is the deepest canyon in the world. The second-deepest is just behind it, Catahausi. Both are about twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, but they are narrow, with sheer rock faces. It´s a stunning sight - and then the birds appear.
The Giant Andean Condors, protected in Peru, begin to soar daily around 8:30 a.m. They´re not searching for food, they´re simply flying. At any time, 5 or 6 or even 10 or 12 of these massive birds are soaring in the air just in front of us, sometimes directly over our heads. Their wingspans reach 3 metres. They never flap their wings, only soar on warm air currents, which the locals call termales, or thermals. They are a kind of vulture, so they look similar to vultures you may have seen, or seen pictures of.
They soar, and bank, and glide with seemingly no effort. The tips of their wings are spread, like fingers, and sometimes their feet hang down for a little extra drag. When a few perch on some nearby rocks, we get a really good view. They´re not particularly beautiful birds - until they fly.
The show lasts almost an hour. We stare into the sky, and then one suddenly appears, and then another and another, four or five of them diving, banking, gliding, then they disappear out of view, and we wait, and then more appear, the stark face of the opposite canyon wall always as a backdrop.
Whew. Awesome. Worth the trip, worth the tourist buses, worth the 4:45 a.m. wake-up call, and twice that.
A couple of Andean Condor facts. Riding air currents, they fly from the Andes to the Pacific Ocean, fill their gullets with carrion, and fly back in a single day. They are monogamous and mate for life - if a mate dies, the suriviving bird lives alone for the rest of its life. Their chicks stay in the nest and are fed by both parents for 8 months. More good Condor info here from Wikipedia.
When the birds leave, Carmen takes Allan and I on a little hike. We follow a narrow path that runs alongside a narrow canal. The canal is part of an aqueduct system that is still being built. The path and canal are themselves on a wide ledge or terrace. Below us are solitary farms and farmhouses, and across is the other side of the canyon. It´s quiet and so beautiful.
The path is full of flowers, which Carmen tells us about; they all have local uses, for medicine or food. Carmen is collecting an herb that her aunt likes to cook with, so the fragrance follows us as we walk. At one point, our path is blocked by some cows, which an old man drives off the path and onto the slope. He is brown and weather-beaten, and carries a bundle on his back in a brightly striped shawl. Carmen asks him if he speaks Spanish, but he answers in Quechua - then says in Spanish that he speaks all the languages - Quecha, Aymara, Spanish and English. He asks us where we are from and shakes our hands.
On the opposite side of the Canyon, there are tiny isolated villages. They have no electricity or running water. It is a two-day climb from the villages into a town below. One town has a phone, via satellite - when the dam and aqueduct were being built, the company wanted to install a phone in town. One enterprising store owner vied for the spot, and she now sells phone calls for 50 centimos each. Carmen points out each tiny village, far off on the other side of the canyon. Her grandparents live in one of them.
The path is very narrow - sometimes we have to straddle the canal and walk with a foot on each side, and once we crawl under a tunnel. But it´s flat, a treat in this country, and at the end of the trail, Javier is waiting for us in the truck. Now that´s a treat.
We drive back to Chivay for lunch, the dirt road by now very dusty from tourist traffic. The truck crawls down the road, but every so often Javier has to slow down even more, to share the road with a flock of goats, sheep or cows, tended to by women in dazzling tradition dress. Every shepherd and herd is accompanied by a dog, many of whom bark and chase the vehicle, causing Allan and I no end of fright, as it seems they´re about to get caught under a wheel.
After lunch in Chivay - more trout, more quinoa, more potatoes, and this time a bright green mousse made of the fruit of a local cactus - we hit the road. No narration this time, although Carmen assures us that we should ask her any questions that pop into our heads. Javier puts on some Spanish-langauge pop music, and they talk quietly in Spanish in the front as we chat or doze in the back.
The road is dirt and gravel for hours, and even with the windows shut, we all cough from the dust. Again we pass the huge herds of alpacas and llamas, the dogs and the shepherds, the marshes and the birds, the high mountain pass, until finally we reach the paved road, and some hours later, the outskirts of Arequipa.
Condors and other Colca Canyon beauty here.