High flyers in the Andes

Garry Maddox watches condors hunt while touring Peru's Colca Canyon and the nearby city of Arequipa.

See that? Just there! Three Andean condors are sitting on a rock, fluttering and flapping in the early-morning chill. Around them, in the vast Colca Canyon in southern Peru, half a dozen more are gracefully riding the thermals as they hunt.

Your first thought on seeing their impressive size - they weigh up to 15 kilograms with a wingspan that can reach more than three metres - is "heaven help any small creatures living in the mountains". But the Vultur gryphus are actually scavengers that search for carcasses rather than killing their own prey.

When they take off, their soaring looks effortless. Charles Darwin noted that he once watched condors ride thermals for half an hour without even flapping their wings. The nests for these endangered birds are surrounded by high volcanoes in a canyon once considered the world's deepest - almost 3200-metres from the mountain tops to the valley floor, which makes it twice the depth of the Grand Canyon - until Colca was superseded by an even deeper Peruvian canyon.

This early condor show is watched by waves of tourists delivered by bus along a dusty road. People scramble for spots on lookouts, then shop for breakfast, scarves, beanies and handicrafts from brightly dressed local women who have a row of market stalls. It's a tough business; one tourist takes an orange and walks away before a shout draws him back to hand over a few coins.

Ideally, getting to Colca Canyon to see the condors involves an early start. Our small bus, cheerfully piloted by a driver in a Top Gun cap with Rock around the Clock as his ringtone, leaves Colca Lodge, an upmarket hotel with thermal pools and a spa, at 6.15am. Even at this hour there are colourfully costumed children performing a traditional "dance of love" for tourists as we pass the town square in the village of Yanque. Teenage girls jump and turn circles with boys dressed as girls, suggesting a certain subterfuge is required for teenage lovers in a country that remains staunchly Catholic.

On the way back, there's time to take in the spectacular river valley with its pre-Inca and Inca terraced farms, still being worked, and a stunning blue lake. Near a tunnel cut through a mountain - landslides from earthquakes kept closing the road - are 800-year-old tombs built high on the rock face.

For a country that seems to prize its rich pre-Incan and Incan history to the point where tour guides openly refer to the "Spanish invasion" in 1540, these tombs reflect the pre-Incan idea that the higher the burial site, the closer the dead are to the gods. Funerals on the mountainside must have been a giddy experience.

Our guide, Helmut, points out the types of hats worn by women as they work in the fields, ride donkeys or lead alpacas along roads. Two tribes, the Cabanas and the Collaguas, have either square or pointy hats, he says, that reflect the ancient practice of squeezing children's heads in frames so that they took the shape of their sacred mountains. The Spanish, who brought Christianity to Peru, outlawed the practice.

We stop in Chivay, the biggest town in the Colca Valley and overlooked by a cross mown into the mountainside, to visit the market and eat at a touristy restaurant serving a Western menu alongside local specialties such as ceviche, potato and banana dishes and guinea-pig stew.

For travellers wanting to see the condors, the usual route involves stopping in Arequipa, 150 kilometres away. Peru's second-largest and second-most industrial city, it has a population of nearly a million.

The drive to the famous Ciudad Blanca (White City) passes through dramatic, high desert landscapes overlooked by the snow-capped volcano El Misti and populated by herds of alpacas, llamas and their rarer, wilder relative, the vicuna. So prized are the once-endangered vicuna for their wool, Helmut says, that drivers who run one down, even accidentally, face prosecution.

At a roadside stop, two girls shepherding a herd of alpacas pose for photos in return for coins and, from one tourist, a bunch of bananas. At another, a male vicuna charges across the road to chase off a rival sizing up his female herd.

When we arrive in Arequipa, we quickly see why it's regarded as more than just a stopover on the way to other parts of the country and as a place to acclimatise to altitude (given the city's at a mid-range 2335 metres). A low-rise city of striking white and pearl-coloured volcanic stone, it has a vibrant contemporary culture and a rich history that reflects its indigenous and Spanish roots.

Many of the buildings - including the Basilica Cathedral, started just four years after the Spanish arrived - have required extensive rebuilding because of earthquake damage. But Arequipa remains significant enough to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000.

The popular view is that the White City got its nickname from its volcanic-stone buildings. Not so, says Helmut, who insists the term comes from the indigenous reaction to the paler European invaders. "The White City was the name given for the colour of the Spaniards," he says.

The cathedral, which needed rebuilding as recently as 2001, is worth a visit for its famous pulpit from Lyon, France, featuring a menacing statue of Lucifer with a snake's body. "The same year the pulpit was brought here, Peru started war with Chile, so people said it was bad luck," Helmut says.

But the most striking religious building in Arequipa is the Santa Catalina Monastery. A rambling walled community built in 1580 and expanded in the 17th century, it has vividly painted buildings in streets named after Spanish cities.

On a tour of the monastery, our guide Veronica says there were 250 Dominican nuns living here in the 18th century. Now there are about 25, aged from their 20s to more than 100, in a community famous for baking pastries, buns, cakes and biscuits. We wander through chapels, a museum, a shop, a lookout over the city, an outdoor laundry and gardens. But what gives the strongest sense of the nuns' humble lives is their former living quarters: small, bare cells. They lived simple, probably very cold lives here in silence. Painted prominently on an orange wall, as if they needed reminding, is "Silencio".

The nuns still wake at 4.30am and pray for hours a day, Veronica says, but they are more relaxed about the vow of silence since the monastery opened to tourists in 1970.

On the other side of the walls from the nuns are Arequipa's buzzing bars, shops and restaurants, where the word "Silencio" is far less relevant. Such restaurants as Zig Zag and Chicha, which bring fusion to traditional Peruvian food, are welcome sights after what Hollywood might call the One Day of the Condor. Fuelled by pisco sour and Peruvian beer, diners attack their plates like the Vultur gryphus over a carcass.

Garry Maddox travelled courtesy of LAN Airlines and Adventure World.


Getting there

LAN Airlines has a fare to Arequipa from Sydney for about $2306, low-season return, including tax. Fly to Santiago (about 16hr including transit time in Auckland), then to Lima (4hr) and then to Arequipa (1hr 25min); see lan.com. Melbourne passengers pay about the same and fly Qantas to Sydney to connect, and back from Auckland.

Touring there

Adventure World has a 12-day Highlights of Peru independent tour, visiting Lima, Arequipa, Colca Canyon, Cuzco, Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca, from $2184 a person, including internal domestic flights and accommodation at three-star hotels. See adventureworld.com.au.

Staying there

In the Colca Valley, Colca Lodge Spa and Hot Springs has 45 rustic-style rooms (27 standard, 15 quadruple rooms with mezzanines and two family suites) and an excellent restaurant and spa by the river. Some rooms have adobe walls and thatched roofs. Rooms from 454 new sol ($167) a night. See colca-lodge.com.

In Arequipa, the Libertador has 88 rooms (80 standard, the rest superior) as well as a swimming pool and a private garden. Rooms midweek are from about $250 a night, see libertador.com.pe.

Eating there

In Arequipa, Zig Zag Restaurant, zigzagrestaurant.com; and Chicha, chicha.com.pe.

More information

See visitperu.com.