Coca Leaves and Condors

Trip Start Oct 25, 2010
Trip End Feb 05, 2011

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Flag of Peru  , Arequipa,
Friday, November 19, 2010

One of the main reasons for visiting Arequipa is its proximity to Colca Canyon, a huge rift in the landscape twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. Colonial and traditional cultures collide; the many towns dotted throughout the valley bear distinctly spanish hallmarks, whilst the argicultural terracing and cliff-face burial chambers survive from the pre-hispanic era. Key to enjoying this wonderful landscape, and its literally breathtaking altitude, is the proper utilisation of Coca leaves, the sacred plant which once powered the Incan Empire and is unfortunately now used to create cocaine. Despite its more illicit properties when subjected to many chemical reactions, the original leaf has been a traditional remedy for altitude sickness, hunger, aching limbs, and seemingly any ailment, since humans invaded the Andes. During our four hour journey to the beginning of the canyon, Roberto (our guide) showed us how to prepare coca leaves correctly:

1- Take a large wad of coca leaves. (Leaves must be coca; I have no idea what happens if you set about chewing birch leaves for example, but can hazard a guess that it would involve the impulse to retch.)

2- Remove as many stalks/central veins from the leaves as possible, to reduce bitterness.

3- Stack the leaves on your palm, all with the dark side up. Add a small amount of volcanic ash to act as a catalyst, activating the alkaloids within the leaves. (Only a tiny amount of ash is required, too much ash makes your entire mouth taste like dust)

4- Cover the pile with a big leaf and attempt to fold it into a small parcel, making sure not to leave the ash exposed (see above). (This is a lot harder than it sounds. Seriously, try folding a dry leaf into a parcel without it falling to bits, then try doing it in a moving vehicle).

5- Place said parcel into the left or right side of your mouth, squeezed between cheek and gum, the proverbial rock and a hard place.

6- Coat the parcel in saliva by sucking. (Chewing is not encouraged at this early stage as the leaves break off and cover your teeth in a parsley like film which will then be visible in every photo that you smile for. Apparently.)

7- When the parcel is soft, gently apply pressure to the parcel with your teeth, whilst sucking out the coca juice. After 10/15 minutes, you will no longer feel the side of your face, but at least you can be reasurred that it is working.

8- When you get fed up of navigating conversation around bits of disintigrated leaf, discretely spit out the residual green mess (then get someone you trust to check your teeth)

Chewing our coca leaf cud, we drove through a national reserve that provided many opprtunities to photograph llamas, alpacas and the rarer, less domesticated cameloid, the vicuņa. Climbing up to an altitude of 4100m we were granted stunning views of the volcano strewn landscape. During our descent towards the town of Chivay at the start of the canyon, we passed through the crater of a dormant volcano; not the most reassuring site for a highway, even if the volcano in question hasn't erupted for ages.

We stayed in a lovely hotel in the village of Coporaque with a stunning view of the valley and mountains, the sides of which were covering in pre-Incan agricultural terraces, still used today. We soon became aquainted with Manchas (Spots), the resident alpaca, who regarded all with undisguised disdain. Folding back his ears and arching his neck, he would spit a large mouthful of masticated lawn at those foolhardy enough to approach, as the grass stains on Ben and Doug's shirts will testfiy.

Aborting our attempts to befriend the alpaca, Roberto guided us around the village, explaining that before the Spanish arrived the area was divided between two tribes, the flat heads (Cabanas) and the cone heads (Collaguas). Although both tribes used to deform the heads of their young to resemble their mountain gods (one tribe worshipped the highest peak, the other a plateau) all that remains of this practice is two distinct styles of ladies' bowler hats. The Spanish banned head-squashing during their brutal occupation of the area, killing thousands of occupents by forcing them to work in inhumane silver mines, decimating the local population. Despite this, many of the old traditions remain intact, resulting in a beautiful mix of colonial and indigenous spirituality. As we approached the unmistakeably colonial church in the central square, we were met by a wonderful fusion of noise and colour; brightly dressed people leading ceremonial llamas (llama+tassles) and waving banners danced down the street accompanied by a wonderful brass band with booming base drum. These revellers were on their way to plough a field in honour of one of the village's saints; a rather different agricultural ritual than downing a pint of rattler and grumbling about supermarket milk prices. What could be considered a chore turns into a local celebration, men and women dancing as they work, offering prayers to both Pachamama (Mother Earth) their saints in a combination of pre-inca tradition (the parade, costumes, and dancing) and colonialism (the praying to Christian saints).

Listening to the parade disappear into the foothills, we went on a short hike into the hills surrounding the village. Billed as preperation for Machu Picchu, the low intensity walk had us all breathless as the altitude took hold. Despite this, we were afforded yet more fantastic views of the local area, the newly risen moon and the rapidly descending sun providing a fantastic backdrop to Roberto's recitation of an Incan creation myth:

The Sun and the Moon were very much in love, spending all of their time together. However, their love became tempetuous and they were forced to seperate. The Sun occupied the day and the Moon the night. Despite their problems, the Moon was still very much in love with the Sun. She missed him so much that her tears fell to earth and became silver. The Sun also cried for his lost love, the Moon. His tears fell to earth and became gold. Though they could not live together, they did not want to always be apart. A compromise was found. The Moon could rise early and keep the Sun company during the last vestiges of the day and the Sun would help the moon shine more brightly at night.

That evening we went to bathe at the thermal pools in Chivay. The abundance of volcanoes in this region means that the water bubbles out of the rocks at a scolding 80 degress celcius and is cooled to a more pleasant 30ish degrees for people to enjoy. We bobbed about in the baths, sipping rum and cokes as the stars emerged above us.

We were woken at stupid o'clock the following day to attempt to catch the condors riding the early morning thermal currents. We drove further down the canyon to the most popular spot for condor watching, Cruz de Condor. We hiked a little way along the cliffs and sat looking over the steep sides into the valley. Condors nest in caves in the canyons walls, living for more than seventy years, but mating for life. This means that when a bird dies or is killed, its partner will never breed again, a major factor in their dwindling numbers. Unlike us, the condors had obviously decided to have a lie in. We waited for them for an hour and a half before leaving reluctantly. As sods law could have predicted, we had driven  two minutes down the road when the car in front of us stopped and a woman got out a pointed to the sky. Finally, condors! We hastily returned to Cruz de Condor and this time were awarded with breath-taking sights of these elegantly huge birds soaring effortlessly around us.

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Louise on

Cue air on a g string. It was a .'Condor' moment.

Dacey on

Arequipa is the best place for coca leaves that is beneficial in many terms.It has the best condor that is in endangered right now but rest of them lives in Arequipa

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