A canyon called Colca

(Excerpts from travel notes written on Monday, Oct. 28. Photos by Colin Rigley.)

There’s that saying that when it rains it pours, and I think this holds true for traveling in  sort-of third-_MG_7249 world countries. On Saturday we left Arequipa for a two-day Colca Canyon trek. We piled into a van with approximately 12 other tourists–three from China, two English girls, a handful of very loud Russians who chewed coca leaves throughout the trip and appeared utterly immune to the effects of the altitude, and a French couple.

What we failed to realize when we signed on for the tour was how rapidly we would climb in altitude. The landscape throughout our three-hour trip was stunning, and quite intimidating–steep green and gray ascents highlighted with intense light and populated by tour buses and vicuñas. We finally started to see people wearing what we’d regarded as “traditional” Peruvian garb–the thick skirts and blouses, wide-brimmed hats, and colorful bundles strapped to their shoulders. There was nothing approximating this _MG_7287 _MG_7288in Iquitos: tank tops and shorts ruled the day. You’d have to be mad to wear anything else there, given how hot it is. 

Our bus, being a tour, tended to stop frequently and we were dragged to shops and restaurants which clearly gave our tour company a kickback on the profits. I know this is fairly standard, expected even in a country where you have to argue with the taxi driver to take you to the hostel of your choice because they want to take you to one owned by family friends, and will spew a number of lies about the hostel you’ve chosen (including, apparently, that the one you want to go to has burned down) in order to accomplish their aim. But Colin and I have avoided tours (very deliberately) and are therefore impatient when we feel we are being herded or fooled. By the time we arrived in Chivay–the van picked us up at 7 a.m. and we arrived at 3:30 p.m.–most of the groups were demanding to see an itinerary. We had been promised a tour of the canyon, but had only been afforded brief glimpses from the side of the highway. Colin and I both had headaches on account of the altitude, and I had thrown up twice during the trip, an especially charming sight with gawking tourists and vicuñas. Little did I know the gastronomic fiesta was just beginning.

Colin and I eschewed the trip to the hot springs with the group in favor of exploring Chivay, which _MG_7283turned out to be insanely charming. There were numerous tiny shops with items actually made by the people who smiled and beckoned us inside. We knocked quite a few items off our Christmas shopping lists, and I made out with a beautiful vest and hat which were my first purchases for myself. The town was anchored at the opening of the canyon, all green mountains and light that would make a photographer poop herself with glee.

We spotted little street carts where women sat concocting steaming beverages, which they poured into mugs and patrons consumed sitting on stools beside the cart. We ordered two–half a sole  (20 cents) per drink. It was magic. She stirred the plants sitting in the vat of hot water, tossed in some syrups with functional efficiency, and topped it off with a red liquid. It was far better than the coca tea I’d consumed to calm my querulous stomach. And the steaming beverage was perfection on the cold night. Feeling bold, we chose our own restaurant while our tour group went to the pre-approved tour restaurant. I ordered hot chocolate and trout with passionfruit sauce. I’d never had trout before and tend to prefer fish in sushi restaurants, but we’d been in Peru for over a week and_MG_7279 I hadn’t yet gotten sick from food, and my delight with the town and its inhabitants made me bold. We returned to the hostel and settled in because we were supposed to meet the tour van outside the hostel at 6 a.m. and figured a good night’s sleep wouldn’t be amiss. I was also hoping that sleep would shake the headache I’d had since we’d gained in altitude. (The elevation, by the way, was about 12,000 feet. At one point, the bus stopped and we shuffled off to look at the view of the canyon, only to get hit by snowflakes.  San Luis Obispo, where I live, is 233 feet by comparison. Arequipa, the city we’d just left, was 7,361 feet. So we really weren’t playing around.)

At 11:30 p.m. I woke up with a feeling I remembered from Morocco, when I got a nasty case of food poisoning from bad milk in a dish of rice. I ran to the bathroom to throw up and by the time Colin woke up at 4 a.m., I had thrown up four times and was in utter despair over the prospect of having to board a _MG_7237bus in two hours. Fortunately, we convinced our tour guide to take the rest of the group, leaving us at the hotel until 1 p.m. when he would return for us. By 10:30 a.m. I’d thrown up a total of 13 times, and Colin went in search of a pharmacy hoping to find something to help the situation. I succumbed to the gloomy thought that I didn’t want to die so far from home, which in retrospect was a silly thing to think, but when you’re sick and exhausted and just the slightest bit scared, well, madness is never far behind.

Getting back on the bus was an absolute nightmare. I felt weak. My head had never stopped hurting. And I was trying really hard not to throw up in front of the Russian sitting in the seat across from mine, placidly chewing coca leaves with the satisfied expression of a bovine chomping grass.

We arrived back in Arequipa exhausted, demoralized, and sick, having missed the trek into the canyon we’d gone to visit on account of the fact that I was sick. Only to find that the hostel that was holding onto our luggage had given away our room. So we were left sick, exhausted, and homesick with a giant pile of luggage on the sidewalk outside the hostel. Suffice it to say, we were neither of us very happy.

We caught a taxi to Arequipay Backpackers Hostel, which Colin compared to the bad guy’s lair in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They had a Playstation room, movie rooms, game rooms. Everything except a private room where we could recover in peace. Nonetheless, we managed, and began making plans to take the bus to Puno, the city at the head of Lake Titicaca, early the following morning. But in keeping with the theme of nothing in Arequipa going quite as planned, that too was almost foiled.

Next post: Leaving Areuipa. Tales of bus flashings and miners’ strikes.



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