The road started heading up as soon as we got to the edge of Arequipa. Initially the scenery was uninspiring dusty scrub but this soon gave way to a high plateau covered in long flaxen coloured grass with magnificent volcano views in an azure sky. I still get ridiculously excited about seeing anything from the llama family. On the plateau there were herds of llamas and alpacas, their fluffy cousins that look like llamas in fat suits. An extra thrill was the sight of groups of wild vicuñas, think a very feminine llama with a long graceful neck and eyelashes that a drag queen would kill for. It was a stunning drive and we passed another record (for us) taking the truck over a 4900m pass to head down to Cañón del Colca. Mont Blanc is 4810m, so we are pretty impressed with what the truck can do.
Cañón del Colca is the world’s second deepest canyon, just slightly beaten by the Cotahausi nearby. It is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US, which we enjoyed so much 9 months ago. As we entered at its shallowest end we saw the ingenuity of the locals with miles and miles of highly terraced fields.
With a wingspan of over 3 metres the Andean Condor is an amazing sight as it rides the thermal currents within the canyon. We parked up for the night at a viewpoint overlooking a 1200m drop to the river. We had the place to ourselves as we took a walk along the edge. We got some good views of several condors as they glided past. The following morning, as the air slowly warmed we watched the condors slowly swooping past. Initially they were far below us near their cliff side nests, as the temperature slowly rose from nearly zero, their loops slowly gained altitude as the air heated up. For a wonderful 20 minutes or so they glided by at the same altitude where we were. Steve was in charge of the camera for a change, he got surprisingly snap happy for him and got some amazing shots. We counted about 8 condors with dark juveniles and adults with white feathers contrasting with their dark black almost finger like feathers at the end of their wings. It is a popular place and between 8 -10am the viewpoints were heaving with tourists, I’m not sure where they came from as we’d seen so few they day before. We were mesmerised though, so stayed till we were the only ones again.
It was also the last day of homeschooling for the girls before they have a break for the “summer” (of course it is winter here). So while we were waiting for the condors to be able to fly higher, Alisha did a maths and English test. Homeschooling hasn’t always been easy. Let’s just put it this way: as well as being very bright both girls can be rather headstrong. So we were all thrilled when she got excellent score for both and Lucy is doing very well too.
After parking up in the Plaza de Armas (Central Square) of Cabanaconde, we hiked out through terraced fields to a look-out over a deeper part of the canyon. Wandering back through the village a couple of groups of older ladies in traditional dress of long, layered skirts and intricately embroidered round hats and jackets smiled when they saw the girls. They beckoned them over to see the pink and yellow maize cobs being shucked and clucked to each other when they saw Lucy’s blonde hair peeping from below her sunhat. At times like this, I wish I was less “British” and shy about asking about taking photos of people. We then retraced our tracks back along the canyon side and over the pass.
We loved being back in the mountains with its rarified air, snowy peaks and impressive vistas. It does come with its drawbacks though, we are all lucky enough to suffer little with the altitude. Of course we are careful with the ascent, not climbing too high too fast. Since we left Arequipa we haven’t really dipped below 4000m for long. We do have to remind Lucy though that she can’t build forts under our duvet, as the lack of oxygen will result in a splitting headache. Both girls skip around merrily above 4500m, talking nonstop. The truck however is another matter, being a diesel engine it really doesn’t like altitude or cold weather. After a peaceful night tucked away in a gravel pit on the side of the road at 4280m, we awoke to minus 5 degrees. We were all snug and cosy inside but the poor old truck wouldn’t start once we were ready to go at 7am. Eventually at 7.30 in clouds of black diesel smoke it started, once the air temperature had risen a little. We stayed on the high pampa plateau for the whole 5 hour drive, the long blond grass plains contrasted beautifully with the deep blue sky. For once the road streamed ahead of us like a beautifully smooth tar ribbon, so Steve could enjoy the views as we passed the odd farmstead in the almost empty valleys.
Nothing divides the truck more along gender lines than the two words: “Dance Festival”. Steve’s heart sank as we turned into the supposedly peaceful and deserted Tinajani Canyon, to see hordes of minibuses heading in. The girls and I were very excited by this unexpected bonus. We’d expected to spend the afternoon hiking around and enjoying the fabulous looking red sandstone buttresses. Instead we found thousands of locals mixing with brightly dressed indigenous dancers spread out over the slopes of the natural amphitheatre in the centre of the canyon. Teenagers had climbed up the red sandstone principles to get a better view and everyone was out enjoying the sunny Sunday afternoon. A dirt square had been cut out of the golden grass for the dancers to perform, as a shallow stream meandered through the festival grounds. It was fascinating to wander round the market area and watch the dancers with no other tourists in sight.
Eventually we dragged ourselves away and ventured deeper into the canyon. We had hoped to park up somewhere in the quiet wilderness and enjoy the solitude but with the festival we thought it prudent to find company for the night. We came across a little restaurant/horse riding/museum building. Experiencing the busiest day of the whole year, they were delighted to have us park up for the night and proudly showed us around the one room museum. There is a hilarious website called “bad taxidermy” and boy could this museum be a contender! Keeping a straight face in deference to the owner’s obvious joy in his hobby, we made appreciative noises as he first showed us the misshapen stuffed endemic species. Some of whom may have been rescued from the vultures rather too late before finding themselves prepared for long term glory. He then moved onto more domestic species including one we didn’t recognise till we read the label, “perro” (dog). Once out of hearing, we giggled our way up the hill to explore old cave houses and temples scattered amongst the sandstone pinnacles. Families of day trippers from nearby towns, sweetly asked if they could get photos of blonde Lucy with them and their children. The girls happily posed all the way down the hillside. I should definitely get over my reticence to ask people for photos!
The shadows of the canyon walls came early and the temperature dropped. The owner predicted a minus 8 degree temperature that night. We were all happy, warm in the truck enjoying our first attempt at cooking lomo saltado, one of Peru’s national dishes. Braving the cold later, I had another attempt at taking star photos as the night sky was beautifully clear. I’ve been trying for weeks to get a decent shot but all I’ve ended up with is near frostbite. This time though, I was pretty happy with the results.
Another painful start for the truck early the next morning at minus 7 and 3900m but it didn’t let us down. Another stunning drive through the highlands took us to the famed Incan city of Cusco where we met my Mum. She is spending 2 weeks with us exploring the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca before we head into Bolivia with her for a few days. She is a great traveller and been to many places but this is her first time in South America. It was lovely to see her again, we last saw her in Belize where we spent 8 days together after she had done her own trip around Central America.