October 18, 2005
There was only one early bus out of Yanque, and Morad and I had to get up at 4:30 AM to catch it. It actually wasn't too bad getting up that early because there was absolutely nothing to do last night other than feel my head throb and listen to my stomach rumble, so I went to bed really early. We still had to wait 45 minutes for the bus to show up because it was late, but that should have been expected.
By the time the bus made it to Yanque, it was already packed. It was so full, in fact, that I almost had to sit on the toilet. Instead, I stood right next to the bathroom, which was located in the center of the bus below the seats. At one point, the bus turned so sharply that I nearly fell right in.
Eventually, some people got off and I could move to a normal standing position in the aisle, but I think I was worse off there. The ceiling on the bus was about six inches shorter than I am, and the bus was still too full to lean forward or back, so I had to kink my neck alternately to the left and right for the entire trip. There was also a screaming baby next to me, but his mom stuck her boob in his face to rectify the situation. It was another painful bus ride, but not nearly as bad as the day before.
The first stop on our makeshift tour was Cruz del Condor, where each morning, hundreds of condors that nest in the canyon fly down to the bottom to eat. Immediately after exiting the bus, we were approached by two national park workers who wanted 24 soles to view the site. 24 soles may not sound like much, but I only paid 10 soles for my hotel last night, and the site just had a few platforms to view the condors from, so it seemed like a major rip-off, and one that neither of us had expected beforehand.
After paying the fee, we walked down to the first platform. There were only a few other tourists, but it was only 7:00 and I read that the condors normally fly until 8:30, so I wasn't too surprised. The thing that did surprise me was that there were no condors.
One by one, the group tour buses started to pour into the site. Eventually, the place was being overrun with tourists (the scene looked strangly familiar). This wouldn't have been a big deal, except by 8:00, I still had not seen any condors. Jokes started to fly left and right about what happened to them. "Maybe they went on strike," "Maybe they are on an even higher ledge watching us," "Maybe a bus full of condors is going to arrive and the driver will throw them over the edge for us." Morad lamented the fact that he didn't bring his condor suit with him so at least a few people in the crowd could get some excitement.
At around 8:20, we finally saw our first condor. It was very far away, and it only briefly descended into the canyon before returning to its nest. People started groaning and looking at their watches. Most of the buses left at 8:30, so people started leaving in droves. Morad and I waited around until 9:00, but we didn't see any more condors. No wonder they call it "Cruz del Condor" (Cross of the Condor).
The next bus to Cabanaconde, where our canyon trek would begin, wasn't scheduled to arrive at Cruz del Condor until 11:00, and considering how late the buses had been lately, we figured we'd be better off to make the two-hour walk instead of waiting around. During our walk, we passed another group of people going in the same direction. They had a guide with them, and they were walking very slowly. We confirmed with them that we were in fact going the right direction and continued past them. The road to Cabanaconde seemed to take forever because it looped around several farmers' fields. We made it to the town in exactly two hours.
Neither of us had eaten all day, so as soon as we got into town, we found a restaurant to eat lunch at. I seemed to recognize the people at the table next to me, but I couldn't figure out from where. Then I realized that they were the same people we passed on the road to town! "Our guide led us on a massive shortcut," one guy told me. "We've been here fifteen minutes already." I guess we may have wasted energy getting there, but at least we got there.
We had been hearing different stories all day about what time the last bus left Cabanaconde to go back to Yanque. Some people said 4:00, others said 6:00, and still others said 10:00. It was already noon, and the hike to the bottom of the canyon and back was supposed to take six hours, so we figured we'd give it a try if the last bus left at 8:00 or later. We went to the bus station to get the official time: 9:00. The trek was on.
Our trek technically started at the bus station. From there, we walked to the edge of town, through muddy fields, and along a river. We couldn't believe that we were on the correct route, but everyone we asked along the way pointed in the same direction. Finally after twenty minutes, we reached the top of the canyon.
I looked down and saw a tiny green area at the bottom: the oasis. I had been hearing stories from people all day who had been to the oasis. Generally, the tours take people to the bottom, where there are swimming pools, palm trees, and cabanas. Most people either camp in tents or sleep in the cabanas overnight. This is followed by the trek back up to the top at 4:00 AM. Since we didn't have anything planned, we didn't have any gear with us, so we had to go down and come back up that day.
The hike down was mentally difficult. The path was a combination of dirt, pebbles, rocks, and boulders. It was very steep and it zigzagged back and forth all the way to the bottom. Every step I took, I had to be careful not to sprain an ankle. The entire way down, I kept thinking "This is going to suck coming back up." We kept a fast pace to get as much relaxation time at the bottom as possible. The oasis got bigger and bigger as the path moved back and forth.
After 90 minutes, we got to the Oasis. It was a lush, green area that looked like something straight out of "Gilligan's Island." The only other people there were a few other tourists and some guides playing soccer. "Sangalle," as it is known locally, was every bit as beautiful as people had described to me.
We relaxed at the oasis for an hour or so. I took a quick nap and felt fairly refreshed. I didn't have any food with me, but I still had nearly a liter of water left, so I figured I'd have enough energy to make it back up. After a short trip to the river at the very bottom of the canyon, we made our way back up to the top.
The walk up was grueling from the beginning. For the first time all day, I felt the altitude in my lungs. Breathing was nearly impossible. My heart never stopped racing, even during our frequent breaks. My legs felt like jello. I quickly ran low on water. I had been drinking water all day to keep myself hydrated, but even 3.5 liters wasn't enough. After 90 minutes, the top still looked so far away, I didn't know how I would make it all the way up.
Then, as I turned one of the endless corners, I saw through my delirious eyes what appeared to be a local woman. This enterprising lady was sitting on the path with a wide array of beverages and candy bars for sale. I needed the energy so badly that I didn't even mind paying triple the normal price. After I ate a candy bar and drank a bottle of Coke, I could almost hear the "Popeye" theme song playing. My legs wobbled a few times when the Coke hit them, and I practically sprinted to the top.
We made it up in a little less than three hours, just before it got completely dark. That gave us over two hours before the bus would leave. After a quick spaghetti and French fry dinner, we bought bus tickets back to Arequipa for tomorrow and talked the guy at the bus company into letting us get on the bus early. Thus began a long night of rest.