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Peru Diaries, Part III

Another report from the field from the Autonomous Source Latin American correspondent. Unfortunately, there's nothing exciting in this latest dispatch. Just a bird-watching report...

My Titicaca dreams crashed courtesy of striking fishermen that blocked the road to the lake and the border of Boliva. Instead, I made a beeline back to the Cusco airport and grabbed the next flight out to Arequipa, a colonial town in southern Peru. Arequipa lies in a valley below two snow-capped peaks, one of which is an active volcano. I was met at the airport by 6,000 taxi drivers and I haggled with one of them to take me to the Colca Canyon, a five hour drive up and over the Peruvian altiplano. The Colca Canyon is considered to be the world's deepest at 3 to 4 kilometers in depth, although some contend a neighboring canyon is even deeper. The drive took us along a dirt road that leads past ghost towns, once filled with miners, and up to 5,600 meters, where we were greeted by a blizzard. From snow-capped peaks we plunged more than two kilometers straight down into the green valleys below. My cab driver and I stayed in a humble hotel, where the toilets explode in the middle of the night and send water crashing down the hallways and into the lobby.

The purpose of the trip was to get a glimpse of the rare Andean Condor, the world's largest bird of flight. The day before I arrived only three condors had been seen, because of pounding rain and sleet that locomotived down the valley. The Andean Condor has a wingspan that stretches out to over more than 3 meters and at 12 kilograms is the heaviest bird that can fly. The problem is that it is so heavy it's a bit of a struggle to take to the air and so it nests in the cliff walls of the canyon, where it can step out the front door and ride the thermals rising from the canyon floor. I woke up at 3 a.m. in order to head out to the vantage point to see the birds. Condors are a relatively lazy bird, waiting for the sun to heat the earth before they get out of bed, but given the rain I was told it was best to get there early. The drive along the canyon is spectacular, with dozens of little pueblitos getting ready for Holy Week, stringing flowers around the church, polishing altars, sweeping the streets, while the ladies of the village cooks empanadas, humita and bread, sending the scent of cinnamon, chile and toffee wafting through the canyon. At the vantage point you sit on a ledge, whip out the binoculars and stare all the way down into the endless abyss for the condors.

At 7 a.m. the first condor, a male, launched himself into the void. The wings stretched out forever and he only flapped once as he moved up in circles and away from the rapids in the river bottom. I'm told the boss condor always goes out first the check the thermals. Apparently this day he didn't like them because he disappeared back into his nest for a late kipper. At 8.30 the canyon exploded (well relatively speaking) as three condors took flight at the same time, spiraling up and then disappearing down into the valley. The mature male is the most impressive bird. It's mostly black with white across the tops of the winges and a big black head and a white fluffly ring around the neck, as if someone slapped a sugar-glazed Dunkin' Doughnut on its head. At about 9 a.m. two younger birds, one male and one female, buzzed my head and being slightly curious perched on a rock 20 meters down from me. It was a wonderous moment, that wasn't even ruined by the German lady that had just about climbed onto my back for a better view. Then, with one flap of the wings the two condors dropped into the canyon and took off in search of rotting food. That day I saw 10 condors, out of a population of 40 or so.

Interesting condor facts:

  • They mate for life.
  • They can fly at altitudes of 6,000 meters.
  • They nest once every two years.
  • They can live up to 50 years of age.
  • They can't take off if they eat too much. A bit like me at Ashton's.

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