Travel

In Peru's Colca Valley, a birdwatcher's paradise

Some people head to Peru to climb Incan ruins; some go to sip pisco sours. Me, I went for the birds. The very big birds.

Peru contains a staggering 10% of the world's avian population, and the Colca Valley — a stunning slice of earth notched into the southern highlands of the country — is ground zero for two of the most jaw-dropping: the Andean condor, otherwise known as the world's largest flying bird, and the giant hummingbird, whose name speaks for itself.

The region also happens to be home to Colca Canyon, an Edenic gorge containing small villages and acres of pre-Incan terraces, which — at a depth that reaches 10,725 feet (more than twice that of the Grand Canyon) — is one of the most dramatic places on the planet.

I cannot claim to be a die-hard birder or an expert trekker, but I am a sucker for superlatives. And so, in hopes of wandering a bit off the Gringo Trail — and to catch a glimpse of Peruvian countryside unspoiled by commerce or crowds — this spring my husband and I found ourselves disembarking at Rodríguez Ballón International Airport in Arequipa, sturdy shoes laced on our feet and binoculars stowed in our bags.

The city of Arequipa is Peru's second largest and one of its most culturally rich, with a lively culinary scene and an impeccably preserved colonial plaza sculpted out of shimmering white sillar, all nestled dramatically in the shadow of a 11,000-foot volcano called El Misti.

Arequipa has plenty to recommend it, but the majority of visitors (us included) approach it primarily as a provisioning point and gateway to Colca Canyon. As such, the city is chockablock with tour outfitters, hawking such outings as a leisurely bus trip along the canyon rim, or an intense seven-day expedition deep into the crevices of the gorge, and all are priced accordingly. Couple that abundance with the fact that most hotels are eager to link you to whatever group with which they ally (or in some grim cases, a "friend" who knows the canyon) — and it can be dizzying for an independent traveler to locate quality services.

We knew what we wanted, though, if not where to get it. But happily, after a few hours of frantic Googling — and thanks to the wonder that is virtual word of mouth — we found our guy. Arturo Carlos Muñoa Guillen, known by all as "Carlitos," was smiling and exceedingly warm, and — at 5 feet 2 inches and 130 pounds of muscle — just about as compact as his name was not.

Over cortados, an espresso and milk drink, at a nearby cafe, we settled on an itinerary stretching over three days and two nights, with lodging for one evening in the home of locals in the canyon and the other, at a rustic but restful compound of pools and cabins called the Sangalle Oasis. The final day we'd embark before dawn for the arduous climb back up the canyon, and then a short hike into the village of Cabanaconde, where we'd be rewarded with a colossal breakfast. Although most trekkers elect to head back to Arequipa the same night, we decided to reward our exertions (and celebrate our recent marriage) with a night at Las Casitas Del Colca, a posh Orient-Express property that recently opened five miles from Chivay, the largest village on the rim, and Carlitos was happy to shuffle his routine to suit us. In the end, his price — $100 a person, with all meals and transportation included — was a bit higher than some of the other options we'd researched. But it also came with a major advantage: The trek would be private — three days, just the three of us.

Jazzed and jittery with anticipation, we could barely sleep that night — although, that proved not to be much of a problem, as Carlitos had instructed us to be ready at 3:30 the following morning. (The journey from Arequipa to Colca Canyon requires an average of four hours, so avoiding hiking in the heat of day demands an early start.)

Our ride began peacefully, humming along under the incandescent haze of the slumbering city. Then the buildings petered out, along with the streetlamps. The van climbed toward the Andes, its windows frosted and headlights flashing around switchbacks. As the first streaks of sun crested the horizon, we approached the summit known as Patapampa Pass and pulled over to allow our driver to rest and refuel with a cup of coca tea. Perched dizzily at a staggering 16,000 feet, amid thousands of apachetas (the small stone cairns built as offerings to the goddess Pachamama), and staring out of the silvery altiplano, I realized the scene gave new meaning to the adjective "breathless."

From there, it was all down, down, down.

Despite the research we'd done in advance, nothing I'd read prepared me for my first sight of the Colca Valley spread out in the spring light: the crooked tin roofs of the villages gleaming; the pebbled rim road embroidered with a riot of yellow wildflowers; the women with their kaleidoscopic skirts and the creased-face men in woolen caps; the green patchwork of Incan terraces and orchards; and the wide, cottony river of clouds that curled along the gorge, suspended at eye-level between terra firma and sky.

After a warming breakfast of eggs and tea in Chivay, we continued bouncing along the edge of the canyon to our first destination: the Cruz del Condor lookout, one of the most reliable spots in the region for viewing the massive Andean birds. After 45 minutes, we had glimpsed nary a tail feather, but ever easygoing, Carlitos quieted our fears and promised that the best sights in the canyon still awaited us.

He was absolutely right. Our descent began at an unmarked trail called the Pampas San Miguel. At first we edged along the steep gravel switchbacks, with a low fog hanging around us, obscuring the view on all sides. But within a half-hour, the chill had lifted and a jaw-dropping vista opened up: a sky as blue as a beach ball; steep green canyon walls, studded with spindly San Pedro cactuses (whose hallucinogenic properties have been used in rituals by Peruvians for thousands of years); outcroppings of amber rock face called peña, and below, the base and the creator of it all, the swelling Colca River.

Then a cloud slipped in front of the sun. A fast-moving shadow passed overhead. Except it wasn't a cloud. It was a condor! Circling and gliding, it swooped just yards from the trail, its massive wings (which can span up to 12 feet) dropping like a charcoal curtain in front of us. I stood there, so stunned and speechless that it did not occur to me to lift the camera around my neck. But luckily, I would get another chance — because for the next half-hour, we walked and watched as the magnificent birds looped and climbed, riding updrafts above our heads and along the steep canyon walls.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in a state of giddy satisfaction, grateful for the sun on our faces, the sturdiness of our legs and the wonder of encountering things striking and new — from tiny white insects whose brilliant blood is prized as a dye, to gardens of Day-Glo dahlias as big as dinner plates — at every pass. We encountered only one other hiker. Even lunch, in the canyon village of San Juan de Chuccho, turned out to be a first: stir-fried alpaca, over peppers and onions and one perfect scoop of rice. By early evening, when we reached the home of the Taco family — our stop for the night — the sun had begun slipping between the creases of the gorge, gilding the horizon with the most glorious sunset I had ever seen. Over a dinner of lucuma pancakes, oranges and avocados from the family's orchards, we gathered near the open kitchen fire, sipped tea and, in a halting mix of English, Spanish and Quechua, shared stories — and laughs — about our lives, our travels, and … American sitcoms. ("The Wonder Years" proved surprisingly popular.)

Stiff hamstrings aside, the next day proved equally enchanting. After all that balancing down steep, slippery gravel paths, we found the hike to the Sangalle Oasis mercifully horizontal, and once arriving there, we had no obligations save to rest up for the arduous ascent that awaited us — meaning: swim off some sweat and grime, lounge in rope hammocks, sip cold beers and savor the mangoes that Carlitos plucked from a nearby tree. We slept, and we slept hard.

And then — suddenly — it was time to go. Carlitos rapped at our cabin door at just past 4 a.m., and we began the walk, out and up almost 6,500 vertical feet in the inky dark, with just battery-powered headlamps to guide us. By the time we crested the canyon rim four hours later and began the last mile through fields and flowers to Cabanaconde, my heart was beating as fast as the wings of the hummingbirds that flitted blurrily by us. I will not lie: It was grueling. But it was also exhilarating — to challenge our strength, and to see such solitary wonders.

You might, in fact, call it superlative.

travel@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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