The Condor

Storefront - Cosñirhua, Peru

From Lamas I took a short flight to the coast and Peru’s capital of Lima. After the perfect climate of Lamas, I was taken aback in Lima by the noise, rapid pace, chill-damp air and the ever-present cocktail of ocean fog and smog that perpetually obscures the sun. At the airport I met my good friend Charlie McGrail who I had lived with for three years while at the University of Vermont. Charlie and I share similar perspectives and interests, and never having traveled with a companion I was eager to experience the journey with a friend. Charlie had never been to South America before and I was excited to observe his impressions of a continent that had so profoundly shaped my curiosity and views. We hastily organized our hiking gear, planned the first leg of our travels and bought bus tickets to the city of Arequipa.

I awoke at dawn and stared out the window of the night bus at a Martian landscape. Jagged barren mountains of dirt and rock rose in the distance above gently sculpted hills of sand. We sped along the narrow two-lane Pan-American Highway dividing the parched plain to our left from the grey Pacific Ocean that fell several hundred feet below to our right. Small worn shacks and the tiny silhouettes of fishermen paddling boats into the surf lent perspective to the enormous scale of the arid landscape. Drowsy from the half sleep that marks the surreal experience of a night spent careening down twisting roads past countless forgotten villages and nameless peaks, I pondered my surroundings in a sort of trance that made my dreams feel less fanciful than my wakefulness. With the simple mind of the early hours of the day I thought about the bounty of a fertile ocean that provides the only means of survival for people scraping by on this endless and otherwise lifeless sandy shore.                           

We abruptly pulled away from the ocean and a town sprang up among the nothingness. The more extravagant one-story dwellings touted collections of shriveled shrubs out front. While the meager leaves of the withered ornamental bushes and small trees had an almost grey hue, it appeared that yielding life in the scorched soil seemed to be status symbol of principal importance to the townspeople. The village gave way to the neat rows of government reforestation plots. Against all odds some of the trees seemed to be gaining a footholds in the waterless earth, but most of the saplings remained only as blackened, leafless stalks -- a sight that lent an even more melancholy tone to the morose landscape. As we climbed higher and away from the ocean, we crossed a wide, shallow stream that cut through the brown hills. All around the valley sprang plots of rice and corn, villages and bounty. The contrast between the fertility of the valley and its inhospitable surroundings showed with startling clarity the elemental importance of water.

After fifteen uninterrupted hours on the bus we pulled into Arequipa. Stepping off, we felt the effects of our high elevation and strength of the desert sun. As the second largest city in Peru, this was hardly a tranquil place, but still a welcome improvement over Lima. We found a hostel and climbed to the roof to take in our surroundings. Taxis rattled down the narrow street below us. The grand cathedrals and ornate plazas of the old colonial city gave way to poorer concrete neighborhoods that spread around the base of El Misti, the snowcapped volcano of more than 19,000 feet that looms above everything. 

After a few days acclimating to the altitude and shopping for food and supplies, we departed for Cabanaconde, a small town situated on the rim of the world’s second largest canyon. As our bus climbed away from Arequipa we took on more passengers until all seats were taken and those standing or sitting on the ground had completely crammed the narrow isle. Women of the Canyon dressed in traditional brightly colored garments and intricately embroidered hats chatted excitedly. Each cap was completely covered in multicolor stitches that revealed a unique collection of symbols: hummingbirds, trout, grapes, stars, leaves and numerous abstract shapes.   

Nearing a high pass of well over fifteen thousand feet, passengers began to pound on the door that separated the driver. The bus pulled off the road and a dozen commuters hastily descended to defecate, with an urgency that led them only a few feet from the road. In full view they squatted in front of the bus. Beyond this huddled group spread high gravel plain dotted by the peaks of numerous enormous snow-capped volcanoes. The group reboarded, and we descended down a switch-backed stretch of highway to the town of Chivay. The canyon began to steadily grow in size as the river cut its way down into the eroding valley. Then up again our bus climbed the steep road cut into the canyon wall.

We had traveled to the canyon with the intent of undertaking the grueling trek from Cabanaconde down into the riverbed and then up the far side of the Canyon over a fifteen thousand foot pass to the Valley of Volcanoes and the remote town of Andagua. When we discussed these plans with a local guide, we realized that our imaginations had failed to fully grasp the immensity of landscape and the difficulty of climbing from the base of the canyon to this high point. He informed us that we should consider hiring three mules instead of two, as pack animals can die of exhaustion during the trek. Hearing this, we decided to find an alternate route to explore the canyon.         

