Looking for a once-in-a-lifetime wildlife experience in Bolivia? Don't miss the Condor's Nest hike in Samaipata.
Sometimes a missed opportunity is not regretted.
When we first arrived in Peru, trekking the Colca Canyon was always part of the plan. Although it may not necessarily be the big hitter in that part of the country (you all know what is), it's something you hear more and more about along the traveller grapevine as you approach what is, for us, South America's most touristified country. Yet, despite spending nearly two weeks in Arequipa, the jumping off point for this famous trek, we never actually made it. Put off by local cronyism towards travellers and the overwhelming numbers of tourists in the Peru's south, our plans were shelved.
We desperately wanted to see the condors, but the thought of doing so surrounded by hundreds of other people was just too much. Plus, a hike of any length was really not something either of us had a lot of enthusiasm for at that stage in the trip.
Months later, however, we couldn't help but worry that we had made a terrible mistake - after all, this adventure was all about Latin America and, for this part of the world, there are few birds more sacred or revered than the condor.
And then we got to Samaipata.
No, we hadn't heard of it either. Until we started to properly look into our options in the lesser-visited eastern half of Bolivia, Samaipata wasn't really on the radar. In Bolivia, most of the attractions are jumbled together in the west and, with Peru and Chile being right next door, it simply doesn't make sense for most travellers to go in the other direction.
However, at Along Dusty Roads, you know we like to do things a little different. And, the more we read about this tiny town, with its gorgeous countryside, temperate climate and thriving German and Dutch ex-pat community, we knew we had to pay it a visit.
Especially, as Samaipata - and a tour with Kaleidoscope Travel - would provide us with our last chance to see a condor up close and personal.
Our day started early. Neither of us are early-risers and a 6 a.m. pick-up - especially as we had just spent 12 hours the previous day on a bus - didn't sound ideal. However, unspoiled nature doesn't fit itself around a 9-5 schedule, so rousing ourselves out of bed and wiping blurry eyes whilst trudging around attempting to put the right clothes on in the right order was the only option.
Such an early wake-up call was due to the fact we had a lot of driving ahead of us. After passing through Samaipata's streets, empty but for some slumbering dogs, we entered a dying old village, where boarded up and run down homes housing the very young and the very old were all that remained. Javier, our guide, explained that very few people are left in the more remote parts of the countryside - most people of working-age have left to nearby Santa Cruz for work or other economic advancement, leaving their parents or grandparents behind to live in the only way, and the only place, they have known. That morning, the handful of people we passed were older men out walking for miles, transistor radios clutched to their right ears, on their way to work or trade for very little.
The drive was long and the road conditions worsened dramatically only a few miles outside Samaipata. Burnt orange dirt trails narrowed, pot-holed or split in two. The odd pile of rubble from the previous week's landslide was still strewn across the pathway. This was not unusual; roads in Bolivia are notoriously awful, with closures and accidents not uncommon, particularly in the rainy season. Thankfully though, we were driving this potentially treacherous route in temperate dry conditions and Javier was probably (definitely) the most responsible driver that exists in Bolivia.
Along the way, we discussed a few issues facing the country - from the 'si/no' referendum taking place the following week which would decide whether on extended presidential terms to the latest cases of political corruption, the improving living conditions in the last decade to the high price of local beer and upcoming Carnival celebrations - whilst Javier explained why Samaipata was so special to him.
Looking out at the surrounding countryside, it wasn't difficult to understand why he loved it so much.
Yet, there was a developing tension in the air.
We had read that visiting Samaipata's hidden 'Condor's Nest' was a stunning experience, but that it was only really worthwhile if you had clear blue skies. And, over the last hour, the morning's perfect forecast had gradually given way to a grey, cloudy canvas.
We tried to hide our concern from Javier.
Something we now continually stress to people planning a visit to South America is that they need to prepare themselves for the fact that, in the majority of places, you simply can't expect it to be the non-stop picture-postcard sunny days that, from a European standpoint, we perhaps bundle in with our stereotype of all things Latino. Instead, we have stayed in places where we witnessed four types of weather in one day and, depending where you are when El Niño is around, you may end up with weather conditions which make Manchester in October seem desirable. Overcast days are not at all uncommon.
Nevertheless, after parking the jeep and registering with the family of farmers who control the access to the hike, we had to shift our attentions from concern about the weather to working up a sweat; those who are privileged enough to visit the Condor's Nest, have to earn it.
Along cow trails - literally formed and to this day pretty much exclusively used by cows - we followed in Javier's ever-quickening footsteps. Despite having been in Bolivia for a number of weeks, and having fully adjusted to the altitude, we were still no match for a fit, experienced Bolivian man on a steep ascent with a condor flight deadline to meet. The condors only visit the 'Nest' for a brief window each day and so a steady pace was necessary.
