I feel like I’m walking on the moon. My head is spinning. I can barely catch my breath. Each step feels like I might float away. At 16,000ft, the road from Arequipa to Colca Canyon, across the Peruvian Andes, is higher than the summit of Mont Blanc. The air is thin, the landscape barren and unforgiving. I feel like I’m on the moon and I might as well be: adventure in the Andes is elevated to the extreme. But a lack of oxygen is a small price to pay for one of the rarest wildlife encounters in the world; and that’s why I’m here.
Andean condors are the largest flying bird on the planet. Their wingspan can reach an astonishing 10ft wide, the height of a full-size basketball net. But they’re heavy too, weighing up to 33lbs, so those giant wings need some help. Rather than take off from the ground, they prefer to glide, launching from rocky perches high on mountain crags. Which is where Colca Canyon comes in. At 14,000ft from the base to its highest point, this is the second deepest gorge in the world — almost twice the height of the Grand Canyon. It is the perfect place for a condor to fly and the best place to see them see them up close in the wild.
As we snake down from the high mountains, my breath returns and the canyon suddenly appears: a narrow 62-mile fissure, with dark jagged tops and lush green sides falling sharply to the valley floor. This area contains some of the best examples of pre-Inca terracing in the country, steps cut centuries ago into the mountain like living contour lines. We pass fields of llama and alpaca, ladies wrapped in rainbow shawls; I see traditional Andean villages like tinker towns thousands of feet below. Overhead, smoke billows from the Chachani volcano and somewhere, in the north, not far from where we are, is the Mismi peak, part of the Chila Mountains, where a thin trickle of crystal water falls down the rock face and turns, eventually, into the mighty Amazon River. Nearly 4,000 miles later it will discharge into the Atlantic at a rate of 28 billion gallons per minute, the largest river by volume in the world.
Then I see them. At a viewpoint, just past the village of Pinchollo, I find half a dozen condors soaring in the early-morning thermals: jet-black feathers, wings extended, nothing but 11,000ft of mountain air beneath them and the grace of their passage all around. The Incas believed them to be messengers of the gods and it’s easy to see why. Their flight is effortless — like watching the breeze come alive. They can reach more than 18,000ft, spiralling ever upwards as if pulled to the sun. But here they come close too, unafraid of human’s peering eyes. I climb to the edge of a rocky crag, the world tumbling vertiginously beneath me, and suddenly one appears, floating silently a few feet above, the king of the skies, a god indeed.
Afterwards, we drive a few miles down the road to another lookout above the canyon and eat a brunch picnic, pastries and pisco sours, the cool Andean breeze on my face. I feel like I might float away again, but no altitude sickness this time, just my mind soaring as high as a condor. Two wonders of the natural world and one moon landing — not bad for a day trip.