Peru’s Colca Canyon: Where Everything is BIG

The tall cliffs of Peru’s Colca Canyon are lined with brick like terraces that give the impression of a Lego-like landscape.  The irregularly shaped plots of farmland are thickly filled with wheat, corn, and quinoa.  These fields glow in a rich variety of colours that emphasis the otherwise unidentified contrast of green on green.  As visitors pass through the gorge that marks the entrance to the canyon they realize that they’ve come to something much more spectacular than they have imagined. 

In many ways this is a canyon on steroids.  Up until just recently, at more than three times the depth of the Grand Canyon, this was advertised as the world’s deepest canyon.  However, more recently visitors have flocked to this colossal gorge for another reason, to see if they can spot the world’s largest flying bird: the Andean Condor.

In the early morning tourists line up at a point in the Colca Canyon known as Condor Cross in anticipation of the flight of these giant floating taridacto-like creatures, and for good reason.  This spot in particular has one of the highest concentrations of condors in the entire world. 

National Geographic has even set up a research centre at the base of this bird highway.  Visitors to the Condor Cross will definitely not be disappointed by their experience.  On a bright morning as many as 15 or 20 of these flying beasts can show themselves, and many come within a few meters of the oooing and ahhhing onlookers.

Around mid-morning this bird, which can reach heights as tall as a meter and a half, dives from its cliff-side nesting site into the chasm.  Using the thermals up-winds created in the majestic canyon this member of the Vulture family effortlessly soars along the cliff sides searching for remains left behind from the kills of Pumas and Foxes.  Without luck, these birds of a wingspan of as big as three meters wide often make the journey over 100 kilometres to the Pacific coast of Peru to find prey in the form of Sea Lions and, perhaps, unattended eggs.

The Condors aren’t the only oversized flying creature that feeds from the walls of the Colca Canyon.  The Andean Giant Hummingbird is in many ways a contradictory giant to the Condor.  This hummingbird relentlessly and frantically flaps its way through the canyon dining on the flowers while vicariously hovering over the steep edges of the canyon.  Normally the size of fists, this version of the hummingbird has been found to be as tall as 20-25 centimetres in height.  These super-charged sweet-teeth are maybe even more impressive than the giant condors; and definitely more rare.

The Colca Canyon is a photographer’s dream locale, filled with oversized wildlife reminiscent of “The Princess Bride” and landscapes so big they hardly fit into the camera lens.  The scene each morning at the rim of the Colca Canyon has almost begun to turn into a sport of sorts.  People lean over the observation station walls hoping to get that perfect shot.  With each clear shot and missed take people cheer and curse as they check the back screens of their digital weapons.  The game soon becomes not whether one can get a clear shot, but who can get a shot of the largest variety of items in one image.  The most amateur of photographers is no longer pleased with a good shot, but is now looking for a shot with a Condor, a mountain, as well as the right angle and the right light.  And the truth is, most can achieve this with a little patience.

Tourist trap or not, this place is absolutely incredible.  Even without the presence of giant birds presenting themselves at close range, the sheer size and scope of this place can leave you nervous and impressed all at the same time.  As visitor sit in their vans or buses ready to make their escape, they sit there comparing their phenomenal shots.  But what they have taken with them, without realizing it, is an experience that has moved them.  They may not even look at the pictures that they have taken, but they will remember the excitement of taking them.  And they will definitely remember the experience of having the world’s largest flying bird soaring just meters over their head while standing on top of one of the world’s deepest canyons, and that is something that no one can ever take away from them.  Those are the moments for which we travel.