Sunday, October 26, 2008

Camelids, Cairns & Condors

From Cusco we travelled south to Arequipa. We barely saw Arequipa though, because we immediately caught a tour bus to the Colca Canyon.

We passed quite a few herds of wild vicuñas along the way. Vicuñas are camelids, like alpacas and llamas, but they aren't domesticated like their cousins. They are kept in preserves, and then occasionally rounded up and sheared. Their fur is very fine and makes excellent clothing, but they only produce about one pound per year. This makes vicuna wool clothing incredibly expensive. We never saw any, but we're told shirts can cost up to $2000 each. Wikipedia says a coat of vicuna wool can cost $20,000.

Just before entering the Colca Valley we traveled over a pass at 14,700' above sea level. That's higher than all but thirteen peaks in the US, and those thirteen are all in Alaska. At the pass there are two outhouses, circular huts with a hole in the middle of the floor. Our guide encouraged us to us them as it might be "the highest piss you'll ever take." If you disqualify airplanes it very well might be.

It's a tradition to put up stone cairns for good luck. There were quite a few there before, but now that there's a road and many tour groups stopping there the pass is carpeted in them. All the loose rocks in the area have been turned into cairns.



We were in the Colca Valle to see the Andean condors that nest in Colca Canyon. Condors are very large carrion birds, like a vulture with a ten foot wingspan. They depart their cliffside nests early in the morning and ride thermals all day. They're talented gliders, so they almost never flap their wings.

The birds were apparently oblivious to the crowds of spectators. They blithely flew back and forth within twenty or thirty yards of us, searching for thermals and preparing for the day's "hunt."


On the way to the condor overlook that morning we went through the "tunnel of dust." They had carved a long tunnel through a toe of the mountain, perhaps half a mile long. But unlike tunnels in the US it had no overhead lights, no ventilation, and no pavement. It was just a dirt road through the mountain. There were dozens of tour buses going through the tunnel to get to the condor overlook, each of which kicked up dust into the still air in the tunnel. By the time we got there it looked like an explosion in a bakery. Thick white dust limited visibility to ten feet or so. We slowed to a walking pace, so It wasn't particularly dangerous. But it was one of the many moments that highlights how differently things are done in Peru.


More condors & fuzzy camelids here.

No comments: