Andean Condor: The iconic sacred bird of Inca religion

With its wingspan reaching over 3 meters, its weight, of up to 12kg and the habit of nesting above 5000 meters. The condor is a marvellous scavenger bird that has an extremely important role in Peruvian culture. I’ve always heard and being fascinated about this huge bird, the biggest bird; but somehow, I never related it to the Andes or Perú… until I went there. Indeed, when you are so fortunate to be amongst the Peruvian Andes you will be hearing about Incas, their empire and their traditions a lot. The Inca Empire existed for about a century, from 1438 AC to 1533 AC and compared to other empires in history this time span might seem a little short, but the cultural influence they had on the territory was tremendous! Just to give you an idea: 25% of the Peruvian population nowadays still speaks Quechua, the most spoken language in the Empire.  

A condor gliding ©Manuel ROMARIS/Flickr
A condor gliding ©Manuel ROMARIS/Flickr 

Amongst all of the peculiarities of this big cultural legacy, the one thing that impressed me the most was the Condor. Condors are birds found in the Andes mountain range and they had a major role in Inca’s Religion. 

The Condor in Inca religion 

A sacred bird 

As a sacred bird, the condor was seen by the Incas as the connection with the upper world. Probably, because of its ability to fly 5000 meters above sea level! Moreover, being a scavenger, this bird only eats carrions, which are dead animals bodies. This peculiarity makes them look to have the spiritual function of carrying the soul of beings to heaven. 

Incas considered it a God’s messenger and their mythology is rich in stories. For instance, it is said that once the condor has one of its white feathers removed from its neck, it will face death. Or, even more interesting; when the condor gets older and starts to feel the energy leaving the body, it will fly to the highest peak to let itself drop loose down the mountain, committing suicide. 

The Inca trilogy 

The Condor was an important figure in the Inca religion. According to their trinity, the snake represents the underworld (Ukhu Pacha), the puma represents the world of the living (Kay Pacha), and the condor represents the upper world (Hanan Pacha). This is known as The Inca Trilogy and it was represented in many Inca buildings, still nowadays in Cusco and Macchu Picchu. 

The Andean Condor in Peruvian culture 

Nowadays Condors still have an important role in Peruvian life. Just think about how many tourists visit Arequipa and go to Colca Canyon just for a chance to spot it and look at its majesty.

Condor in traditional festivals 

However, this iconic giant bird is often mistreated for specific traditional festivals, like “Yawar Fiesta” the one shown in the picture below. The Peruvians reach the mountains to capture a condor and tide it on the back of a bull. The bull will then try to shake the condor off of itself and the condor will somehow look for stability.  

Yawar Fiesta ©Jan Sochor/Flickr 

In this ritual, the bull represents the might of the Spanish conquistadores and the condor represents the Inca population. Therefore, it has a deep meaning for the Andean people who remember their origin and history. 

Fortunately, these practices are getting banned by the Peruvian government to preserve the condors, given the quick decline in the animal population and the rise of awareness in environmental and biological issues. 

Condor in music 

There’s even a famous song, named “El Condor Pasa” which was made famous by the American folk-duo Simon & Garfunkel when they covered it. The song was already famous in Perù, and Andean music was getting popular in Europe when the band “Los Incas” played a live show in Paris, Simon was amongst the spectators of the concert and he got inspired by the very famous hit “If I could…”. 

Many covers have been made, and I really like this one. 

How to spot an Andean Condor 

If you would like to see a condor in the wild, you must go to Arequipa and visit the Colca Canyon for an almost certain sighting. 

A male condor flying ©Dennis Tromburg/Flickr 

Male or female? 

Another thing you must know when it comes to spotting a condor is that this bird is the only specimen of New World Vultures that shows sexual dimorphism. In other words, females look different from males. The males are bigger and they have a comb on top of their head that can help you distinguish them.  

Couple of condors courting © Frank Shufelt/Flickr 

The comb is unique for every male condor and they are born with it. Which makes a perfect characteristic for scientists to distinguish them.  

Another curious feature is that males have yellow eyes, while female’s eyes are red. 

The Andean Condor as a protected species 

According to the IUCN Red List, nowadays there are just 6700 Mature Individuals of the iconic gigantic Andean bird, and the trend is downward! From what I’ve learned in Perù, specimens of this bird are declining due to deforestation, climate change, but most importantly hunting to sell the feathers and the bones. 

What can you do to spread awareness? 

Now that you read the article and you became an expert about this beautiful bird, here’s a few things that you can do to help in spreading awareness and preserve this animal for generations to come. 

Volunteer in a preservation project 

If you are going to be for a long time in Perù, you can consider volunteering to learn and contribute to Andean Condor preservation. One such organization that could help you with that is The Galo Plaza Lasso Foundation

Support scientific research 

Several organizations are aiming to study and protect this majestic bird. You can start by doing online research using the keywords “Andean Condor Preservation” or “Vultur Gryphus Preservation”. You will be surprised by the amount of information you can find. There are several Peruvian and International projects working on biological preservation. Look for the one more in line with your values and support it.  

It might be with a donation, with sharing their story on your social media, or just by telling your friends. Everything can help. 

Share this article 

You can share this article with your friends and family. Maybe they will be interested and happy to learn something new. Plus, this is the perfect excuse to convince them in joining you for an adventurous and full of history trip to the magical land of Perù. 






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