Condors crossing Colca Canyon, Peru

| June 26, 2009

Laura Smith travelled with Cox & Kings to Colca Canyon in southern Peru with a group of travel writers.

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Goosebumps prickle beneath my skin and I shiver as though the sun has gone in and the temperature dropped by ten degrees. But the sun still shines fiercely, causing me to squint through my sunglasses as I peer into the vast canyon. The sudden appearance of the mighty condor, gliding along the cliff edge, hovering on invisible thermals, elicits an involuntary gasp from the small crowd that has gathered at Condor Cross.

The giant bird swoops silently in and out of view as it navigates the craggy cliff face searching for breakfast. The Andean Condor is a scavenger, preferring to muscle in on another animal’s kill than to do the hard work itself, and can travel up to 100 miles each day in its search for food.

It’s relatively quiet at the cross this morning and we see just three birds: our main performer now pacing the stage at the canyon edge and two others circling over the mountains behind us. Yesterday’s group saw 14 but nature remains unpredictable and we’re delighted with our lot. Our guide Angelica assures us that even on the rare occasion that a visit isn’t consummated with a condor sighting, Condor Cross is an unmissable excursion for those staying around Colca Canyon.

This viewing point marks one of the highest points of Peru’s great canyon which, twice as deep as its better-known Arizonan counterpart, is enormously under-publicised. It is a most spectacular spot – our group has spread out on a small patch of flat terrain that seems to balance precariously between the surrounding monoliths. The slight over-jut of the platform allows direct views right down into the pit of the gorge.

The terracotta reds and browns of the rock contrast against the unblemished blue sky and the dirty white of the low-hanging clouds, which drape themselves lazily over the mountain tops. It’s early April but some of the higher peaks still have a sprinkling of snow. Despite the small crowd of tourists that is beginning to cluster at the viewing point, the canyon inspires an eerie silence. The spirituality of the Incas was governed by nature: it was to mountains, volcanoes and rivers, rather than Gods, that they dedicated their lives and actions. Standing here, I can understand why. Heaven feels closer than it does in the removed cathedrals of Lima and Cuzco and Nature feels particularly ‘present’, as though she is watching over us from the mountain tops, and looming up from the depths of the canyon.

We’re spending three nights at Las Casitas del Colca, the latest offering from the luxurious Orient-Express hotel group. The property’s twenty individual casitas are scattered around a generous patch of rural valley in one of the shallower parts of the canyon, an exhilarating ninety-minute drive from Condor Cross around mountain bends.

The villas are Thare the epitome of luxury, yet manage to avoid incongruity amongst their rural surroundings. Built from traditional stone and thatch, the modest-looking casitas look as though they’ve adorned this pastoral scene for years. Llamas graze lazily on the lawns and butterflies dance uncertainly above them. Nothing looks new or out of place. The property’s interiors are subtle and muted, but conceal state of the art facilities and touches of luxury. The traditional woven bedspreads, for example, are pure vicuña wool; each one worth a staggering US$1,000. The original Laja stone tiles cover a powerful underfloor heating system, and knitted hot water bottle covers are thoughtfully tucked beneath the pristine white cotton sheets. Each casita has indoor & outdoor showers and an oversized bathtub sunk into the floor of the glass extension to the bathroom, designed to allow guests to stargaze while they soak.

Every detail, both material and conceptual, has been meticulously designed and executed. As you dine in the main lodge in the evening, a member of staff will surreptitiously slip into your room, light the log fire and fill your hot-water-bottle-cum-cuddly-toy-sheep so that both room and bed are warmed through for your arrival. The candle arbre will be lit, and some organic chocolates left on your pillow. If you like, they will even run your bath for you, and make sure it’s hot, bubbly and ready to sink into on your return from a strenuous hike in the canyon or mountain bike ride through the local villages.

As we say goodbye to our Condors and set off on the winding journey back to Casitas del Colca, we make plans for the afternoon. Lunch out on the terrace, bottle feeding the baby llamas (the latest batch are just 20 days old and incredibly cute) and a hike up to the local village of Chivay perhaps before Pisco sours and a gourmet supper in the lodge. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Cox & Kings offer a number of tours to Peru.


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