An Andean Condor swoops over the trail, Colca Canyon, Peru. (Sarah Karnasiewicz )
Reporting from Arequipa, Peru — Some people head to Peru to climb Incan ruins; some go to sip pisco sours. Me, I went for the birds. The very big birds.
Peru contains a staggering 10% of the world's avian population, and the Colca Valley — a stunning slice of earth notched into the southern highlands of the country — is ground zero for two of the most jaw-dropping: the Andean condor, otherwise known as the world's largest flying bird, and the giant hummingbird, whose name speaks for itself.
The region also happens to be home to Colca Canyon, an Edenic gorge containing small villages and acres of pre-Incan terraces, which — at a depth that reaches 10,725 feet (more than twice that of the Grand Canyon) — is one of the most dramatic places on the planet.
I cannot claim to be a die-hard birder or an expert trekker, but I am a sucker for superlatives. And so, in hopes of wandering a bit off the Gringo Trail — and to catch a glimpse of Peruvian countryside unspoiled by commerce or crowds — this spring my husband and I found ourselves disembarking at Rodríguez Ballón International Airport in Arequipa, sturdy shoes laced on our feet and binoculars stowed in our bags.
The city of Arequipa is Peru's second largest and one of its most culturally rich, with a lively culinary scene and an impeccably preserved colonial plaza sculpted out of shimmering white sillar, all nestled dramatically in the shadow of a 11,000-foot volcano called El Misti.
Arequipa has plenty to recommend it, but the majority of visitors (us included) approach it primarily as a provisioning point and gateway to Colca Canyon. As such, the city is chockablock with tour outfitters, hawking such outings as a leisurely bus trip along the canyon rim, or an intense seven-day expedition deep into the crevices of the gorge, and all are priced accordingly. Couple that abundance with the fact that most hotels are eager to link you to whatever group with which they ally (or in some grim cases, a "friend" who knows the canyon) — and it can be dizzying for an independent traveler to locate quality services.
We knew what we wanted, though, if not where to get it. But happily, after a few hours of frantic Googling — and thanks to the wonder that is virtual word of mouth — we found our guy. Arturo Carlos Muñoa Guillen, known by all as "Carlitos," was smiling and exceedingly warm, and — at 5 feet 2 inches and 130 pounds of muscle — just about as compact as his name was not.
Over cortados, an espresso and milk drink, at a nearby cafe, we settled on an itinerary stretching over three days and two nights, with lodging for one evening in the home of locals in the canyon and the other, at a rustic but restful compound of pools and cabins called the Sangalle Oasis. The final day we'd embark before dawn for the arduous climb back up the canyon, and then a short hike into the village of Cabanaconde, where we'd be rewarded with a colossal breakfast. Although most trekkers elect to head back to Arequipa the same night, we decided to reward our exertions (and celebrate our recent marriage) with a night at Las Casitas Del Colca, a posh Orient-Express property that recently opened five miles from Chivay, the largest village on the rim, and Carlitos was happy to shuffle his routine to suit us. In the end, his price — $100 a person, with all meals and transportation included — was a bit higher than some of the other options we'd researched. But it also came with a major advantage: The trek would be private — three days, just the three of us.
Jazzed and jittery with anticipation, we could barely sleep that night — although, that proved not to be much of a problem, as Carlitos had instructed us to be ready at 3:30 the following morning. (The journey from Arequipa to Colca Canyon requires an average of four hours, so avoiding hiking in the heat of day demands an early start.)
Our ride began peacefully, humming along under the incandescent haze of the slumbering city. Then the buildings petered out, along with the streetlamps. The van climbed toward the Andes, its windows frosted and headlights flashing around switchbacks. As the first streaks of sun crested the horizon, we approached the summit known as Patapampa Pass and pulled over to allow our driver to rest and refuel with a cup of coca tea. Perched dizzily at a staggering 16,000 feet, amid thousands of apachetas (the small stone cairns built as offerings to the goddess Pachamama), and staring out of the silvery altiplano, I realized the scene gave new meaning to the adjective "breathless."
From there, it was all down, down, down.