As we hiked up a to a lookout above the town, we passed ingeniously terraced plots and irrigation channels. At the edge of the fields we climbed up a steep slope covered in scrub and cactuses the size of trees. As we sat to rest on a massive boulder, the disappointment of abandoning our more ambitious plans gave way to wonder as I contemplated the enormity of the deep valley and snowcapped peaks and the ancient engineering that allowed crops to flourish in this steep barren land. Far below I could see a campesino tilling furrows into his chakra with a wooden plow dragged by a horse. The red and blue cloth of a woman dressed in a brightly embroidered dress, vest and hat contrasted with the soft greens of the field she weeded. The setting sun cast the long shadow of a scarecrow on a terrace of corn. I thought about how this amazing land, while transformed by humans, had in no way been degraded by their hands.

The following morning we began the hike to the canyon floor at seven in the morning along with three older Austrian tourists. We were eager to leave the guesthouse and start our walk. As we descended down the narrow trail, I reflected on how the tranquility of the night before had been broken by the shouts of one of the disgruntled Austrians. After experiencing an issue with the lock on his door, the older man had begun to berate the proprietor of the hostel. The owner, an experienced mountain guide, apologized but assured the man that the hostel was safe. The Austrian shouted back “You cannot tell me that it is safe here. Peru is not safe! This is a very dangerous place!” That night the man went on to patronize their guide who they had invited to dinner, and scold me over the manner in which I was eating my soup. The event left a sour taste in our mouths, but it also cast light upon the radically different expectations and impressions that travelers embody. I was glad to descend into the serenity of the canyon.

We followed Wilson, the local guide we had hired, as Andean folk music poured from the battery-powered radio hanging around his neck. We had met Wilson the day before when our paths had crossed on a dusty road that cut through the terraces of Cabanaconde, and, seated on his horse, he had radiated the cool dignity of a caballero as he stopped to say hello. Now the heat intensified as we descended lower, and as we walked, Wilson began to reveal the great legacy of the infrastructure of the Inca. He explained that the Inca had constructed the path we were walking upon, as well as the extensive network of trails that made the farthest reaches of the canyon accessible. Building such paths was no small feat as they are cut in many places into the vertical faces of cliffs. Wilson’s chakra, or farm plot, was constructed by the Inca, and the soil his corn is planted in has been farmed continuously for thousands of years. The irrigation canals that make it possible to cultivate the dry land were channeled by the Inca from the headwaters of mountain streams thousands of feet above the fields. Thus, just as the forces of geology have dramatically shaped the land, it also has been shaped by the labor of humans who brought fertility to this harsh environment.

As we peered over the edge of the trail down to the Colca River, Wilson remarked that a tourist had died just the day before after tumbling several hundred feet down a steep slope. A handful of other visitors have succumbed to similar fates within the last few years, including one man who fell off a mule while climbing up the gorge, and another who died of a heart attack while attempting to hike the more than two thousand vertical feet that separate the canyon floor from the rim.         

From the riverbed we made our way up a gorge that runs perpendicular to Colca Canyon. The trail to the tiny village of Llatica climbed past a steeply terraced polyculture field before running alongside an irrigation canal cut into the slope. Isolated by the gorge and situated next to a beautiful bend in the tumbling river, the pueblo possessed an enchanting, timeless atmosphere. After a short rest in the courtyard of an old church positioned above the river, we crossed a suspension bridge and climbed under the blistering afternoon sun high up the opposite wall of the valley until we reached the even more remote community of Fure.

Exhausted after ascending more than three thousand vertical feet, we paused and marveled at the narrow ribbon above us of the Fure waterfall. The last rays of sun illuminated it, as it fell a thousand feet over bedrock and then passed in a torrent by the margins of the village. Here twenty families had carved homes into the canyon wall at a dramatic point where the valley turns in a great arc ninety degrees to the west. Fure has only had electricity for two years, and before a road was constructed all goods had to be carried by mule from Cabanaconde, a day distant. Even today a two-hour walk on a three-foot wide path is all that connects the village to “civilization”. For myself, traveling to such isolated enclaves in South America has been a revelation of an entirely new definition of community and a ruggedness of life that is nearly incomprehensible in the United States.

