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Flight of the condors

August 13, 2010

Colca Canyon: The world’s deepest canyon, surrounded by volcanic peaks higher than 6000 metres, plunges more than twice as deep as Arizona’s Grand Canyon, at 4160 metres.

Colca Canyon at dawn

We reach it from Arequipa, driving through the national park Salinas y Aguada Blanca, home to vicuñas, a golden haired, wild camelid whose fine wool (10-14 microns thick) was especially prized by the Incas. It is still precious: 1 kilo of vicuña fibre (which requires shearing 4 animals) goes for $700.

Golden vicuñas

Dry desert scrub lines our route, relieved by circular patterns of manmade grooves in the dry soil – an attempt at reforesting the area that failed under a change of government not committed to the irrigation costs. There is no agriculture in this area; villagers trade llama meat and wool for vegetables in a moneyless bartering system that goes back centuries. The tough sprouting altiplano grass, the same we’ve seen in Chile and Bolivia, is a variety that only grows above 3800 metres and I use it to gauge our altitude.

The fertile valley

In time, we descend to the warmer zone flanking the mighty Colca Canyon. Its sides are ribbed with pre-Incan agricultural terracing dating back 2400 years, nearly half of which is still used. In Incan times, following a happy 400-year period of global warming that saw nearly 300 metres of new arable land become available as the mountains’ snow and ice-caps receded (producing useful meltwater for irrigation), this valley supported some 2 million people. Now, with global warming so advanced that the glaciers here have almost entirely disappeared, shrinking lakes and rivers, just 140,000 people remain. What water supports them comes almost entirely from springs within this seismically active zone and agriculture is confined once more to the more moist lower valley.

Terracing in the valley

In the 1980s, a consortium of 5 countries, including the UK, Canada an France, helped build a remarkable aqueduct that pipes water from the Colca River more than 60 kilometres through the mountains to Maca, a desert valley whose dry lands were transformed to dairy pasture to help support the people of Arequipa.

This is what's left of the snow and ice cap

Above us looms the volcano mountain Mismi, the Peruvian source of the world’s greatest river, the Amazon. In its 7069 kilometre journey to the Brazilian Atlantic coast, the Amazon passes through seven countries, reaching an ultimate width of 50 kilometres. But that is for another adventure – we will join the river further north in a few weeks time.

Wind erosion leaves these witches' hats

The people of the Colca Valley maintain many traditional ways lost to those who migrate to the cities. There are two main tribes here, one that migrated centuries ago from Lake Titicaca, and one that is thought to have originated in the north. They used to distinguish themselves through the shape of their cranial deformation, but binding a baby’s head has become unfashionable of late and so it’s all done with hats now: one group uses a spangly white straw boater with a lacy ribbon and enormous medallion on it (think: bad mother-of-the-bride hat); the other wears an intricately embroidered (far prettier) white cotton sunhat with multicoloured animals and patterns sewed onto it.

Intricately embroidered hat identifies one tribe

Mum, kid and baby llama. Notice the mum's hat shows she is from the other tribe

When the Spanish arrived, they ordered all the valley’s villagers to leave their homes and live in specially constructed square-plan new towns (all the better to be controlled), worship at the new colonial stone churches (illustrated with terrifying paintings of what happens to naughty Amerindians who don’t accept the word of God), and farm care for new animals like cows, sheep and donkeys.

Colonial church

Virgin Mary not looking very Middle Eastern

Peru's black saint is a slave who performed miracles. He is celebrated with a feast of dog, cat and mouse

We stay in the biggest of these towns, Chivay, which, unlike most of the others, is accessible to vehicles and therefore polluted, dusty and dirty. To be fair, we have arrived at an auspicious time: in August, Pachamama (the Earth mother in the Andean religion) wakes up and so the villagers here celebrate her arousal by cleaning streams, irrigation channels and roadways, before the planting season begins in September. The local people accepted Christianity by simply accommodating a fused version into their own religion – the Sun God was a near-enough Jesus/God and Pachamama was the Virgin.

Local woman

We visit one church, in which Mary is dressed local style, with the embroidered hat, dress and poncho. Lima’s black saint is also worshipped in that church, in an annual festival that involves eating cat, dog and a mouse.

Baby alpaca on a lead

Little girl, little llama - both with hats

Looking around town for a restaurant for dinner, I am drawn by a particularly touristy venue (Nick isn’t!), which promises local dancers featuring a ‘Titi dance, malaria/yellow fever dance and cross-dressing agricultural love dance’. Obviously, we have to eat there.

Local valley girl

A local band, playing the usual ukelele-style small guitar, pan pipes and, unusually, a female drummer (probably the most bored-looking member) accompany the dancers.

Pretty woman drumming

'Sun and Moon' dancers

The music is almost identical for each dance, but the dances are great. Each has a different and very elaborate costume – these dances are still actively performed in the local communities but only at festival time at the beginning of December.

Dancer

My favourite was the malaria/yellow fever dance, which involved first the man lying on the ground and shaking deliriously while his female partner beat the fever out of him with a whip and then finally roused him by standing astride his face and lifting her skirt up. And then they reversed roles, with him eventually rousing her by removing his smelly sandal and waving it in her face. Marvellous.

Male member of the malaria/yellow fever dance team

Female dancer

The next day, we drive along the edge of the canyon, passing pre-Incan stone drawings that teach terrace-builders how best to irrigate their crops and seeing, high in the canyon wall, the stone tombs of ancient ‘hanging graves’.

Valley panorama

Terracing in the valley

Only a fraction of the previously arable land can be used now

We reach a dramatic cliff overlooking the deep valley at one of its narrowest points and walk a while along steep paths. We surprise a young viscacha (native rabbit) and its parent, and see flocks of small bright parrots fly from the cliff in a shower of green. But the highlight we see from the cliff’s summit.

Viscacha - like a rabbit but notice the different tail

The awesome Andean condor, a beast of a vulture with a 3.5 metre wingspan that makes the Californian condor look like a crow, circles up on thermals from its cave far far below. Following him come more condors, one after another, still-winged like aeroplanes, directing their flight with the rudder of their tail feathers.

Magnificent Andean condor

From above

The birds are endangered. Local people kill them with poison (or by leaving so much meat that they gorge themselves and cannot fly), afraid they will eat their sheep and llamas. But they are scavengers without claws (they have chicken feet), only eating live animals when they are newborn and the placental scent fools the birds that the animal is dead.

Juveniles are brown

Adults have a wingspan of 3.5 metres

Tourists coming to photograph the birds here are helping spur their recovery – there are now an estimated 100 condors in the Colca Valley.

Soaring through the sky

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