Because the day’s drive was not to be overly long, we got to sleep in a bit and make a slightly later start, around 9:30 am. We got rolling, got everyone filled up with a full tank, and headed out of Arequipa. While we immediately had to fight a little more of that urban traffic on the way out, relatively soon we were on a mostly uncrowded highway and we began a somewhat twisty climb up to higher altitudes. Arequipa is at roughly 7600 feet MSL, but we would be more than doubling that by day’s end.
On the climb over the first pass, the engine on my F650GS died unexpectedly about 3 times and would start itself back up about 200 feet later while still rolling. This was disconcerting, but has not reoccurred since. It has, however, struck one of the other riders’ bikes quite a bit more forcefully and every time we think we have a workable theory as to the cause, something happens to disprove it and confuse us further. More on that a few posts from now.
After reaching about 12000 feet, there was a long flat stretch during which we made a short stop to view a pack of protected wild vicunas. These are a smaller relative of the llama and alpacas, and textiles made from their wool is extremely expensive due the fineness of the fiber and the scarcity of the animal. Shortly after this break, we reach a turnoff for the road leading to Chivay. This is where it gets interesting. This road is in significantly poorer condition than anything we’ve seen thus far. There are numerous potholes, and quite a few rockfalls onto the road, even some bits where sand has come off the walls the road cuts through, leaving an entire lane under a heap of sand and dirt. It’s also quite twisty with a lot of blind corners, due to the way the road has been constructed on hillsides. We continue to climb to a plain well above the 14000 foot mark, and then finally reach the crest at around 16000 feet. While I’ve been taking Diamox since the beginning of the trip to avoid altitude sickness, my fingers start to tingle significantly as we hit the highest point. I’m not the only one- some of my co-riders note the same symptoms. Just getting off the bike for a quick photo stop at the top results in a bit of huffing and puffing.
At least now we start the descent towards Chivay, which sits just under 12000 feet. The potholes and switchbacks continue, making for some mildly challenging riding- I really don’t entirely feel comfortable with this bike yet and so I make a fairly slow and cautious descent towards the back of our pack, without incident.
After maybe 30 minutes or so, with a brief stop to check out one of the ubiquitous mountainside craft vendors, we finally reach the valley floor and our hotel around 2pm. Chivay is a fairly dusty little town and I didn’t see a whole lot to recommend it, but it is the preferred stop for a trip to the Colca Canyon. The hotel, however, one of the Casa Andina chain, was reasonably nice and fit well with the local flavor. After settling into our rooms and grabbing a quick bite, there is no rest for the weary: we pile into the support van and a hired minibus, and we set off for an excursion to the viewing point for the condors who make the canyon their home.
The trip out to the viewpoint is an adventure in itself. Very rapidly the paved road gives way to dirt. Almost immediately we come upon a section which is being built/rebuilt/something by heavy machinery, with the net effect that we’re forced onto even bumpier dirt and the minivan gets stuck briefly in some sand. This being a gang of motorcyclists, however, several people immediately pile out and push it free, crisis averted. Another section was destroyed several years ago by an earthquake or landslide, and has been temporarily repaired with an even bumpier section than usual. After about an hour of bumping and grinding our way down this road, higher and higher up a steep wall of the canyon, we suddenly reach paved bliss…about 100 feet from our final destination, Cruz de la Condor, which is a nicely set up overlook where the condors that live here can be seen. We’re practically the only ones there but Klaus tells us that in the mornings this place is packed to the gills with tour buses. The relatively peaceful surroundings and the terrific light in the late afternoon seem to make this an ideal time to be here. Almost as if on cue, we are treated to an amazing show of five condors coming home from further up canyon, and they glide effortlessly on the air currents from the canyon. One makes a slow pass past the overlook and the shutters are snapping wildly. One sees some furry critter and dives in for dinner. All in all, everyone seems to come away extremely satisfied.
We bump and grind back down the path and arrive back at the hotel a bit after dark, where we have a reasonable but not excessively fancy dinner in the hotel restaurant. This being a tourist town, dinner is accompanied by a talented if slightly over-earnest performance of Andean folk music a la Inti’Illimani, accompanied by two traditional dancers with a great array of costumes. Of course, this is followed by a round of shilling to buy their CD’s, knickknacks produced by the dancers and so forth. They make a few bucks off a few of us, but for the most part, not so much. By now it is well and truly bedtime after a very long day.