How has the undeniably ugly bird without song managed to capture the interest of the world? The infamous Andean condor has partially earned its mythical status due to its longevity; the largest raptor in the world has been known to live up to 70 years. Furthermore, for the romantics among us, they are monogamous and pair for life. They are the ultimate predator of the skies and hold particular significance in Peruvian culture as they symbolize strength and freedom.
It is, therefore, no wonder that swarms of tourists strap on their hiking boots every day in search of these wonders of nature. However, our tour to Chonta sets us apart from the masses and offers the chance to witness the condor in its natural habitat while nestled among the craggy ledges of one of the deepest canyons in the Americas.
The journey out of Cusco down into the Limatambo Valley had been impressive to say the least, and the car leaned with ease into each curve in the road. However, as we left the comfort of the main road and took a sharp left turn, the signpost ahead of us depicted an unnerving line which mimicked the scribble of a child. This ‘line’ was to be our route to the village of Chonta where we would begin our hike. It was, therefore, an anti-climax when our Land Cruiser, once again, seamlessly took on each brutal bend. The 17km span of road was astonishing, with each corner providing a view more spectacular than the last- the snowy peak of Mount Salkantay on one side gave way to the rocky expanse of the Apurimac Canyon which lay ahead.
A Black-chested Buzzard Eagle hovered above us and guided us along the final stretch to Chonta. The small village, with its iron-red bricks and busy streets filled with cattle and horse-drivers, lit up the gray rocks of the Canyon behind it. At the end of the village lay a picture-perfect football pitch whose flat and verdant field opposed the sharp cliffs which lay as far as the eye could see beyond the furthest goal.
The first views into the undulating canyon fed our keenness to get going on our quest to spot the condor. We pulled up to a neat building, which was another investment by the local municipality to encourage visitors to behold the beauty of the area, and as we were the first to arrive at the trail, we swiftly set off on our hike. It started with steady dips and rises as we kept to the rocky path tucked along the edge of the cliff while the echoes of tumbling stones were a sobering reminder not to be too eagerly distracted by the surreal scenery unfolding before our eyes. Peak after peak appeared from behind the clouds and even with the haze forming in the crater of the canyon, it was easy to follow the path of the crystal water of the Apurimac River as it cruised its course towards the Amazon Rainforest.
After a steady hour of walking, we reached our lunch point and the place where we hoped to catch a glimpse of the elusive bird. We tucked into our specially made box lunch certainly changing my childhood impression of a packed lunch. The delicious pasta salad was soon polished off as we settled on a narrow bar which extended slightly into the canyon adding to our chances of spotting the beasts. Having demolished the entire snack box, we were down to our final biscuit yet there was still no sight of a condor. Not that it had been a dull lunch; we had been graced with a visit from a mountain Caracara as well as another Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle. These beautiful creatures only fed our desire to see the reigning predator of the skies and, just like all good bird enthusiasts, we were not giving in.
We continued to bask in the heat of the sun when our guide suddenly jumped up. Sure enough, there was our first condor. The bird was perched on a high rock behind us and as soon as he- identified by our guide as male due to his size and the bright white collar of feathers around his neck- had clocked our attention he decided to give us a show. The magnificent creature surveyed surroundings and then with a graceful dive he plunged into the canyon and gave us a remarkable display as he circled the peaks without a beat of his wings. Once he had fully satisfied the wide-eyed onlookers, he took once again to his concealed resting place. And we were more than satisfied. We had seen our first condor.
But his appearance seemed to awaken the valley, and two young juveniles ducked from their nests deep down in the canyon. They took to their preferred runway as they stuck close to the Apurimac River in the bottom of the gorge; a safe place for any pilot who has not quite earned their wings. Although the juveniles were still relatively small, a fully grown adult can grow to a height of 1.2m when standing with a wingspan of 3.3m, making it the largest bird in the Americas and the true predator of the skies. However, the Condor also strikes fear into land-dwelling creatures. They are known to toy with large prey such a cattle and horses by hovering directly above their heads. The panicked victims are herded towards the edge of the canyon until they lose their footing and tumble down to their imminent death. The cunning Condor switches to part two of its menacing plan as it pecks the fleshy eyes and leaves the tough skins of the corpse to be picked at by land scavengers such as foxes. The condor will then return the following day to find its meal ready to be pulled apart with ease.
The bird’s intelligence is part of the reason for its ‘near threatened status,' as they are subject to hunting and poisoning by its only predator- mankind. Although the Peruvian government has enacted a law which declares the condor’s protection as national interest, its numbers are yet to recover. Therefore tours such as ours, carried out by extremely knowledgeable guides, are important because educating locals and foreigners alike is fundamental to the survival of the species.
We marveled at the juveniles practicing their swoops and turns while considering the trials they had already overcome in their short lives when a dark shadow suddenly blocked our vision. One final giant had appeared overhead, giving us the perfect opportunity to applaud his magnificent size before he trailed off into the clouds. Our small tour of four headed back along the path towards Chonta with the soaring spectacle playing over in our minds. It was the perfect finish to a marvelous encounter with the creature which dominates the skies.