It just so happened that the cool clear morning conditions meant that the rooftop vantage point also provided a fantastic view of Arequipa’s surrounding country which is dominated by the imposing snow-capped volcano “El Misti” (5,822m) and its two framing mountains of “Chachani” (6,057m) and “Pichu-Pichu” (5,669m).
Having finally acquired a replacement camera yesterday after some running around town, the early morning vista provided the perfect opportunity for me to take 20 minutes or so to take some test images and play around with the manual settings familiarising myself with the Canon G12 before we hit the road.
While we weren’t scheduled to reach the lofty altitudes of these distant huge natural formations during the day, we were guaranteed to reach the highest point of our tour of Peru thus far, and therefore made a quick stop at a local store shortly after leaving the city limits on our coach. The purpose of the stop? To stock up on water, snacks and for those interested, the chance to pick up small packets of Coca leaves – a tried and true local remedy for the effects of altitude.
Having already suffered from a persistant dull headache over the past couple of days since reaching Arequipa (2,335m or 7,661 ft) I was happy to try anything, so following Johnny’s (my seat pairing for today’s journey) lead, I purchased a small bag of leaves not having any clue what to do with them next.
Joining us on this section of the tour was Alonzo, a local guide who was brought on board to supplement Julio’s leadership due to his expertise in the sites, culture and history of the region we were traveling into. The advantages of having him aboard became apparent pretty much straight away as he offered to show and explain to those who purchased the Coca leaves, how to consume them and therefore leverage their altitude sickness prevention properties.
The Coca Plant
The Coca plant plays an extremely important role in the historical and cultural life of the people of a number of South American countries, especially Peru. The use of the Coca plant in religious and day-to-day life of the Incas and other ancient people of the Andes Mountains can be traced back over 3,000 years.
Today, Peruvians still chew Coca leaves or drink Coca tea on a daily basis as a stimulant used to combat fatigue, hunger, thirst and effects of altitude. The secret lies in the alkaloids (chemical compounds) produced by the plant, which can be extracted from the leaves. One of these alkaloids just so happens to be the powerful stimulant, cocaine. Although it takes a huge amount of Coca leaves to be able to extract enough chemical to be used as a base in the type of cocaine that circulates on the streets, outside of South America, the international community understandably frown upon the Coca plant industry. Therefore, the possession and consumption of Coca leaves outside of countries such as Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela is prohibited.
All of this was explained to us by Alonzo prior to him giving us a demonstration on how to prepare the leaves for chewing. The process basically involves folding 3-4 leaves into a ball which is then inserted into the corner of the mouth where it can be softened up by saliva and then chewed. Added to the Coca leaves is a small amount of prepared ash from the quinoa plant known as “ilucta”. The ash is used to soften the acidic properties of the leaves and also to activate the alkaloids.
Following Alonzo’s guidance, Johnny and I prepared our own sets of leaves for chewing a couple of hours later as we began to climb our way up into the alpine regions where the effects of altitude (shortness of breath, mild dizziness) started to become apparent.
There’s no doubt, the type of country we passed through during our morning journey, littered with cactus and scattered rock formations, was absolutely beautiful. Any thought I had of spending time on the road browsing through my “Footprint” guide, was quickly quashed as the breathtaking natural landscapes featuring an unexpected mix of alpine tundra and fertile farming land, continued to roll by.
Today’s travels also provided us with our first real chance to come face-to-face with some of the curious and mostly friendly four-legged icons of Peru and South America – Alpaca, Llama and the highly valuable Vicuña.
The locals were obviously well aware of our almost guaranteed fascination with these creatures and made sure that there were a few on hand wandering around their tourist stands at a couple of the roadside stops we made for toilet breaks and snack re-stockings.
These “comfort” stops also gave those who opted not to chew the Coca leaves, the opportunity to get their hands on some “Triple Tea” – a concoction of three soothing herbs including Coca leaves. After having chewed a number of leaves myself over the preceding hours, I didn’t really need a tea to help me out, but I gave it a try anyway and was pleasantly surprised with how good it was.
