The Condors of Colca Canyon

The 5am alarm clock this morning (Saturday August 23, 2015) has all been worth it today after our trip to the Colca Canyon to view the condors.

We are based in Chivay, a town in the Colca Valley of the Arequipa region of Peru. The town is 12,000 feet (3633m) above sea level, and has a population of 6540 Andean people. It is situated up stream from the Colca Canyon. Colca Valley itself is 110km long, with 16 villages including Chivay.  

We arrived here yesterday after a stunning drive through the national reserve of Salinas and Aguada Blanca valley. There was a lot of wildlife to look for including llamas, alpacas and vicuñas.  We also passed the highest point on my Dragoman trip, a place called Patipampa (4872m), with clear views of the surrounding volcanoes.

The drive into the Colca Canyon this morning was stunning, with a terraced landscape of which there are 16,000 hectares in the Colca Valley. 9000 of these terraces are used by the local Andean people to harvest beans, wheat, maize and quinoa.  

The name Colca refers to small granaries of mud and stone  that were built into the cliffs of the valley and the canyon to store food. The wind would blow into the caves where the granaries were built, keeping the food cool. 

The Colca Canyon itself is the second deepest canyon in the world, with the deepest canyon somewhere in China. Colca is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the United States, with the deepest part at 4160 metres (4km). It is located 100 miles (160km) northwest of my favourite Peruvian city to date, Arequipa.

 Colca Canyon itself is relatively new to tourism. Prior to 1979, there were no roads into the valley. In that same year, a group of Polish people came to the Colca Valley to raft the Colca River. It was during their rafting expedition they discovered the Colca Canyon. 

After one photo spot to view the terraced valley, we soon arrived at Cruz Del Condor  to view the condors soaring past the canyon walls. The Andean Condor (Vultur gryptus) is a member of the vulture family. It’s is the world’s largest flying bird, with an average wing span of 3 metres, 20 centimetres, and up to the largest at 4 metres 10cm. The average height of the condor from head to tail is 1 metre 20 centimetres.

Condors build their nests at 3800m high, with females building their nests near rocky cave like  structures.  Adults are black and white, with young condors dark brown in colour. 

On arrival at Cruz del Condor, they are several areas to view the birds. As we made our way down a walking trail, a condor suddenly swooped from below the canyon to fly up past us. I remember thinking just how big their wing span is! After taking a look at the valley below from, I climbed the stairs up to where most people were sitting. From here, there were 3 condors flying in the distance further up the canyon. 

You could sit on the edge of the rocky viewing area here, but with my fear of heights, I preferred to sit with at least one stone block in front of me. The drop wasn’t a sheer vertical one, there was a ledge, and you could see the  river below.  

I moved further along the viewing area to stand next to the roadside, and was rewarded when two condors performed an aerial show in front of me. They really are majestic and beautiful birds. 

   On our trip back to Chivay, the roof of Jana, our Dragoman truck, was open for us to sit on the roof top seats. I liked the aerial views of the Colca Canyon and valley from on top of the truck. We also made one last photo stop to view the terraces.  

The Colca Canyon is one of my favourite canyons to date, especially with the volcanoes in the distance, the snow on the mountain peaks and the terraces. 

Finally a few tips on responsible  tourism in this area; Don’t take photos of locals with birds on their arms. The birds have been caught illegally and the living conditions and health of the birds is unknown. And if you want to take a photo of the local Andean people in their native dress, a smile and a polite request is better than just snapping away. 


Necropolis Chauchilla – The Mummies of Nazca

 The Nazca civilisation existed in Peru, pre-Inca, 2000 years ago between 100BC to 800AD. They lived in the harsh desert environment of the Nazca valley, located near the south coast of Peru. Like the Egyptians, the Nazca people believed in an after life and mummification. 

On Wednesday August 19, 2015, I find myself touring the Chauchilla cemeteries with local guide and archaeologist Jansen on my Dragoland trip. I’ve always had a weird, morbid interest in the funeral rites and after life beliefs of ancient civilisations. And I find cemeteries fascinating. Today I was about to learn about the funeral rites of the Nazca.

The Chauchilla cemeteries were discovered in the 1920’s, containing burials 600 to 700 years old, of Nazca mummies preserved in excellent condition. There are three reasons why the Nazca mummies have been preserved so well; the dry desert climate, minerals in the desert soil to preserve organic matter, and the mummification process of the Nazca culture.

 Everyone was mummified in Nazca, all in the foetal position, and buried facing the East. The Nazca people believed the foetal position was important for the next life, and facing the direction of the sun rising represented a new day and a new life. 

Jansen took us on a tour of some of the burial sites at Chauchilla and explained the Nazca burial and mummification rites of the Nazca people. The first process was to cut the stomach, remove the intestines and all the internal organs. The body was then cleaned by oil and plant medicine, the stomach sewn together, and the body covered in cotton. Autopsies of many Nazca mummies have revealed many don’t have organs. And a study of their bones revealed calcium levels of 80%. This was due to a diet high in fish and seashells. 

To position the body in the foetal position, post rigor mortis, the Nazca people had to cut the tendons of the knees to position the body correctly, as seen in the image below. This woman was of importance as indicated by the necklace she was buried in. Potteries full of sea shells were also found buried with important people, and a seashell necklace also indicated a person of significance. All Nazca people had potteries full of food buried with them for the after-life. Maize and corn 2000 years old have been found at the burial sites at Chauchilla. 

 Like the Egyptians, the Nazca people removed the brain, but not from the nose like the Egyptians. Instead, the brain was removed by making a hole in the skull. 

Unlike the Egyptian mummies, the Nazca mummies were found with teeth in good condition, probably as a result of their diet. 

 The tomb in which they were buried was made of wood, and then covered with branches and sand. Tombs sometimes contained entire families, or were built for individuals only.  

 The cemetery visit  was definitely the most interesting of ancient  visits during my time here in Nazca. The ancient culture of the area is extensive and fascinating, with visits to the 2000 year old aqueducts that still work, the pyramids, of which 13 have been unearthed, only representing 1% of what still lays buried, and of course the Nazca lines.       It’s a real shame the continued costs needed to excavate the area fully can’t currently be met.