Majestic condors bring visitors to Colca Canyon in Peru

The Colca River starts high in the Andes Mountains of Peru and flows to the Pacific Ocean in stages, forming a scenic canyon deeper than the Grand Canyon.  Snow-melt from the 16,800-foot high volcano Mismi, which can be accessed from the valley, is a distant source of the mighty Amazon River. Overall, elevation in the canyon goes from a depth of less than 4,000 feet to more than 20,600 feet at the top of Ampato, an extinct volcano.
Parts of the canyon are habitable, although it’s not a hospitable environment.  Terraces built by Inca and pre-Inca cultures are still cultivated along the canyon walls, and the name Colca refers to small granaries built into the cliffs that were used as storage for potatoes, quinoa, and other crops grown on the terraces.

Colca Lodge on the river's banks provides fine respite for travelers.

Colca Lodge welcomes guests to the valley
We continue traveling through the Highlands, stopping near the primitive community of Yanque at Colca Lodge, an oasis in the middle of this heavily terraced farmland. The Lodge is located on the Colca River and features three natural hot springs. Bright orange stucco buildings, spa with stunning river views, restaurant serving fine cuisine based on local products, colorful flowers, and numerous paths to explore make this lodge a surprising treat and peaceful retreat.
Although not as heavily visited as other natural wonders in Peru, the Colca Valley offers stunning views of the Andean landscape, and it’s a welcome change in elevation from heights reaching 12,000 to 14,000 feet we traveled through on the way here. It’s a popular spot for hikers, backpackers, kayakers, and mountain bikers, but what brings most people to this region (tours are available from many local vendors) is the opportunity to see the powerful Andean condors.
Condor Cross attracts many visitors

Andean condors soar through Colca Canyon

We leave Colca Lodge one morning at 6:45 for an hour and a half drive on rugged dirt roads to Cruz del Condor or Condor Cross. This is a natural lookout spot on the edge of the canyon and an excellent place to view the condors soaring gracefully on rising thermals that form when warm currents rise from the canyon floor.  No one can predict exactly when or how many condors may perform their aerial show on any given day, but the largest crowds come to view the spectacle early in the morning when the majestic birds are hunting for food.
Our guide finds us excellent spots to sit, if a bit precarious–Larry’s feet dangle over the ledge, and I’m looking straight down into the canyon from my rocky perch. But we can see condors gliding through the pass from both sides of the canyon. The first condors appear about 15 minutes after our arrival, but we stay there for an hour, fascinated by the beautiful birds crossing in front of us again and again. It becomes easier to understand why condors–who have a wing span of more than 9 feet, can live 150 years, and eat only dead animals, scavenging wherever they can–are prominent in South American folklore.

Hiking along the canyon's edge

After the breathtaking show, we decide to trek along a trail on the canyon’s edge. The scenery is extraordinary: dark, ominous walls of the canyon contrast with sunshine glistening on brown and copper (greenish) spaces. Across the canyon (about a mile and a half away) we see a thin ribbon of trail that backpackers hike along the mountain’s face.
Back to Colca Lodge
Our ride back to Colca Lodge involves more bouncing and bobbing on bumpy dirt paths. Since the road leading into the Lodge is closed for repairs, we IMG_3925.2jpgwalk the last mile and a half down a dirt road (with local farmers and their animals) and then take a narrow trail down to the Lodge. A late lunch at the grill beside the hot springs consists of avocado and tomato salad, grilled alpaca, lamb, and beef, and potatoes and cob corn—simply delicious. After a short rest, we return to the hot springs for a soak in the soothing pool–a heavenly way to end our Colca Canyon adventure.
Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier