“We probably will not see condors today,” our guide announced as we pulled up at the Mirador de los Volcanes. “In December and January they migrate to the coast of Peru to feed on dead sea lions.” The tour bus erupted with complaints. “Why weren’t we told this when we booked the tour? Seeing the condor was the only reason I made this trip!” one woman spit out. I wriggled and stretched, working out the kinks from my three-hour nap in the hard plastic seat, and climbed down from the van. Jagged black rocks littered the monotone landscape that spread before me, some piled in cairns like ebony fingers pointing to the gray horizon. As if on cue, the sun peeped over the horizon, painting streaks of blue and gold on the sky. I rotated 360°, astonished to see jutting volcanoes in every direction.
Sunrise at the Mirador de los Volcanes, gateway to Colca Canyon, illuminates ring of volcanoes
“What’s all the fuss about anyway?” I wondered. “Condors are just ugly vultures with dull black feathers and naked heads.” The cold finally drove me back to the tour bus, grateful that we would soon be descending from the head-throbbing 15,800-foot high altitude into Colca Canyon, located about 96 miles from Arequipa. A series of switchbacks led us past Chivay and on to the tiny village of Maca, where verdant canyon walls provided a perfect backdrop for the twin towers of a whitewashed adobe church. For the next few hours, we alternated between picturesque villages and unfenced overlooks on the edge of one of the world’s deepest gorges. I peered into one abyss after another, at one point eavesdropping as a tour guide pointed out the spot across the canon where a lone backpacker had recently been discovered dead after becoming disoriented and losing his way. It was not hard to imagine in this desolate countryside. Late in the afternoon we pulled into the final overlook, Cruz of the Condor (Condor Cross), where I stood near the edge amidst a hushed crowd, scouring the uninhabitable, snaggle-toothed cliffs for Andean Condors.
Andean Condors nest on the high cliffs of Colca Canyon, where they take off with the assistance of thermal updrafts
Despite my earlier antipathy, condor fever infected me when I heard rumors that a pair had been spotted earlier in the day and I started making quiet inquiries. Andean condors have the largest wingspan of any bird, in some cases stretching to 10.5 feet. They flap their wings to rise from the ground but once airborne rely on thermals to stay aloft. Colca Canyon is a perfect environment for these giant birds, as it provides high crags from which the condor can launch, especially in the morning when the rising sun heats the air, creating powerful updrafts along canyon walls. Even its naked head has a purpose. The Andean Condor is a scavenger, feeding on the carcasses of dead animals and the absence of plumage allows them to more easily poke their heads into the animal carcass without becoming soiled.
As I digested this information a murmur raced through the crowd. Far below, someone had spotted two birds spiraling upward toward the canyon rim. I shouldered my way to the edge and gasped when the first one emerged from the depths. An adult female glided regally past, red eyes searching for carrion into which she could sink her deadly hooked beak. With lustrous black wingtips curved upward at the tips to take full advantage of the thermals she circled back, proudly displaying her white neck ruff and the brilliant white feathers on her back. The spectators grew quiet, as if paying homage to this eternally silent predator that has no voice box.
Magnificent female condor soars over Colca Canyon at Cruz del Condor lookout
The Andean Condor has not always elicited such reverence. Farmers have killed them to prevent alleged attacks on livestock and villagers have hunted condors in the belief that their bones and organs have medicinal powers and are effective as an aphrodisiac. Continue reading