Tourists and Condors Keep a Safe Distance

Big Birds and a Big Gorge
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Arequipa, Peru
I'm not an ornithologist. I even have trouble spelling the word. But the prospect of bird-watching became much more appealing when the subject was condors, the bird with the world's largest wingspan, and the place was a gorge in southern Peru said to be twice as deep as the Grand Canyon.

And if I had any doubt that I should go hunting for condors, any of the 9 billion tour operators in the mountain town of Arequipa was willing to remind me how wonderful the hunt would be. For $19, I was loaded onto a bus called the Turismo Expresso with 27 other tourists, not a bird-watcher among us.

I didn't really mind that our guide, Raul, described each point of interest in Spanish and then translated his speech into English well after we'd passed each site. Or that his translations frequently came out as less-than-helpful comments like, "Those stones on the left side of the way divides the places."

The tour bus, piloted by a 70-year-old man named Lucio, hopped along a dirt road for several hours, stopping only once to let one of the Peruvians get off due to altitude sickness as we neared the pass at 14,000 feet. Once over the pass, it was a different story. Raul stopped the bus several times and ordered us to get out and take pictures of llamas. Or alpacas or vicu-as, which, to the untrained eye, look exactly like llamas.

After several hours of llama, alpaca, and vicu-a stops, we pulled into a truck stop for lunch. Here we had the choice of corn on the cob with a slice of cheese or a cheese sandwich; by the time it was my turn to order, they'd run out of both.

Finally, the bus dropped us off at our no-star hotel in the town of Chivay to check in before rolling to our next stop, the nearby hot springs. There, standing in our swimsuits, we found three thermal pools—all of them drained for cleaning.

We were promised an authentic Peruvian folk music festival after dinner. This consisted of the only three Peruvians not good enough to play on street corners in major American cities. The real standout was the drummer, a 13-year-old girl who managed to get maybe four beats in sync. The effect was outstanding, though. We laughed ourselves silly for the better part of the show.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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