gettin’ high on altitude

­Up until we crossed into Peru, it seemed like the differences in culture from our own (ethnocentric, I know, but it’s for the sake of context) that we had been experiencing in our travels were far from vast. Yes, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile are Spanish speaking countries with a strange affinity for hot dogs and mayonnaise, but on the whole they are fairly similar to what we are used to: mostly people of European descent, well developed countries with fairly high standards of living, etc. Don’t get me wrong, they have all been interesting countries to visit, they just haven’t been as different as we expected South America to feel.

When we did cross from Chile into Peru, we didn’t spend hardly any time very near to the border. As soon as we left Chile, we got on an 8 hour bus to Arequipa, a large city quite a ways into southern Peru. Although the city itself is fairly well developed and still not quite what we expected of 3rd world South America, the people we met did seem to fit the part. The population in Peru is mainly of indigenous descent, so we were surrounded by short, stout folk with dark hair and eyes who were probably speaking Spanish but could also have been speaking Quechua or Aymara. We stuck out like sore thumbs right away with our light hair, skin and eyes, not to mention that we’re usually around a foot taller than the tallest people we meet- we’ve been hitting our heads on lots of doorways.  John and my lack of Spanish speaking skills and Karl’s Argentine accent didn’t help us fit in either.

It also didn’t take long for us to find that we get a whole lot more bang for our buck here. Our first night in Arequipa the three of us went out for dinner and each got a full plate of food with a soup, dessert, and drink for 4.5 Soles (about $1.70). I mean, it wasn’t a fancy place by any means, but it filled us up and that’s all we really care about. We all agreed that we could get used to this kind of budget- all the longer that we can travel before the money runs out.

Arequipa is a nice city in itself, but there isn’t really a whole lot to do there in the way of tourism- it’s more of a jumping off point. We weren’t there long before we were joined by Lisa and Gilmer, friends from home traveling in Ecuador and Peru for a month. It just so happened that our paths crossed sooner than we thought they would. We also got a chance to meet up with our Dutch friends, Sascha and Meike, who we met on the coast of Chile. It turns out that the gringo trail is rather narrow.

For a few days we were seven travelers strong. The seven of us were lucky enough to have a local friend, Francesca, to show us a bit of the city- a few fine plazas and squares, the nightlife hot spots, and where to get the best ‘recoto relleno’ (a local favorite- a pepper stuffed with rice, peanuts, meat, raisins, egg, potato, and more- it was interesting).

While we were there, we found out that Arequipa is the main jumping off spot for Peru’s famed Colca Canyon. After reading info about it online and finding out that it is the second deepest canyon in the world, over twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, and a hike certainly not to be missed, we found a tour that worked for us. We had to make it quick though because John, Lisa, and Gilmer were scheduled to fly out of Lima just over a week later and there was still Machu Picchu to see.

Our tour was only 2 days and 1 night. We basically hiked all the way down the canyon the first day, viewing condors on the way (which are an absolutely stunning bird by the way- I never realized), slept one night at the bottom, and hiked back up it the next day. It sounds like a whole lot of work for nothing, but the epic views of the amazing canyon and surrounding environs were well worth all the effort. The whole thing is just so unfathomably huge- I wish the pictures I took could have captured it, but they really didn’t.

Unfortunately, it turned out that we did the Colca Canyon tour a bit too quickly. Maybe an hour or two after climbing out of the canyon (something ridiculous like 1100 meters in under 2 hours), I got the worst headache of my life. I tried to tough it out, hoping that it would go away, but back in Arequipa I couldn’t take it anymore and asked one of the tour operators what they thought was going on.

Altitude Sickness.

Apparently it was a combination of how much sleep I had been getting (literally none the night before the tour because it left at 3 in the morning and we didn’t want to pay for another night at the hostel, and very little in the nights before that), the foods I had been eating (not sure what I ate exactly, but I’m sure it was NOT any sort of sickness-preventing food), and a bunch of other factors that I don’t remember except that they all made me the perfect candidate for altitude sickness on that tour (may help explain why I got it and no one else did). It wasn’t too bad- Karl and I just ended up staying in Arequipa for 2 more days for me to sleep off that awful headache and the continuous chills while John, Lisa and Gilmer headed on to Cusco before us to try and figure out the best way to do Machu Picchu.

Peace and love to you all.
Thanks for reading.

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