The next morning we awoke at 5:30 and hiked for an hour to the waterfall that gives birth to the valley. The water fell through a narrow channel in an enormous rock face before tumbling in a luminous cascade of mist to the valley floor, where it was pulverized into a rising cloud. From this mesmerizing start the river recollected into a pool that reflected the sky before cutting its way three thousand feet down to the Colca River. In stark contrast to the arid surroundings, moss and lichen, nurtured by the perpetual cloud of mist, coated the margins of the falls. To see the Huaruro Falls was a profound experience, a great testament to the force of water. We sat in awe of the immensity and power of the cataract, in wonder of its mysterious source hidden from site above the rim of the falls.

Then it was time to move again.  As we made our way past families with teams of loaded mules, Charlie, Wilson and I climbed out of the side canyon to the town of Cosñirhua, located above the Colca River, and began to feel the toll of two days of hiking at high altitude under the desert sun. As we cooked quinoa over our camp stove, we chatted with Wilson about his life and the Canyon. Wilson inquired what we paid for our various pieces of hiking gear – boots, stove and backpack. I guiltily revealed their values, aware of how meager his commission as a guide (which greatly exceeds the typical Peruvian wage) appeared in relation to cost of the gear. The hiking shoes I thought had been so necessary felt extravagant in comparison to Wilson’s simple sandals constructed from tire rubber. I was ashamed of the affluence that the expensive belongings I carried on my back embodied. My belongings represented a stark contrast to the rugged lives and modest material possessions of the locals in these remote reaches of the Andes.

Over the last few days we began to become aware of Wilson’s quiet energy. A kindly, humorous, youthful man, he seemed to possess a deep well of wisdom. He walked quickly but was prone to pausing on the trail to stare off across the canyon, down into the deep river bed or up to the high peaks. One of seven siblings, Wilson and his brother are the only ones who remain in Cabanaconde. When not serving as a guide, Wilson passes time constructing and embroidering hats and working his plot of land. We discussed the lives of two of his brothers in the United States and their perilous journey across the Mexican-U.S. boarder.

Unlike his siblings, Wilson is deeply rooted in this wild country. His pride in the Canyon was evident when he discussed his hereditary roots to the land, the maize of his chakra, the medicinal plants of the region, the regional distinctiveness of Inca customs, the traditional cabana dress, and the monolithic canyon. He revealed a wonderful child-like enthusiasm when he began to hunt for sticks in the shapes of animals along the riverbed.

We saw that again after dinner, when Charlie revealed a deck of cards and inquired whether Wilson wanted to see a magic trick. As Charlie flipped the card, a huge smile of the most genuine astonishment spread across Wilson’s face. As Charlie and I returned to our small room, we reflected upon the amazing sincerity, warmth and poise of this quiet man.

In the morning we rose at dawn and made our way higher to the Inca ruins of Tapay. Walking among the stone walls of the houses, we made our way through narrow streets now filled with cactus and boulders that had fallen from the high ridge and forced the Inca residents to abandon the village. Wilson handed me a fragment of pottery that he had found on the path, bright red designs still evident upon the surface. I placed it in my pocket, but as I walked the artifact seemed to grow heavier and uneasiness built in my stomach. Perhaps it was driven by superstition, but I felt guilty separating the ceramic remnant from the village where it was sculpted hundreds of years ago. As we rounded a bend in the trail I placed the piece of pottery on a rock that faced the deep canyon.

We descended to the bottom of the valley and passed the afternoon next to the river, watching a man fishing for trout with a net. That evening, as we sat eating freshly caught fish around a table illuminated by candlelight, another guide told us that we had been very lucky to see the Huaruro Waterfall. The warmth of the beautiful day and pleasure in our delicious meal gave way to a dull ache in my stomach as he revealed that the entire valley that we had hiked through the day before would be obliterated by a hydroelectric dam. In the next few years a Chinese company will erase the magnificent falls of Huaruro, the ancient terraces that line the canyon and the timeless villages of Fure and Llatica.

This knowledge profoundly shaped my view of Colca. As we climbed up the three thousand foot canyon wall, the first rays of sun touching the precipitous path, I felt deeply grateful to have visited the waterfall but also a great sadness that such a sacred, monumental place was so impermanent.

 To the east a bright ray of sun burned the bright dew that hung over the canyon, illuminating a narrow flank of the valley adjacent to the silhouetted folds of the opposite cliffs. A rush of air startled me, and I caught a glimpse of a hawk that passed feet from my head as it careened down the face of the cliff. Climbing over the rim of the canyon, I looked back upon the steep tracks cut by mules and wild animals in the rainy season. The shadows etched the dark pattern of the trails like loose cloth spread over the steep hills.

