Peru, part two,
Erica, our perky young guide, meets us in the lobby of our hotel at 7:30 this morning. We load up the luggage and climb into the comfortable seats of the van. Doug and Melissa, a young couple from Boston occupy the front seats so we climb into the middle ones. We stop to pick up another couple who also turn out to be from Boston although they are originally from the Ukraine. Again, the world proves to be a small one as the couples discover they live just a few blocks apart.
Our destination today is the small town of Chivay. Before we leave Arequipa, Erica takes us into a market to buy coca leaves. This leaf is something the natives chew everyday and it is for sale everywhere. The leaf supposedly gives you energy and reportedly will help we flatlanders fight altitude sickness. Since we will cross over two mountain passes today in the 16,000 feet category the six of us figure this is worth a try.
The coca leaf has a distinctive smell, a bit like drying alfalfa but stronger. Erica demonstrates how to roll up a few leaves with a tiny piece of lime ash that acts as an activator. Erica tells us to place the wad in our cheek and chew. After a few minutes, I find the cud disgusting and my saliva glands have kicked into high gear. I ask our guide what we are to do now and she replies, “Just chew it”. Well, since there is no place to spit, I guess I have to swallow the gross stuff that is accumulating in my mouth.
Time passes, the leaves are disintegrating, and my cheek is going numb. I relate this info to Paul in a low voice and he replies that not only is his cheek getting numb but his nose is too. We whisper to our van mates and ask how they are getting along with this coca leaf experiment. Doug and Melissa have removed their leaves already and the expat-Ukranians acknowledge numb cheeks and disappearing leaves. We sheep who are still following Erica’s instructions remove what is left of the coca leaves, tuck the green mess into tissues and wait for the feeling to come back to our faces! Later, we discuss our coca episode with another group who also were encouraged to try the leaves. Their guide told them to remove the leaves after ten minutes. Oops, I would guess we left our leaves in for an hour and Erica never told us a thing after “just chew”. Paul quips that we should all start chewing coca leaves before a dental appointment, as due to the coca leaf or maybe the activators numbing quality, you wouldn’t feel a thing! I for one will not use this altitude “aide” again as I felt no difference at all except for the numbness.
Scrubby vegetation and cactus grow on the mountains we are traveling through today. We are fortunate that the sky is crystal clear so the three snowcapped volcanoes, Misti, Chachani and PichuPichu, are readily visible making for majestic views. When we enter the National reserve of Pampa Canahuas, we don’t travel far before we spy one species of two wild camelids. Vicuñas are a protected species in this reserve but it is interesting to note that every year the natives round up the vicunas and shear those whose fur is long enough. The Vicuñas don’t yield much wool but the wool is valued for its fineness, which equates to extremely soft wool. If you want to buy anything made of vicuñas wool I suggest you take out a large loan. We stop a few times to snap photos of these fine-boned delicate creatures that pay us no attention.
As we continue through the reserve with plenty of vicuña to look at, Erica excitedly calls out “guanacos”! This is the second wild species of the camelids family but in comparison to the vicuña, the guanaco has a heavier build, longer fur and sports a dark face. Erica is very excited over the guanaco sighting, exclaiming that she has been making this drive for six years and never seen a guanaco here before. The animals are to far away to document the sighting with photos but we can see the beasts clearly through our binoculars. Paul and I share our binoculars with the others since they don’t have any. After they use our binoculars, they all wish they did have a pair.
We see domestic herds of llama and alpaca, also members of the camelid family. The herds often have a human accompanying them along with a few dogs. I put in this humorous photo of one dog asleep on the job as a baby llama escapes down the road.
We take a break at a little bump in the road to use the toilets, at a cost of one soles each, and to have a cup of coca tea. I’m not sure what the altitude is here but most of us are a little lightheaded; lose our balance on occasion and walking up a couple of steps causes us to gasp for air. Paul seems to be the only one of our group that the altitude has no effect on.The best thing about our stop is the contented cat that has made her bed among the various woolen items on display in a wooden stall.The coca tea just sped my heart rate up as if I had drunk three strong cups of coffee! Great now I’m light-headed and jittery.
