The bus to Colca Canyon leaves at three AM. We stumble aboard in the dark; eyes bleary, stomachs empty. The bus trundles through the near-empty streets of Arequipa, passing only the occasional couple, toddling home, leaning against one another for support. We leave the city behind, speeding around mountain switchbacks and climbing to heights that leave us gasping in the thin air. We drive parallel to the canyon, along mountains laced with deep gashes. At 8:30 we are dumped at Cruz del Condor, joining dozens of other tourists, many weighted down with pricey cameras with telephoto lenses. Everyone presses against a rickety railing made from bound twigs, our only barrier from plunging headfirst into the canyon. The scene is chaos, but for good reason. Beyond the flimsy railing, on boulders merely a few dozen feet out of reach, sit the condors. Birds of prey, they can fly soundlessly, barely flapping their wings, soaring on currents of warm air. They can weigh up to 30 pounds and stand nearly 4 feet tall. They feast on the carcasses of dead animals or hunt for their prey.
From our vantage point we can see their wrinkled necks, their tiny lentil bean eyes, their sleek rows of feathers. They preen, and scan the ground below and every once in a while stretch out their wings just enough that the crowd can begin to process the enormity of their wingspan. They ignore the masses, oblivious to the click of cameras and the whirring of lenses and the collective intake of breath every time one of them even so much as adjusts their footing. Of course, we are all waiting for the big moment: flight. We’ve heard about their tremendous wingspan - more than 10 feet from tip to tip. And we’ve been up since before dawn just so that we could witness it for ourselves. A few condors circle in the distance, but this doesn’t satisfy. Twenty minutes or so passes. The crowd grows restless. Those toting cameras let their arms sag a bit. Others wander off to by little packets of Chips Ahoy or knitted socks from the local women who have spread their wares out on smooth rocks nearby. A black condor with white edged wings shakes out his feathers the way that a dog would shake off water after emerging from a swim. This elicits a gasp from the crowd. Cameras raise like rifles. The twig fence strains under the weight. But nothing more. The condor folds it’s wings back underneath itself and resumes with its disinterested preening.
I start to wonder if the condors are messing with us. Clearly they are aware of the presence of the crowd. Their animal instincts must sense our anticipation. As birds of prey, they seem to me innately diabolical and evil. Is it such a stretch to think that they might be withholding flight, waiting for the moment that we all turn our backs and head in the direction of the buses, and then choose that second to dive into the air? And just at that moment, just as I’m considering the vast network of conspiracy possibilities involving not only the condors, but perhaps the park operators as well, the giant black and white condor stretches out to his full 10 foot wingspan and alights from the boulder. He circles the canyon without flapping his wings even once, then flies over the crowd, perhaps contemplating our potential as breakfast, perhaps reveling in his sudden A-list status. The crowd is speechless with joy. The only sound in the canyon is that of cameras clicking away, documenting what will, back home, look like nothing more than a photo of a slightly out of focus, nondescript bird against a hazy grey-blue sky. The condor circles, passing the crowd again. This time he turns his head fully in our direction as he passes, like Superman flying by. The other condors are circling too, now, perhaps hoping for a little of the spotlight to shine on them. They make a few more passes, take some dips and turns, and then, satisfied that they’ve all sufficiently become the subject of dozens of gringo’s vacation photos, return to their boulder.
From the buses, the drivers are yelling “vamos, vamos!” Overhead, the clouds are beginning to break. It’s barely 9AM. We tumble onto our buses, where we’ll settle back into our seats, click through the photos we’ve just taken and be dissatisfied with most of them. We’ll drive deeper into the canyon and commence a long and sweaty stretch of hiking. The day has only begun.