XXXV. – Canon de Colca – __ July –
[Chivay, Yanque, Cabanaconde, Cruz de Condor]
In Yanque we wander in to visit a fellow who makes prints and has a shop on the Plaza de Armas. He gives us directions toward some ruins across the river, so we go have a look. Crossing the river quickly puts us into farm country.
We walk awhile looking for the ruins, but I don’t want to leave the car too far behind, with so much stuff in it. Or perhaps I feel lazy. This is an extraordinarily tranquil place. Pastoral. We walk back down to the dirt road and sit on a low rock wall while people bring animals to forage in the fields.
For Ragna, there’s another dimension. Memory. Walking with cows in the morning as a young girl in the countryside east of Reykjavik, near Selfoss.
After giving money [and some food] to the boy we’d photographed, she seems to think her generosity needs an explanation, and describes her own feelings as a country child when passing folks from Reykjavik would pay her some attention.
When we pause in Yanque to snag a gaseosa, I spot a pair of women in local garb walking away from us during a street that’s been blocked off for pedestrian access. Quickly trying a parallel street and gauging when to cross back to the street they’re on, I encounter them at an intersection and ask to photograph them. I shoot a series that Ragna later uses for a series of drawings, Las Chisposas. Her drawings beat my photos all hollow.
We drive out to Cabanaconde, in no hurry, stopping when the spirit moves us, sometimes to shoot a farm scene or landscape, sometimes just to stand on a bluff staring down at the vast, pastoral scene below us. Like some intricate painting from another century, with green fields and occasional trees, cows and sheep lazily grazing here and there (with a few burros and horses among them), here a llama and there a little girl with her dog, sitting on the ground, a shepherdess.
In Cabanaconde, we find the Kuntur Wasi Hotel: a pleasant room with a bit of a view, an extraordinarily affable hotel manager, good food, and a location convenient to the Plaza de Armas.
It’s also convenient to the animal jail, which is just across the lane. If your burro or mule gets loose and wreaks havoc in someone else’s field, it gets incarcerated here, and you must bail it out and presumably compensate someone for damage. It does not appear that the animals, who get fed there and don’t have to work, are unhappy about being in jail. At breakfast we can watch local men waiting for the place to open or knocking on the gate to retrieve their animals. The men are not happy about it.
Animals are a major part of life in Canon de Colca, as in most of rural Perú. Cars are expensive and somewhat limited in where they can go. Horse and mules are the major means of transportation locally. Burros are everywhere, carrying everything. People plow with animals. Kids or adults spend whole days sitting out watching the sheep or the cows, and the roads are full of people walking their animals to or from where they graze.
This is true throughout rural Peru. Here in Cabanaconde, there’s a stark contrast with the huge tour-busses and fancy minivans in which the many tourists come and go.
Late in the afternoon we drive back out of town the way we drove in, up to Cruz de Condor, having read or heard that late afternoon is a good time to see the condors. We see none, and a minivan driver whose passengers are out walking around in search of condors, tells us that morning is really the best time.
The next morning we set out to see the condors. The nearly-full moon is falling. At breakfast we chat with the hotel manager, Carlos, who speaks good English and has ambitions commensurate with his charm and incredible diligence. He speaks proudly of possibilities of doing similar work in Bali or Quebec. He’s obviously essential here: he works all hours, doing a variety of tasks, often when the place is full to capacity and staff is limited.
The drive back to Cruz de Condor is only fifteen minutes or so, the farms and cliffs pretty in the early-morning sun. If we didn’t know Cruz de Condor, having passed it on the way in and again when I took a drive the previous evening in late afternoon, we’d recognize it by the crowd of what seems like thousands of people, but must be only hundreds, with tour buses and minivans filling the parking lot and lining the road nearby.
But there are condors to see, playing on the wind drafts from the deep canyon below.
They are just playing. Ignoring their rapt fans, although in a fanciful mood one could suppose they sense our fascination with them, and play to it. They zoom in unexpectedly from all directions, above and below us and at eye level. My head swivels and my eyes look in all directions almost simultaneously, to spot an incoming condor as quickly as possible to train the camera on it.
Watching them play absorbs me.
