Doug McKinlay, a writer for The Times and The Guardian, explores Peru's Colca Canyon and Arequipa beneath condor-filled skies.

Arequipa is one of the few cities that is even more impressive than its reputation.

It's not just the surrounding wall of spectacular volcanic peaks. It's not the vivid horizon-to-horizon blue skies. It's not even the beautiful Spanish colonial architecture. It's something more, something almost intangible. You almost get a sense of it in the early morning, just as the sun begins to warm the white volcanic stone of the city's buildings. The crisp mountain air is electric, tickling your skin like a thousand tiny fingers. On my first morning I sat sipping a piping hot cappuccino in the Plaza de Armas. Street cleaners were just finishing their daily tasks while local businessmen slowly opened their shops. Photographers hoping to seal a tourist's moment on celluloid talked lazily while pigeons pecked at invisible crumbs at their feet. Above all this, watching like sentinels from across the plaza's rooftops are the ragged volcanic peaks of El Misti, Chachani and Pichu Pichu.

Although Arequipa is Peru's second largest city with about 700,000 residents, it has managed to maintain a small town feel. The compact centre, surrounding the Plaza de Armas, contains most sites of interest including many colonial buildings and churches, some dating as far back as the 16th century. The Monasterio de la Recoleta has to be one of my favourite places to visit, with a fascinating library of more than 20,000 books, many of which are centuries old, and a unique collection of archive maps.

However, of all the churches, monasteries and buildings, none are as impressive as the Monasterio de Santa Catalina. Built in 1580 and later enlarged in the 17th century, it was ostensibly a convent for nuns to worship while throwing off the trappings of the secular world. However in reality, it was different. Daughters of the rich lived in the monastery, but not in penury. Most had at least one servant and some had as many as four. Life in the convent was much the same as life outside. There were parties, complete with musicians, and there was no shortage of rich things to eat. But all this was to stop in 1871 with the arrival of the Dominican nun Sister Josefa Cadena. A hard taskmaster, she sent all the rich girls packing and invited the servants to stay on as the convent's new nuns.

Today the monastery is open to the public. Full of narrow twisting streets, small plazas and stunning courtyards, it is an excellent window into Peru's past. Every detail, no matter how small, has been carefully restored. The delicate colours of the walls, all blues and ochre, contrast beautifully with a variety of potted plants and orange trees. The shadows are vibrant and robust, changing almost by the minute as the sun tracks across the sky. For camera buffs, it's paradise.

Anybody with even a passing interest in archaeology will definitely not want to miss Juanita the Ice Princess at the Museo Santuarios Andinos. Opened in 1998 the museum houses the frozen mummies of two young girls sacrificed at high altitude during the time of the Incas. Originally found in 1992 by a local climber, Miguel Zárate, close to the summit of Ampato Volcano, subsequent investigations by American archaeologist Johan Reinhard have yielded more mummies on Ampato as well as Pichu Pichu and El Misti.

Arequipa may be the capital of the southern Andes, but the region is much greater than one city. After spending a few days wrapped in colonial history I set off on a 165-kilometre drive to the Colca Canyon via the vast windswept expanse of the Pampa Cañahuas. The pampa is part of the Salinas and Aguada Blanca National Reserve, a 366,000-hectare park created to protect the fragile eco-system within the region. At first glance it could be a postcard from a Mars Explorer mission, the huge open tracts of dun-coloured land spreading into distant volcanic hills. But it doesn't take a trained eye to see the life that abounds here.

Not only are there herds of domestic llamas and alpacas, but also wild herds of vicuñas and even guanacos. Still, wildlife aside, it's the landscape that really grabs you. At the outpost of Callalli, erosion has sculpted Doric-column-like formations out of the surrounding escarpment, while a couple of kilometres up the road there is the Castle, another formation this time reminiscent of a ruined fortress from some Medieval European kingdom.

After a leisurely six-hour meander, my guides and I reached the town of Chivay at the edge of the Colca Canyon. Looking west the valley follows the slow waters of the Rio Colca. On either side the deep hills are cut with fantastic terracing, the result of 1,400 years of cultivation. Still in use today they were built by the pre-Inca Collagua and Cabana people, both highly skilled in agricultural engineering.

The Colca is in a bit of a time warp. The 14 villages that ring the canyon were purpose-built by Spanish engineers in the 17th century, complete with magnificent churches and grid-pattern streets like any city in Spain. They were to be administrative centres to take advantage of the huge agricultural output of the terracing, while using the local people as slave labour. It didn't work. Far too isolated for any real control from Spain, the Colca soon reverted to its old ways and has practically been cut off from the outside world ever since. Modern tourism only got off the ground here in 1985 on the back of a failed irrigation project that necessitated new roads in the region.

However, the main event in the Colca isn't the terracing or the villages, but the condors. With wingspans stretching up to 3 metres it is said to be the largest flying bird in the world. Condor Cross observation platform, the best vantage point, is a small nub of land jutting precipitously out over the canyon's edge. Riding warm thermal updrafts, the condors slowly make their way up the cliff from hundreds of metres below. In the distance they look no bigger than any other large bird of prey. It's not until they break the crest of the hill that their true size becomes obvious.

As curious about us as we are of them they fly wide elongated circles eventually swooping low over the heads of the dozen or so people quietly watching. At one point I counted eight in the air together, each taking turn strafing the on-looking crowd. It's not just their size that impressed me though. It's as much their ease of flight. Not a flap of a wing was made, just an occasional flick of a tail feather or change of body angle. Unlike our cumbersome plodding along the ground, it all just seemed so effortless. Climbing back into the car I just couldn't help feeling a bit jealous.

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