The main reason people flock to Arequipa in Peru is to visit Colca Canyon in the hope of spotting Andean condors – the largest birds in the western hemisphere.
I’m the daughter of an avid bird watcher and, other than requests for updates on where I am and whether I’m safe, the most common question my dad has asked me all trip is ‘Have you seen a condor yet?’
Having returned from two nights in the town of Cabanaconde, I can now say that the answer to that question is a resounding ‘Yes!’. In fact, I saw 10, and they were swooping so close overhead, we could hear the whistle of the wind as it passed over their wings.
The viewing point for the condors is known as Condor Cross. It’s just off the main road that links Cabanaconde with the town of Chivay (about 2.5 hours away) and eventually Arequipa (6 hours by public bus). From Cabanaconde, it only takes 20 minutes to drive to the look out point, but, at the time of writing, the buses left at the crazy hour of 6 am.
We were incredibly lucky because we’d met a couple of English guys the night before in our hostel, Pachamama, who offered to give us a lift (they actually live 2 minutes away from me in London)! They’d rented a 4×4, which we referred to lovingly as ‘The Beast’ owing to its reinforced cage and multiple sirens, flashing lights and tools.
The best time to see the condors is around 9 in the morning, although there are frequent sightings around 2 in the afternoon as well.
We met the boys at 7 am and made our way to the look-out point – picking up a couple of workers with spades on the way. Nick, our driver, actually forgot they were there. After speeding round a few corners, we looked back to see the two guys lying flat out in the truck, clinging on for their lives! Oops!
The first to arrive at Condor Cross each morning are the local women in traditional dress, who sell various locally produced items. My friend Christina and I did a deal on two alpaca wool hats for S.16. That’s about £2 each – an even greater bargain considering they’re reversible, so I can choose between Inca patterns or llamas!
We were among the first tourists to arrive and we settled ourselves on a stone wall. Only moments later, two condors appeared on the horizon and headed straight for us, swooping low and circling overhead. It was almost as if they were showing off for our photos, although it was still difficult to zoom in and get them in the frame of the shot as they sped by.
As tourists piled in by the bus load, more condors appeared. At one time, there were 7 in the sky together…
Another perched itself on the cliff just below the biggest crowds…
And these two nearly collided!
Once we’d worn out our arms from holding our cameras steady, and our necks from craning backwards as the birds passed by, we took the path further along the canyon. Nick had been to the canyon a few times and told us that, usually, there’s a greater chance of seeing condors if you walk for 20 minutes or so away from the main viewing point.
There are also some stunning views of the canyon, framed by cacti…
We wandered back to ‘the Beast’, editing our photos as we went. I must have deleted about 20 just of the clear blue sky, and 30 more of partial birds just disappearing out of shot.
As luck would have it, Nick and his cousin Paris were heading back to Arequipa that day too, so we eagerly agreed to their offer of another lift. We dropped 2 other tourists, 6 local women and all their merchandise off in Cabanaconde, and we shamelessly asked for photos with the women.
On the long drive back to Arequipa, we played car games, stopping along the way to take pictures of wild llamas.
Be warned that this road is bumpy! If you suffer from travel sickness, take something for it. Even in the reinforced Beast, I bashed my head against the ceiling, almost smashing my sunglasses in the process, as we went over a particularly big bump!