Hello from Mars! I can't quite describe what's out my window as I'm sitting in a packed bus hurtling down a dirt road at a good 10 mph.
I'm headed to the backcountry of Peru, in the South. I want to see the Colca canyon, the second deepest canyon in the world, and home to the biggest (flying) birds in the world, the Andean Condors.
We're driving through the mountains outside of Arequipa. I'm not sure exactly where we are because I can see about 20 feet out my window. A dense, white fog is surrounding us, pouring down the mountainsides and filling the valleys. At times, we pass through gaps in the fog and I can see maybe 50 feet, see a thick green meadow punctuated by pools of water all linked together by thin blue lines. Herds of vicunas, small llamalets, are standing in the meadows, drinking and grazing. At the passing of our bus, some of them startle and break into a clumsy gallop.
I take all this in in two seconds, before we pass on and the view is obscured again by fog. Other times I get a glimpse of incredible mountains stabbing out of the ground, carved with fins where water has run for millions of years. Terraces line the base of them, slicing them up into useable bits--like pepperoni!
We're moving higher up into the mountains now. Rain starts to spatter the bus. My window fogs and I have to wipe it with my hand every minute or so to see anything at all. Wind is blowing, hard, as the side of our bus. Every now and then it sweeps the fog aside, revealing tortured limestone landscapes loomuing out of the fog like geological ghosts. Huge boulders pepper the ground, rain-carved lines swirl, collect, and split in the rock. Thousands of travelers have piled small caerns on top of every single boulder as far as the eye can see. This looks for all the world like an alien planet.
And our bus moves on. Inside, there's a TV screen above my head playing "50 first dates" in Spanish. I translate it mentally, even get some of the jokes. The soundtrack is english, though, and I hear familiar snippets of hte Beach boys, and for 10 seconds, a clip of te best song the Flaming Lips ever made. It's comforting to hear something so familiar, because I feel completely out of place here. Not just on the bus, even though I'm the only gringo on board, but _out_here_. A part of me is anxious to get off the bus and start walking, looking around, exploring, but another part of me screams "You Fool! You can't just get out and blithely stare at the mountains, take a few pictures, and scurry back. Don't you understand? This is something bigger than you. You don't belong here! You realize you're going to be here 24 hours before you catch the next bus out? You can't even begin to understand this, you haven't even Been Here until you become a part of these mountains. You have to live here as permanently as they do before you can begin to appreciate what you're seeing!"
That second part of me says a lot of things. Regardless, when the bus got to Chivay, at the mouth of the canyone, I immediately hopped out, slung my pack over my shoulder, and started walking.
There's actually not that mucht to see in Chivay. The Rio Colca is at he base of the city, carving a 2 or 3 hundred foot canyon (the deepest part, farther down, is over a kilometer). I hied down the the river, looked around, and then climbed a nearby mountain which had pre-inca towers and domes on top. At this point, a freezing rain, thunder, and 30 mph wind kicked up, so I scrammed down and (after some adventures with an internet cafe (a) sharing a single dialup line between 10 computers, and (b) not bothering to install an earth ground in the entire building, so that when I plugged my camera into the USB port, I got a 220V shock through my camera case) [If you read the entire parenthetical sentence above, the last word before it started was 'and.' Just maintaining continuity :)] climbed into bed at the hospedaje I had rented. Exhausted by the all-night busride to Arequipa the night before, and planning to get up at first light to get a bus further down the canyone, I promptly fell asleep. It was 6:30.
I awoke the next day to someone rapping at my door, speaking in spanish. I wasn't at all alert, but I was able to have a conversation with this guy (I read somewhere that when your brain is stressed, traumatize, intoxicated, or otherwise offline, you may lose your primary language skills, but you'll tend to hang on to any secondary languaged. Score 1 for Science!) Anyway, the guy was the owner of my hostel and he was waking me up (it was 5 AM) so that I could catch a bus to Mirador del Condor, a spot a good 20 miles along the canyon where you can see condors in the morning. I had set my alarm for 5:15, since my guidebook said buses would come between 5 and 6, but it was wrong. As it turned out, it was wrong about a lot of things. I hurriedly dressed, packed, and walked out with the owner, who walked me to the bus stop. It was still dark outside, but the snow-capped peak of Hualcahualca (honest!) was just visible in the distance. It was perfectly clear, in contract to the previous afternoon. Up on the mountain outside of town, I could see the headlights of the bus making its way down.