The other tourists are mostly a blur, but I’m struck by one fellow, possibly Japanese, sitting motionless in the best seat in the house, not jumping about shooting worthless photographs, just listening to something on his headphones and watching the birds. He is not I. Shooting, and buzzing around finding the best vantage point and angle, seem to be too much of how I see things. A bad but deeply-ingrained habit, I think. (Late the next day, when I see him with a video camera on a tripod shooting people in the Plaza de Armas, I realize he must have had the same camera on the tripod at Cruz de Condor.)
Approaching Cruz de Condor, we’re shocked to see quite so many buses, minivans, and cars. There must be hundreds of people massed on the hillsides like cactuses, with binoculars and cameras and warm clothes. Where have they all come from?
We stop at the first spot where a bunch of minivans and buses have parked, and join the crowd. A condor is perched below us, and others periodically fly past, mostly coasting on the updrafts. Later we move to another site, a concrete viewing pavilion with a semi-circular rock wall.
Watching the condors is indeed fascinating. They glide by, sometimes quite close to the human viewers, as if showing off or enjoying the way we envy them their grace or the fun they’re having. I was fascinated. I swiveled my eyes like an old-time pilot, trying to catch the first hint of motion in any direction, so as to photograph the condor approaching and passing.
But there isn’t much else to say about it. It’s a dramatically scenic spot, which adds to the magical nature of the condors’ show. Yet despite the beauty of it, for me there have been far more unforgettable moments in Peru, ranging from awesome scenery through dramatic roads to simple encounters with farm folk and mountain-dwellers in remote spots. (Too, there is a difference between sharing an experience with hundreds of fellow foreigners from all nations and having it alone.)
We drive back into Cabanaconde more slowly, enjoying the scenery and then the town. Once we reach the narrow dirt street toward the Plaza, our way is blocked, first by a group of burros, then by sheep led by a boy with a horse, then by pedestrians conversing in the middle of an intersection, as if cars were unexpected. The boy with the horse and sheep waves at us, then, once we back up to watch him, proudly mounts his horse. Refreshingly, he hadn’t sought a propina but just wanted to show off or had noticed on past occasions that foreign visitors enjoyed the sight of a boy on a horse with a bunch of sheep.
After a bit of lunch at the hotel, there’s still plenty of day. We spend the first part of it driving out of Cabanaconde in the other direction, toward _____. It’s not quite clear to me why they have such a good road going there, since after ____ the road just dips back down to the main paved road, and anyone going anywhere but ______ would seem likely to go that way. But it climbs higher into the hills, with little population and good views.
Returning to town, we take a left and find a road that seems to head down into the canyon itself. I’ve no idea where it goes, but the end of the road has to be beautiful or dramatic. Either it descends to the canyon floor, or it ends at the top of some cliff looking down into the canyon.
It’s a difficult road. Ragna’s nervous, and constantly warning me to slow down. I keep thinking the road is going to end, but it doesn’t. As we follow it further and further, on sharp switchbacks through farms then through unoccupied rough countryside, I begin to worry about driving so far that I’ll have to negotiate the climb back to Cabanaconde in darkness. For more than an hour, perhaps close to two, we follow the road, which is not a road you can drive fast on. Eventually we meet a couple of young back-packers, our first human contacts on this road, and they confirm that it does go down to the bottom, to some small town. Much as I’d love to continue, I know better. We head back, arriving at just about sunset.
We stay at the Kuntur Wasi. Good place. Good meals. Good pisco sours.
We eat at the Kuntur Wasi
There ain’t no shortage of condor in the morning at Cruz de Condor – nor of people photographing them, either. For an hour or two in the morning they play about on the drafts, sometimes zooming quite close to their watching fans. Judging from our trip out there the previous evening, they’re not so much in evidence then. As is often the case, a bit of a walk will get you suddenly isolated from the bulk of the folks from the tour buses. However, even at the main viewing spots, since you’re shooting something out in front of you and somewhat above you, the excessive number of your fellow human beings don’t always spoil your photographic fun; and I occasionally turn around and shoot them shooting condors (or whatever) anyway. If you wanted to be more contemplative, watching the condors and just admiring them and meditating on nature, walk some – and/or bring headphones with Gregorian Chants or Peruvian flute music on ‘em.
You do need to be there in the morning, but not necessarily real early. We weren’t out there at the crack of dawn, so I can’t tell you whether or not the condors were.