As our trail starting point was already close to 2000m, it meant that after only thirty minutes walking, we were looking down over a vast, untouched scene. Bolivia is home to such topographical diversity and it was a struggle to believe that we were looking over a view that belonged within the same borders as the Salt Flats of Uyuni or the mountainous La Paz.
The ascent gradually flattened out and opened into a beautiful valley where a group of around a dozen cows were relaxing. Javier explained that they were owned by the farmers who had met us at the trail entrance.
"How does the farmer get them back down?", we asked.
"They always return. A week or two weeks up here, then they just wander back to the farm. It's how they've farmed them here forever."
After a break for some water and an opportunity to enjoy the peaceful surrounding, we marched on. Through a few babbling brooks, wild meadows and barely visible paths, we were following Javier blindly. Even if we had our own car and a map, we would never have found our way to this secret spot. No signs existed and there was not another soul around us for miles that day.
The justification for us skipping the very popular Peruvian Colca Canyon experience in favour of this adventure was already clear. But then, with a bright sun finally breaking through the cloud as Javier ushered us to take a seat by him on the mountain's edge - our final destination - it was clear that we had been taken to one of Bolivia's hidden gems. Before us, was a quite spectacular, quite unforgettable, view.
And it belonged to us and us alone. No other tour groups, no sellers of tat, no ticket office.
We were truly off the beaten track.
Now all we needed was a condor.
"They're usually very punctual".
It was now Javier's face that was etched with worry. The clouds had all cleared, we had all managed the hike without a hitch and, after feasting on our packed lunch of pasta, olives and tomatoes, all that was left to do was wait.
Andrew had a nap. Emily took some photos. Javier explained the origins of some of the odd metallic sounds we were hearing. It was a perfect setting in which to kill some time But, that wasn't really why we had woken up at 5.30 a.m.
The hike and the unforgettable scenery wouldn't have made this a wasted endeavour - not at all - but it would have meant that we would have left Latin America without seeing a condor in the best way possible. In full flight, right in front of us.
After an hour waiting, we both looked at each other with concern and frustration; it just wasn't going to be our day.
It was Javier, unsurprisingly, who spotted him first.
Gliding in from the right hand side, we couldn't really tell the difference between him and the vultures which had needily paraded in front of us. But, as he came ever closer, the sheer scale of a magnificent male condor in full flight was clear.
The smile of relief on Javier's face was Cheshire cat-like. He had told us that it was a very rare thing indeed for the condors never to appear at the 'Condor's Nest' at around midday, but it really had looked as if it would happen.
"Now that he's arrived, the others will come too."
A few females and another two males duly arrived to drink from the waterfall within the next few minutes. And they were, without exaggeration, right over our heads.
One flew so close above us that there was a little gust of wind as it passed. With a wingspan over three metres, they are quite intimidating in their sheer size.
They were most certainly worth the wait.
Mission accomplished, Javier led us down a different path to return to our jeep. Although we were both pretty beat by this stage, we had one last treat in store.
As we've written elsewhere on our website and Facebook, waterfalls are so often a let down. Every town in Latin America seems to have one and it's usually listed as a thing to go and see. More often than not however, they're pretty drab or unimpressive affairs.
To be honest, we were expecting that at La Pajcha as well, which is an optional addition to the standard Condor's Nest tour. However, we were both hugely and genuinely impressed by it - if we weren't so tired by that stage of the today, it would have been a real treat to spend some more time here. The waters are swimmable and the small natural beach is very pretty.
On the ride home in the blissful late afternoon sun, as we both gently dozed, we saw a happier side of this part of the Bolivian countryside, which had seemed so discarded in the early morning. Children playing in fields, uncountable numbers of cows and donkeys stubbornly blocking the roads, a sense of a community still existing in the face of numerous adversities. We also passed several of the men we encountered around 10 hours earlier, walking the same road back, transistor radio still held to their ears.
Our encounter with the condors of South America may not have been left until the last few weeks of this trip, but that was, perhaps, one of the best decisions we've ever made.
Kaleidoscope Travel, based in Samaipata, provides tailor-made and high quality single or multi-day tours throughout Bolivia. Owned and run by a Dutch couple, they aim to show the incredible diversity of landscapes, cultures and experiences in the country.
The Condor's Nest and La Pajcha waterfall tour experience with them was run professionally from beginning to end and was a real highlight from our time in Bolivia - we would highly recommend it.
contact: 591 3944 6365 or 591 72610416
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This tour was provided free of charge so that we could experience The Condor's Nest Hike experience Kaleidoscope Travel. As ever, all photos, opinions and spelling errors are our own. For more information on why you can trust our reviews, click here.