I was waiting with a good 30 or 40 people at the bus terminal, which was actually a parking lot. Everyone was patient and subdued, sitting silently wth their bags, but when the bus pulled up, there was a frenzied rush to the door. Seeing how I was in Peru, I did as the Peruanos did, and bit and scratched(figuratively, dad) until I had a place in line.
I ended up sitting in the back, and a guy who I had pegged for an American tourist (I play 'guess the gringo' in crowds. In Southern Peru, it's like Find Waldo, but in Cusco, it's like playing (Find Waldo)! Sorry, geek joke) Anyway, this guy sat down next to me with his plastic poncho, sunglasses, video camera, normal camera, wallet hanging around his neck, binoculars, backpack and fanny pack, but after talking to him (in spanish) I found out he was a high school english teacher from Lima. I was relieved to find that there are dorks in Peru, too.
Anyway, after an hour bus ride that would bounce me several feet off my seat every couple minutes, I got to the Mirador.
For a while, I just stared dumbly. We were the first people there, the sun had just come up, and I was confronted by these incredible mountains dropping down, down, down to a point 3000 feet below where the little Rio Colca was happily burbling along. I wanted to walk down and ask it "you did all this?"
I walked to an overlook and stared for about 20 minutes, taking pictures and just drinking it in. Suddenly, I noticed some movement off in the distance. It looked like the shadow of an airplane moving along the ground. Suddenly I realized it was a condor.
Condors, for the record, are huge. They're essentially vultures, soaring around, looking for rotting meat. Somehow, this doesn't make them any less magestic. They have a 12 to 14 foot wingspan, and weigh as much as 4 newborn babies--newborn babies looking to feast on carrion, that is. Adult Andean condors have this huge white stripe across the backs of their wings. All in all, very cool birds.
I pointed the condor out to Mr. Dork, who had stuck next to me, and then I perched myself on a big rock on the edge of the cliff for a while and just watched the canyon.
Soon, more condors started appearing, soaring in 3s and 4s beneath me. I took pictures until carpal tunnel syndrome set in from clicking the shutter, and then just enjoyed the view.
I don't think the pictures to it justice. The canyon is really an incredibly, strikingly vast void, with a gorgeous backdrop. It's the void itself, however, that's incredible. It's just not a place you can imagine being, not a place people are meant to go. It's just place, but more real than the sky somehow, because of its borders. You know it's something that's _there_, someplace you're forbidden to go. The best you can do is sit on its edge. And then there's the condors. They 're somehow there, in the void. They spend their lives in a place out of our reach, somewhere incomprehensible. You watch then circling beneath you, flapping their gigantic wings (just once is enough). Every now and then one catches a thermal and comes soaring up, banking past you close enough that you can see its Eye watching you(wishing you were more dead). It's incredible.
After the sun started to warm everything up, the condors disappeared. I started watching the other birds. I recently purchased the classic "Aves de los Andes del Peru - Los 115 especies mas commun." It's a step above a paint-by-numbers book, but at least it has pictures and names. Beneath me, Andean Knots swooped past, green-throated cordillera hummingbirds fought for territory on a Yucca stalk. American sparrows whistles from cactus stalks, and Fammy Hummingbirds flew by checking out red cactus flowers along the rim.
After watching the birds for hours, I wanted to see more of the canyon, so I thought I'd walk the last 15 km to Cabanaconde, the last easily accessible city, and then catch the bus back from there.
As it turned out, those were some of the best 15 kilometers I ever walked. Along dusty dirt road, the sun beating down, in the middle of rural farmland without electricity or running water, in the most beautiful mountains in the world. I don't know how to describe it-it was like a dream where you're constantly amazed by everything you see.
Finally, I got to Cabanaconde, a little town on the edge of the canyone, full of farmers, shephers, and tour guides. I found a bus waiting at the plaza, bought a ticked, and then found a restaurant I could convince to make me food sin carne. Then I caught my bus, and thus endeth my Colca adventure.
p.s. Sorry about waxing verbose. If you'd been staring at condors, you would be wordy, too. Hopefully by the next time I write something, I'll be back to my usual terse self.
p.p.s Arequipa pictures are here. Canyon pictures are here