Arequipa and the Colca Canyon: Of warm weather, llamas and condors

I was starting to get impatient. Where are they? We’ve been waiting here for at least half an hour, squinting from the sun and keeping our eyes peeled to the steep slopes of the canyon covered in the morning haze. Our guide said they appear every morning because the conditions are perfect at this time of the year. But I was starting to doubt it.

Then out of nowhere he appeared – a large, majestic condor, gliding through the air with his black and white wings spread out wide. Everyone around us let out an “Ah!” and started pointing even though our guide said to keep quiet so as to not spook the condors.

A condor gliding out of the canyon using naturally-forming warm air currents

Slowly, more condors appeared, gliding very close to the slopes of the canyon and disappearing somewhere below the cliffs where we could not see. They were still fairly far away, but I was happy we finally spotted them. There were probably a couple of hundred people crowding the two viewing platforms at the Condor Cross, gripping their cameras, peering with impatient eyes into the depths of the deepest canyon in the world.

The Colca Canyon in the morning haze
It’s cool but very sunny!
It’s hard to capture just how deep the canyon is from our vantage point

But soon enough the crowd start to thin out as tourists piled back into their vans. Rami and I were also ready to go, but our guide ushered us back to the viewing platforms, saying it was too early. I put my camera away and was just approaching the railing to admire the view of the canyon one last time when a lady standing at the railing smiled at me and waved me to come closer.

“There are so many of them!” she whispered as she nodded towards the slopes. All of a sudden, a few condors shot up into the air almost right above our heads. Then more and more of them appeared, circling around and gliding back and forth right in front of us. They were huge! Now that I could see them much closer, I could appreciate just how big these birds are. Later we learned from our guide that their wing span can be as long as five meters! It was all worth the wait.

These gigantic birds were so close to us, flying right above our heads!

But how did we get here?

After getting a nasty food poisoning on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, we managed to take a bus and cross overland into Peru. The city of Arequipa was our first stop in Peru and we welcomed the warmer weather and lower altitude! For our entire stay in Arequipa, we still had to take antibiotics to battle our food poisoning, and unfortunately the pills made us quite nauseous. We lived off of instant soup packets and chips for that week, but we managed to enjoy Arequipa and take a trip to the Colca Canyon.

A cathedral at the main square in Arequipa
The main square in Arequipa, filled with people and pigeons
The first hostel we stayed at in Arequipa had a balcony with a great view of these colonial towers

On the way to the Colca Canyon, we had many opportunities to take pictures with llamas and alpacas. They are so funny-looking up-close!

A llama chilling out with its friends
I loved that the llamas and alpacas had ribbons in their ears. This is probably to differentiate them from llamas that belong to someone else, but I thought the ribbons were such a cute accessory!
An alpaca, whose wool is actually warmer than wool from a llama. Hence all of the sweaters, hats, gloves and socks that we saw being sold in Bolivia and Peru are made from alpaca wool
Look how many of them there are here! And they didn’t run away from us
We just had to take a selfie with this gal
Even though these guys are domesticated, I was still cautious of getting too close

Our tour to the Colca Canyon was actually quite pleasant. The company used large Mercedes vans that stopped on the side of the road every now and then to show us some wildlife.

Our van was quite comfy!
We spotted a small herd of vicuñas during our drive
…and lots of llamas and alpacas

Although we were there to see the condors, a very touristy thing to do was to take pictures with other wild birds. I’m not exactly sure what kind of bird this was, but it was fun to take pictures with it nevertheless!

Rami being a pro at handling this bird
A balancing act
Ok, my turn!
The bird goes on the head…
…it’s really heavy and I’m afraid its claw is going to end up in my eye…
…Then Rami gives me the best advice of all – jump a little! So I did and this is what happened

But back to Arequipa. It’s remarkable how different Peru was from Bolivia. All of a sudden, we noticed a Starbucks and a McDonald’s, which were nonexistent in the Bolivian cities that we visited. Arequipa also had a couple of shopping malls, home to familiar stores like H&M and fast food restaurants like Dunkin Donuts. We even saw a few Scotiabank branches around the city!

McD’s. A sign of internationalization.
Perhaps I thought a Starbucks in South America would have a different look and feel on the inside, but it was exactly the same as in Canada. Only a few items on the menu were different
The first of many Scotiabanks that we saw in Peru. Sadly, Scotiabank charged a much higher fee for withdrawing cash at its ATMs than other banks, so we didn’t use it.

And so it appeared that Peru was much more developed than Bolivia, and clearly more economically open to international food chains and stores. Another stark contrast between the two countries was the people and to some extent the language. Unlike Bolivia, where 80% of the population is indigenous, we struggled to recognize indigenous people in Arequipa. As well, we felt pretty confident with our Spanish after three weeks of classes in Bolivia, even though we knew that Bolivians speak very clearly and tend to annunciate words when they speak. But when we arrived in Peru, we instantly realized that Peruvians have some sort of a different accent when they speak Spanish. We found it a bit challenging to understand them and to be understood by the locals.

Admiring the view of the Colca Canyon

Although we loved our time in Bolivia, it was a breath of fresh air to arrive in Peru and to start discovering a new culture and new places, like the Colca Canyon with its magnificent condors and friendly llamas.