Coca Loca in Colca Canyon

Trip Start Dec 10, 2011
Trip End Sep 29, 2012

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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I decide after the great experience of the Inka Trail G Adventures tour, to have another small splurge and go with another reputable tour company to visit the Calco Valley, the deepest canyon in Peru, ascending to an altitude of 4900 metres above sea level and see some mighty Condors. How glad I booked with a good company with what happened to me this trip.

The first day we go by bus with a group of 10 other people Americans, British, Norwegian and New Zealand to visit rock formations created by the volcanic eruptions and water erosion, saw Alpacas, Vicuanas - the South American Camel apparently and Llamas in the national reserve, the scene of a desert watering hole and them coming for a drink and a chat!

We had rapidly by lunchtime already got up to 4900 metres above sea level, most of us felt a twinge of headaches and a bit dizzy and when we arrived for our fabulous Peruvian buffet lunch of guess what more alpaca and other delights of river trout, we still felt a bit spaced out and dizzy. We then visited the viewpoint for the condors and just before the sun was coming down got a glimpse of a couple riding out the thermals, magnificent creatures with wing spans up to 3 metres wide and living up to 80 years, I thought to myself they've seen a lot of tourists up here by now.We settled into our dam freezing hotel with water bottles and extra blankets, and I spent most of my night staring at the ceiling awake and visiting the toilet with diarrhoeah , bloody wonderful! When I got up I felt the same but still had a good appetite and ate breakfast and told my tour guide I was ill. He asked if I wanted any medicine but we agreed we did not know what was wrong with me, so I said I just needed lots of water and packed my bag with two bottles after already drinking one when we set off. I'd ask if there was any steep long ascent down the canyon on this trip, because I have problems with my knees and I would need sticks. The nice lady in the office told me I would not need them as the journey time was less than two hours walking, so I went with her advice. Big mistake.

First I need to paint a picture of the path and the ascent. Our guide estimated it would take about 4 hours to go down, so yes a long ascent it was. It was all downhill to reach the bottom of the canyon. The sun was very hot at 8.30am when we reached the mountain side with it shining hard on the cliff side, there was no shade when walking. The path was a sandy chalky composition with a few small moving rocks thrown in for good measure, we watched the donkeys with our belongings go pass and also locals almost running down and I thought I can do this, I did a long ascent on the Inka Trek for more hours (but with sticks!) so here goes. Not long after we set off I had fallen over luckily stopping myself toppling over to the path winding down below me, I took quite a jolt. I felt a bit weak and a little nervous after this as the ground kept giving way under me, and with my knees being a bit weaker my legs were not feeling the joy or keeping me from slipping over. I was still having bad stomach problems, felt nauseous and had a headache and the sun was burning down on me. Our guide then told us about a death that morning on the canyon walk we were walking, to warn us as we may see it. I was not prepared enough for this, after passing the policeman and also the female doctor with her black leather first aid bag who both talked to our guide briefly. We then heard donkeys coming down and needed wait to one side, we were now next to the man who had died on the stretcher.

With many Peruvian men sitting down, maybe 5 or 6 and two tourists with large backpacks standing up. As the mules passed, I watched one of the tourists stand to the end of the body on the stretcher and another Peruvian man at the front to protect it. A stray dog came up around it and sniffed a little and got shooed away. The mules passed and we got up to carry on, I could not pass by without gesturing my condolences to the two tourists. I remember thinking the body looked so small, I could see a policeman's cap covering the face and the hands and small two feet poking out from the blanket covering him. I saw the distraughtness, pain and sadness in the man's eyes first and then the lady behind him. I put my hand on her shoulder as I passed by and nodded to them both. I started to cry then. It was so sad. I heard a lot about stories from various guides about accidents happening, but never actually saw one. It hit me a little, I could not speak it was so sad. At some point after this I had fallen over again on the mountain on same side of my body. I could feel I was getting quite nervous. I asked my guide about who the man was and what had happened. It was a 62 year old Canadian, sadly had felt ill the day before on day one of the trek and then had a heart attack on the morning of the second day. The guide made a comment about how they shouldn't do this trek in two days it is too fast. The two tourists there were his son and his son's girlfriend. I cried again, my Dad and I just completed the Inka Trail and he is only 58 years old. I could not think of anything worse than how those two people felt at the moment. I also realised they had to still climb up with two large backpacks on with those emotions inside them, I felt for them dearly.