On other occasions we passed large flocks of Alpaca tended to by local shepherds in traditional dress. Whether their traditional appearance was a purposeful strategy considering the ready procession of vehicles passing by carrying tourists more than ready to part with a few soles for the opportunity to snatch a couple of happy snaps, was anyone’s guess. I’m thinking yes, but I too was more than happy to justify the efforts of this mother and her “cute as a button” daughter.
Trust me when I tell you the chance of getting a smile out of that little one was like squeezing blood from a stone. It wasn’t from my lack of trying, but I just couldn’t get a grin out of her.
Mirador de los Andes
After a full morning of climbing in the coach, we finally reached what would prove to be one of the highest points of our tour – Mirador de los Andes (Andes Lookout). As one of the world’s highest mountain passes at a dizzying 4,910m (16,100 ft), the distinct lack of surrounding vegetation was a stark indicator of just how high we were. The area actually consisted mainly of a few old stone huts and countless “apechetas”, or stacked rock formations left by superstitious travellers looking for blessings from the Gods thought to inhabit the area.
As far as altitude goes, I think I was definitely, understandably feeling the effects at Mirador de los Andes more than anywhere else we had been up until this point. To put things into perspective, Australia’s highest mountain, Mount Kosciusko, is a piddly 2,228m (7,310 ft), and similarly, British Columbia’s Blackcomb Mountain is only 2,284m (7,494 ft). So yeah, we were well and truly “up there”.
Although tempting to spend more time at this altitude giving us the chance to acclimatise in preparation for our pending Inca Trail hike, we piled back into the coach and began winding our way back down to a more vegetated and civilised level.
Not surprisingly, any stops we made along the way to take in sweeping views of the Andes and/or the valleys below, featured a number of tourist stalls where you could haggle with the locals for a ridiculously low price for any number of brightly coloured embroided and printed bags, wallets, socks, hats and more.
And, if you hadn’t had the chance to be kissed by an alpaca up until this point… well…
The crazy couple of kids in the picture below are Lou and Rob, a British couple who are on our tour as part of a year-long journey around the world. Loads of fun and a wealth of travel stories, I can see myself spending a fair whack of time with these guys in the weeks to come.
Today’s lunch stop was in a cute little village which sadly I didn’t catch the name of (can anyone help me out?). We were treated to a fantastic South American style buffet which we all eagerly dived into while being entertained with some local tunes.
Following lunch, we had a small amount of time to explore the village including a market and the beautifully maintained village square where we were eventually picked up by Julio and Alonzo, and whisked away to our final destination for the day.
Arriving in the village of Chivay by mid-afternoon, we had time to check into our respective rooms at the gorgeous Hotel La Casa de Mamayacci. I’m really not exaggerating when I say “gorgeous” here either. Despite the limited availability of power during the day here, I’m pleasantly surprised with how modern, clean and plush this hotel, all the way out here, is.
All settled in, a bunch of people instantly made a bee-line for the hammocks that were set up on one of the terraced garden areas to the rear of the hotel that overlooked the surrounding farming areas and countryside. For the rest of us, however, Alonzo offered to take us on a guided tour around the village to show us various spots of note including the village dam, church and central square.
The walking tour was a great opportunity to tap into Alonzo’s vast wealth of knowledge on the area, and was also an excellent way to kill some time leading up to the next activity for the day – a trip 3km out of town to the “La Calera Natural Hot Springs” where we could grab a few beers and soak our bodies in relaxing hot waters.
With all of that lying around in the springs, we developed quite an appetite. So, on the way back to the hotel, we stopped in at a clearly pre-arranged restaurant where we were able to choose from a pretty extensive menu featuring chicken, beef and alpaca dishes, all washed down with more 1L bottles of the local Cusqueña beer.
Once again, throughout dinner, we were entertained with pan-pipe-dominated Peruvian music as well as a number of traditional dance performances where a number of us were invited up from our seats to get involved. The whole evening was filled with plenty of laughs, good times, and once again proved to be a great opportunity for me to chat with some of the members of the group I hadn’t really met properly yet.
In particular this evening, I got to have a good chat to our German couple – Florian and Leonie. Again, really great people.
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