Well, if you’re reading this post you’ve survived 2020, and I deeply hope all of the people you care about have as well. There were parts of the past year during which we may have forgotten to celebrate being alive – parts where we may have felt anxiety, frustration, even pain.
But here we are, on the cusp of what we all hope will be a much better year. I’ve always advocated looking forward, not backward. We can’t change what’s passed, although we can learn from it and enjoy memories of the good times. I believe that, on our journey through life, we should create as many good memories as we can, to balance out the bad memories that come along without our choosing them. We can choose to be a good person, to be our own person, to laugh as much as possible, and to do the right thing.
We can choose to make the best of things instead of the worst, or at least to give it our best shot.
My late mother-in-law travelled with my hubby and I on several occasions, and she used to remark on our capacity to stay calm when things didn’t go according to plan. Part of that ability developed through long experience – something always happens on our trips, and often more than once – but mainly we’ve always tried to make the best of things, because that just feels much better than the down side.
Life is pretty amusing if you’re willing to look at it that way. Case in point, and the reason for the photo for this week’s blog: our first trip together involving flights, the year we got engaged. We flew to visit friends in California, over the Christmas break because I was still in university and that was the only time we could go together.
I was excited about flying on a big plane, but nervous and a little queasy the entire time. The snow storm we had in Ontario the day before our departure hadn’t boosted my confidence either. But four and a half hours later we were landing in LAX on a balmy night, and not long after that our friends pulled into the driveway of their tile-roofed Spanish-style bungalow in Santa Monica.
The next morning the hazy air smelled of the sea and of eucalyptus. I spent the week falling in love with California, from the fresh oranges on the tree in our hosts’ back yard to the famous places like the Santa Monica Pier, Hollywood and Disneyland. My first sight of palm trees, lining the street our friends’ lived on, and of the ocean, crashing in rolling waves onto the wide sand beaches just like it did in all the movies, was absolutely thrilling – this was the first time I’d been outside my home province. We passed swathes of red poinsettia growing wild on hillsides, not confined to little plastic pots.
We had a late New Year’s Eve, and about two hours of sleep before we all got up early to take a bus to Pasadena to see the Rose Parade. I also had a lingering case of strep throat, but I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to see my favourite parade live and in person! I remember waiting impatiently in line on the grounds of Pepperdine University to get on the bus, and climbing up the bleachers lining the parade route with my 35mm camera at the ready. It was chilly at 8am, but the sun was shining and across the street the mountains surrounding the city were lavender in the morning haze.
The parade was wonderful and the floats even more glorious when you’re sitting just a few feet away from them. When the Rose Parade returns in the future, I recommend it for your bucket list.
Since that day it’s become an annual ritual in our home to get up on January 1st, put on the kettle and a bit of breakfast, and watch the year’s beautiful flowered floats in their bright colours wind past the television cameras.
But on that day, by the time the parade finished, our short night and my illness caught up with me on the seemingly interminable bus ride back to Pepperdine; I fell asleep before the bus even left Pasadena and woke up just long enough to get in our hosts’ car to return to their house. Everyone else camped out in the living room to watch the Rose Bowl, but I made a beeline for the bed, stripped down, crawled in, and promptly fell fast asleep.
I remember waking up at one point with the bed shaking, and thinking groggily ‘Oh, we must be having an earthquake’, but falling fast asleep again – which tells you how out of it I was feeling. Until about a minute later when my hubby – then fiancé – burst through the door yelling, “Get up, we’re having an earthquake!!!”, with everyone else close behind him.
The problem was that I hadn’t bothered to put pyjamas on, so while he was urging me to get up I was clutching the sheets up to my chin and trying to point out to him that I couldn’t move until everyone left the room. After some confusion around that, I finally got the opportunity to get dressed without an audience, and joined the crew in the living room.
Looking back, it was a hilarious, if completely anxiety-riddled day. The original quake was 4.6 on the Richter Scale, so nothing serious, but while you’re in the middle of it you have no idea of how it’s going to end. Fed by Hollywood, I was having visions of the earth splitting open and houses falling in.
Some of the aftershocks were worse than the quake. One felt a giant had come along and kicked the house – the whole building just gave a sudden jerk. Others trickled along, evidenced only by the ornaments jiggling slightly on our hosts’ Christmas tree. At a couple of points our hosts ran over to their china cabinet to keep it from toppling over. Another aftershock caught me in the bathroom, with my hubby pounding on the door for me to come out while I tried to explain that I was “in the middle of something at the moment”.
An announcement about the quake was aired right in the middle of the football game, so we had to call home and reassure everyone that we were okay. That would be the first of many such calls over the years.
By dinnertime, after several hours of ongoing aftershocks, my hubby and I were pretty twitchy, so our friends decided to distract us by taking us to Olvera Street, the very first street of what would one day become the sprawling city of Los Angeles. At that time Olvera wasn’t as structured as it is today, but I remember lots of stalls selling colourful decorations and food, and we had our first taste of Mexican cuisine. We had enchiladas that were an explosion of flavour in our mouths, and we craved them intensely for years after we got home because we simply couldn’t get it anywhere around here.