Whatever happened from when we set off at 8.30am to the time it reached now, I was very tired, I was feeling nervous, it was hot from the sun, I needed to go to the toilet because of my stomach problem. We were about 3 hours down the mountain by this point. I then felt a sudden shaking come over me. I shouted to my guide ahead of me and he gestured for me to sit down. I then was breathing very quickly, I was in a panic, both of my hands had pins and needles sensation, then they both went into a closed fist spasm, I could not open them. The guide poured water over my head. He then put what felt like alcohol, but a calm type liquid onto my face under my nose asked my to stiff it hard and inhale. It helped a little. Not sure how much time had passed but could not have been more than 30 minutes. He massaged one hand to try and open it, I tried to move as much as I could the other. He asked me if I could move my legs, I could a little they were ok. I desperately wanted the toilet but first I need to breathe slowly. I could not believe what was happening to me, I had seen all these symptoms before with the guy from the Inka Trail, I got more nervous as I was scared that this was happening to me. Thanks to the guide my breathing slowed down, I drank some water and we talked some. I told him about what had happened the last week, my Dad leaving and I was sad a little, I was missing Colombia and why, I had also made another decision about something personal finally and I told him about this and also what had happened with the British guy on the Inka Trail.

With the shock of seeing the man who had died on top of my heightened emotions, the nervousness and my bad stomach, altitude sickness had kicked in. They say altitude sickness is a lot in the head, and this is exactly what happened. He and I talked about our lives and shared experiences. He met a German girl and fell in love, she was traveling on a world trip like me and continued but after three weeks said no that's it, I need to return to be with him. It's true love, but tough love. I can only resonate with this story, I shared my personal story with him too and we talked a lot, it was a good distraction as I got back to my feet and we walked and talked the last 40 minutes down the valley. I kept myself awake until lunch and then slept from 1pm to 7pm in the tent. The nice British couple I met on this trip came and checked on me twice and told me about dinner, I ate with everyone and after this went back to sleep after a quick look up at the night sky full of stars, I saw the milky way and the southern cross very clearly with no light pollution here in the canyon.

We got up at 4am the next morning for the climb back up to avoid the hot sun, my guide gave me two sticks and a bag of coca leaves and mentally I was happy to be going back in one piece and we made it up in a really good time. As we arrived to the village there was a large funeral procession for a local person, a little sad again and we watched and talked about the tradition of the funeral. All the men followed the coffin, with then the woman behind in the local traditional dress, carrying anything that would transport 'Chica' the corn based alcohol drink in jugs or even petrol containers. This was for the celebration, we followed as they stopped on the edge of the village for the speeches to the man who had died and then they proceeded to the cemetery. I thought about the man who had died on the mountain and hoped he would also have a good send off too. We finished our 3 day trek with one more visit to the Condors and got quite a treat, with 4 or so of them passing overhead immediately when we arrived and then a visit to a thermal hot springs pool, truly bliss after what had happened.

A quick lunch and my amusing transfer from Chivay to Puno by a tourist special shuttle service, that stopped at three places on the way to see flamingos and a lake and the best toilets with a view I ever saw so far. I just wanted to get there.

When I did I felt ill still, Puno is at 3800 metres above sea level located on the shore of Lake Titicaca, so I spoke briefly with the hostel lady who showed me to a quiet room because I said I needed quick and easy access to the toilet, I drank coca tea and ate some rubbish crackers I had in my bag, I was starving but was not going outside. After checking Internet and sending a couple of emails to the most important people in my life I slept really good, till I had to visit the toilet again when I woke up!

For now I am resting here in chilly Puno, Peru, I am ok, but really this experience scared the 's#@!' out of me. Lots of people say and agree, travel isn't easy! I guess I know that's true now.
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Jackie on

Hey Charlotte,
I can empathize, somewhat, with your experiences in Peru. I was really ill on the Lares Trek and nearly didn't make it :( Altitude sickness is a wierd thing! Hope you had a good time with your Dad and feel much better soon.
Enjoying your stories - I think you should become a travel writer :)
Lots of love
x x x

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