We continue to climb higher, which makes my head ache and my gums throb. When we reach the highest pass of today’s drive (just shy of 16,000 feet), we pull off at a lookout point to take photos. The view is breath taking in more ways than one. Erica informs us we will only be here five or ten minutes and that everyone is to walk very slowly. Paul joins the line for the loo as I walk in slow motion, past all the women trying to sell their wares. I want to get an unobstructed view of the beautiful snow covered mountain that dominates the horizon. (Why is this bold and why can’t I change it back?)
As I am “breathlessly” admiring the landscape, I see a tall young man to my left stumble. For a brief moment, he manages to stay on his feet but then his knees buckle and he falls backwards and his head hits the ground hard. He draws in a long wheezy breath and then is completely still. I begin to call for help in the same instance another woman is yelling for “someone to come help this man”. Suddenly every guide is sprinting to the poor fellows’ side. One puts an oxygen mask on the victim and suddenly I feel the need to see Paul. When I spot Paul and his trademark Stetson hat a feeling of relief settles over me even though I knew he was fine. To say what I witnessed has shaken me up is putting it mildly.
Feeling rather weak myself, I go back to the bus and find that our driver, Huber, is very upset. He tells me the man that collapsed was part of our group. I assure him it wasn’t as I witnessed the whole thing and did not recognize the man. He insists that the person is part of our group and says that maybe it is your husband. I know that isn’t the case but I look more closely at the cluster of people surrounding the unconscious man. There is Melissa kneeling next to the prostrate man. Good grief, it must be Doug and I feel terrible that I did not recognize him!
It takes at least twenty minutes to revive Doug to the point that they could get him back to our van. Two guides carry him to the van and help to get him in his seat. Doug keeps asking what happened and he is speaking in a slurred voice. We need to get this man to a doctor but we are at least an hour away from Chivay. All of us are quite subdued as our driver makes the best time he can on the windy road. Erica has Doug using the oxygen they have, all tour groups carry one, and we can tell by the strength of his voice that he is getting better.
Erica has been on the phone to arrange for the Dr. in town to see Doug when we arrive in Chivay. Paul and Boris (I made that name up, as we can’t remember the ex-Ukrainians name) help get Doug to the doctor’s office, as there is no way he can walk there on his own. Erica asks the men to return to the office in a half hour in order to help take Doug back to the bus.
Paul and I wander through the local market; this one is for the natives not tourists. The gunnysacks of grain, dried beans and potatoes intrigue us. Tempted by the smell of fresh bread we buy a small loaf and share it as we sit on a bench in the town square. As we eat the tasty bread, we pass the time by watching the people. The women in their traditional dress and top hats create a temptation for me to snap constant photos of them but I restrain myself to only a few snapshots. There are two men, wearing straw cowboy hats, sitting on a bench in the square. I get the nerve to ask them if Paul, wearing his stetson, can join them so I can take a photo. I use the term ask loosely as what I really do is point to Paul, the bench, their hats and say photo. They are willing, I end up with one of my favorite photos of our trip, and they didn’t ask for money!!.
When Paul goes to assist Doug get back to the van, we are delighted that he doesn’t require the help. It is a relief to see him walk albeit slowly on his own and to be able to converse normally. The man’s blood oxygen was in the low 70’s and Erica tells us it should be in the 90’s. We knew he was in bad shape, we just didn’t know how badly. We continue to the village of Coporaque to have our lunch at the hotel where our four companions are staying. Their hotel sits high above the valley giving us a wonderful view of the landscape as we dine. The buffet lunch has a variety of foods including barbequed alpaca and chicken. I am not hungry because of the bread we ate so I only take some chicken soup and a potato dish. I do have a bite of Paul’s chicken and alpaca, which is quite tasty.
After lunch, Huber drops Erica, Ina and Boris off at the hot springs and drives us to our hotel the Colca Lodge. The road is bumpy, narrow and full of curves but once we reach the Lodge we understand, why Erica was so effusive in her praise of the place. Colca Lodge with its stunning manicured grounds is a short walk from the river. The lodge has a private thermal bath, they had two baths until a flood washed away one of the pools last year, a spa, a glassed in restaurant with a lovely view of the river. They also have a grizzled yellow tomcat that enjoys the attention he receives from me. Our room has lots of space despite the king size bed. This place is much fancier than we are used to or need. That being said we intend to enjoy this luxury for the one night we are spending here beginning with a visit to the thermal bath.
The next journal explains why we will never forget our night at Colca lodge and you can join us as I write about our visit to Colca canyon and the condors. Nancy