As we strolled into the town of Cabanaconde, I asked Wilson whether he knew of the hydroelectric project. He did, and said that very few locals support it. However, regional opposition appears to be of no importance to the government officials and Chinese planners who hope to harness the power of the river. As always when I learn of an unpublicized destructive development project in South America, I feel a responsibility to take action, and I wondered what I could do. Later, I searched the internet but found no mention of the proposed dam. It seems that aside from the locals, there is no awareness of this catastrophic project among environmental organizations or the activist community. With so many tourists flocking to the Canyon each year, one would imagine a powerful and well-connected opposition. But there seems to be none.

Later we sat in Hosedaje with Wilson waiting for the bus back to Arequipa. A locally made film about the highlights of the past year in Colca Canyon played in the background. A broad smile flashed across Wilson’s face as we watched footage of the village celebrating the New Year, a scene that faded to a close-up of a dripping spring.

We returned to Arequipa on a tourist bus that we had been led to believe was faster and more direct than the larger buses for locals. As we drove along the road that follows the rim of the canyon away from Cabanaconde, I caught a glimpse of a great black shape hovering in the sky. Scores of tourists flock to the concrete parking lot known as Cruz del Condor to view the majestic bird, the most notable tourist attraction in the area. In our last moment in this special landscape, I improbably caught a glimpse of a mighty condor, its wings spanning nine feet as it soared close to the edge of the canyon above a group of frantic tourists, who ran with cameras in hand to the viewing platform. I felt a blessing that somehow to glimpse this bird in this brief moment was a subtle nod from whatever great force embodies this divine temple of stone and water.

The tourist bus pulled off the road and unloaded. Our fellow passengers snapped pictures from a lookout lined with vendors hawking crafts. We took off again only to stop ten minutes later at an even larger crafts bazaar. I began to realize that this bus was hardly direct and probably catered to the expectations of a different kind of traveler than myself. Nonetheless, being led from the craft market, to a hot spring, then to a buffet, and lastly an alpaca farm allowed me to discover something about my own motives and expectations as a traveler.

I crave the freedom to discover for myself, to make mistakes, but more importantly to make my own decisions. And to be unintentionally trapped in this kind of tour allowed me to see how I consciously try to avoid this sort of pre-packaged experience. Waiting at one bus stop for our fellow passengers to finish eating, Charlie leaned over the seat in front of us and asked one of the guides on the bus whether he had heard about the proposed dam project. At first the young man looked disturbed as we explained what we had heard. Charlie stated that flooding the valley would be a sad thing.  But the young guide confided, “I don’t think it is so sad, the tourism is really poor. There are too many guide services, and many offer very bad service. There is so much competition that there is no money in the work anymore. The dam could bring money and jobs.” It seemed to us that he only saw the canyon as a source of revenue. For the guide, the canyon existed as a resource for tourism, and if tourism was now bad, the guide figured it could be exploited more effectively.  After this, I pondered whether anyone outside of northern environmentalists actually viewed nature as being inherently important. Is concern for the nature and wildness of places truly only a privilege of the wealthily– i.e., a pet cause reserved only for the affluent as some critics have contended?

The guide we were talking to quickly changed the subject, “You are American’s – Gringos”. We stared blankly. “Tiene mucha plata. You party tonight? Many parties, you marijuana smoke tonight!” His comments and my previous interactions with employees at “party hostals” reveal that they are used to catering to the desires of travelers who view a trip through Peru to be more of an extended spring break than a journey of discovery and self- exploration. As our fellow tourists piled back on the bus from the “all you can eat” buffet an English woman of about 30 remarked to her boyfriend “It is so nice here, the children are so simple. They play with rocks and balls not Playstations”. Her words reverberated as we made our way back to Arequipa. Her comment exemplified a way of idealizing Latin America that I am often guilty of. She alluded to the merit of a simpler, purer existence but failed to acknowledge that these children play in the street because their parents lack the resources that allow parents in the United States to provide their offspring with a structured, materialistic childhood. As we pulled into Arequipa my eye was caught by a sign hanging on one of the trees planted in the median of the four-lane highway. Soy vida que da vida (I am life that gives life).

Colca Canyon at Sunrise, Peru