Thursday, February 18, 2010

Optional Excursion Day One

Rather than spend a good three days in the same city, I opted for the two day optional trek out to the Colca Canyon. That could be spelled terribly wrong – but if you're familiar with Peru, you'll understand what I mean – and if you're not? Well then the name doesn't really matter all that much, does it?

[authors note: just a quick note – I am writing this from Cuzco – the hotel that I'll be spending the next few nights in, and there's no internet access here, so I can't fact check or grab proper spellings. Which isn't to say that I couldn't just walk across the room and check my scrap book pages and find a brochure – but that's at the other side of the room, and I'm sitting all comfortably. Oh fun fact, you also won't see any photos for all these wonderful landscapes, or other such things that I'm going to talk about – not because I didn't take them, because oh did I take them – but on day two there was a terrible tragedy involving memory cards, and such. You'll see. Wait for the condors.]

Loading into the minibus we headed out to grab another GAP ground on a three week Peruvian tour. With their five added to ours, we almost formed a solid group. Four more were grabbed from another hotel, and then we were off. And oh were we off. Five, six hours, to get where we were going. But the ride wasn't all that terrible. In the beginning we all found sleep. This would last until the first animal sightings: Lamas, alpacas, and other such animals that look indistinguishable save for perhaps their height and the way their tails point.

As we neared 4600 meters above sea level, we made a stop to buy some coca leaves. Apparently chewing them is supposed to help with altitude adjustment. So there we sat, chewing our leaves, surrounding a small piece of ash which is supposed to enhance the effectiveness. Now, I don't know much about the world of drugs and what not, but as my cheek and tongue started to go numb, I seemed to recall that cocaine was used as a localized anesthetic, and then paid more attention to what type of leaves we were chewing. Ahh – this is why it's illegal to take any of these products (leaves, teas, hard candies) across international boarders. Fun fact, Peru is one of the largest cocaine producing countries.

I don't know how effective the leaves are for altitude, but I have no doubt that they work as a fantastic placebo. When people are told that they're at a high altitude, to some extent they exasperate the problems. Tell them that they're chewing something that will help them, and then all starts to work out for the best. Still – at 4600 meters, leaves or not you definitely feel the effects.

[authors note: I created a video at this height which, in theory, was supposed to be quite serious, but it highlighted how loopy the height made me. Sadly, this is now potentially lost forever on the doom-fated memory card #11.]

Walking from the bus, one hundred meters to the washrooms was enough to make the world spin, and for breath to become short. I was relieved to see that I was not alone in this. Most people noticed the effects. Others pretended that they didn't, and then later commented on headaches, or shortness of breath. Perhaps they just weren't equating the symptoms with the height? It took me some time to realize that my headache was linked to the altitude.

It was all downhill from here. We would leave 4600m behind, and descend to a reasonable 3800. Rolling into a small town we checked into our rooms, and made our way to lunch. More alpaca was devoured. And still, it was wonderful. Peruvian food (most of it being vegetable dishes, and only a small part being alpaca, you see) is quite wonderful.

And after lunch what would we be doing? Hiking of course. Of course. It was claimed to be a one hour hike. No problem.

It was not a one hour hike.

Now, I'm not one to blame my hiking problems on the altitude, but that may have been a factor. Still, after half an hour of constant climbing, I was just about ready to pack it in, call it quits, lie down and die. That seemed to be a most wonderful idea. Much like some of the trails in Africa (notably the one that led me unwittingly to the lion preserve) I kept hoping we'd reached the top, and yet – no... never. There is never an end.

The trail became muddled at a flat patch of grass. A very wonderful picture was taken of me here. Sigh. At this point we waited for everyone to come up and meet together. This was 45 minutes into the hike. In theory this was the end. But one guide decided that he was going to the top, and asked if anyone wanted to come along. A number of people turned back, declining such a gracious offer to march to their doom. But for myself? Well if someone is going on, then I need to try and press forward as well. Let no one say there's something I can't do (though I'm quite ready to accept that there are a number of things I can not do. I'm starting to reach the point where I no longer feel the need to do things that are unpleasant. Like the Lares Trek... three days of delightful climbing and hiking and smelly smelly pain. But no – I must attempt that, and then no more. No more travel pain = fun. I'm old. I'll admit it.)

The next part of the hike would take nearly the same amount of time as the first, though there was much less land to cover – horizontally. It was a much steeper incline, during which I contemplated, once more, throwing myself down the slope. That would be a nice quick way to the bottom, right? Maybe I'd even sprain an ankle or two to justify my escape from the coming trek of doom. But no – I'm not one to take such an out (not when it would probably lead to death, rather than a hurt ankle, repaired in a week or two.) On the plus side my right knee began to hurt again. I wonder if it will go again. I imagine it will do me fine until April. It's Tokyo where my knee goes. Always Tokyo. Still -

So on we hiked to 4200m coming to rest at the cross on the top of the hill. Crosses are everywhere here. On every peek, carved into hillsides, lawn mowed into the mountains foliage. If you could think of a way to create or display a cross, they've got it covered. Still – it's not a fully Christian religion that is practiced. There is still a belief in the Earth providing here.

Once at the top, like always, the hike seemed to have been nothing at all. I quickly forget my burning muscles, and my aching knee, and my constant struggle for oxygen. I was at the top – obviously I could make it the whole time. There was never a doubt. Nope, never even once. And getting down? Once I'd made it past the rock sliding section, it was not a worry. Thirty minutes down after ninety up. One hour trek, indeed.

Back at the hotel we were told we were off for another stop – a hot spring. That sounds about right!

Half an hour to the spring, with the small hold up of a flat tired which needed to be changed, and then a half hour to the spring. There are few things as wonderful as relaxing in a thermal pool heated by the neighbouring volcanoes after a good tramping through the hills. I also indulged in a pisco sour – the official drink of Peru. Honestly? Not that great – too much egg white. But still, better than Jugo de Rana, right?

After an hour doing a blissful nothing, we headed out to dinner at place labeled as “tourist restaurant” where there would be “traditional dancing”. Ugh. The less said about this the better.

And then back to the hotel – which took much longer than half an hour on the return; the night was pitch black, our left headlight kept flickering on and off, the right one barely cast illumination five meters, the mountainous curves were still just as tight. Every time I saw a cross, or flowers, by the edge of the road I just nodded, you'd think after there were flowers every fifty meters someone would rethink the road. Or, instead of putting up flower as a memorial, why not – oh I don't know – a small piece of railing. By this point, distressingly, most of the edges would be covered by guard rail now.

Sleep came easy. Sleep came with necessity. Tomorrow would begin at five in the morning.

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