The earthquake spooked us so badly that it took us thirteen years to return to California, but we’ve been there many times since, enjoying the sun, the scents, and the food! We laugh about that first trip a lot; it was a wonderful introduction to travel for me, despite the quake. When I learned that there wouldn’t be an actual Rose Parade this New Year’s Day, I had to run out and get flowers to make our own small homage to the parade and to California – the end result is what you see in the photo. It also celebrates Nature’s artistic mastery, which will be the theme of many of my blogs in 2021 because that’s something we need to preserve.
We hope to get back to California again one day, to Africa again, and to all the other places we still dream about, but in the meantime we will enjoy life to the fullest, even if it’s via small floral celebrations perched on our coffee table. I think that’s a good way to live.
The Incas worshiped the Andean mountains, and as we traveled onward from Chivay to Cuzco, we could see why. This stretch was probably our longest on the road, but the mountains were endlessly fascinating – snow-capped peaks in vivid colours from ochre to deep charcoal brushing the piercingly blue sky.
We reached the Mirador le los Andes, the highest point in the road, where a lookout offers stunning views of five volcanic peaks, including El Misti, the mountain looming over Arequipa, and Ampato, the final dramatic resting place of the Ice Maiden. Disembarking at an altitude of 4910 metres (16, 109 feet), we were warned to take things very slowly when we got off the overland truck, lest we pass out from lack of oxygen. The air was bright and cold as we stepped down onto the thin gravel surface, and it felt like we’d suddenly aged thirty years.
A small lake of rocks surrounds the lookout, and it’s become a tradition for visitors to build little rock stacks as a prayer to the gods for safe travels. My hubby and I shuffled around and soaked in the remarkable feeling of standing on the roof of the world, and I unexpectedly understood what drives the Mt Everest climbers: the exhilaration of both seeing what your body is capable of and experiencing sights so profound we were speechless.
The peaks of the Andes are a world unto themselves, with llama farms in the middle of nowhere, odd little outposts dotting the wide plateaus, small villages where people still carry on in the old ways, entrepreneurial women selling their beautiful textiles along the roadsides, and pockets of shimmering blue lakes.
It was growing dark by the time we reached the outskirts of Cuzco, and when I asked the driver to stop for a bathroom break, we discovered that our ailing passenger had relapsed and wasn’t able to walk. I spoke to our overall tour leader and as soon as we reached our hotel, the three of us made a beeline to a small hospital, my traveler head resting on my shoulder for the ride, while everyone else checked into their rooms.
The hospital immediately ran a battery of tests, and confirmed what I’d suspected: more altitude sickness, which had driven my traveler blood pressure sky high, coupled with a reaction to the antibiotic that the doctor in Chivay had prescribed. She was put on IV to get her pressure back under control, and a different antibiotic. I processed the travel insurance information as our tour leader translated for me with her far more fluent Spanish.
Finally, exhausted, the leader and I got back to the hotel around 10pm. My hubby had arranged to get some take-out chicken from a little place down the street so that I was able to have a light dinner. Our traveler would remain in the hospital for two days while we moved on to the Amazon jungle the next morning (see my June 25 blog post for the details from that part of our adventure). A few other people who were planning on hiking the Inca Trail also elected to remain in Cuzco to spend more time acclimating. When we returned to Cuzco, she had recovered well and was able to continue on the journey, and the rest of us had acclimated to the altitude as well and were feeling pretty chipper. But we had picked up some additional passengers while we were in the Amazon (the tour could be joined at different points and carried on beyond Bolivia, which was the endpoint for my little group), and they had just experienced a steep change in altitude in a single day, from about 600 feet to over 11,000. Several of them were setting out on the challenging Inca Trail hike the next morning.
None of my group from Canada had wanted to do the 4-day hike, so I’d arranged for our own little adventure, exploring Cuzco and the Sacred Valley for two days, followed by a train ride along the Urubamba River to the town of Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu and two nights at a hotel in the midst of the Andean Cloud Forest.
Cuzco was the ancient capital of the Incan Empire, considered the navel of its civilization, and it shows. Spanish conquistadores captured the city in the 1500s and literally built on top of what they’d conquered, but although the native peoples assimilated into the Spanish rule they remained unbowed, their skilled artisans subtly adding their own stamp to the churches, incorporating their local delicacies into Christian holidays (guinea pig remains the preferred specialty for Christmas), keeping their Quechua language alive to this day. And in a final irony, every time there was an earthquake the elaborate Spanish buildings would crumble atop their superb-crafted Incan bases.
The resulting city, set breathtakingly in the bowl of a ring of peaks, is an amalgamation of old Peru sprinkled with magnificent Spanish architecture, narrow streets spreading upward from the pretty central square.
If you pay attention there are bits of the Incans all over the place, like a sinuous little snake carved high on a wall, to an entire wall with stones set in the shape of a puma, one of the sacred animals of the Incas. It’s believed that the original city was built in the shape of a puma. In this wall there’s also a famous 12-sided stone that everyone goes to see for its remarkably-precise fit among its adjacent stones.
The entire area was considered deeply sacred, and is full of smaller but important sites to visit. Cuzco is definitely a tourist centre, and tours can be booked for all manner of sights and activities. Accommodations abound, from hostels to mid-range to luxurious, and services abound for the independent traveler.
There’s a lively food scene. On our first morning we headed for the legendary Jack’s, famous for its full breakfasts and amazing coffee creations.
The next morning we returned to a place we’d had dinner in the night before, a little place with creaky floors on the top story of a building, where we had the best oatmeal I’ve ever had in my life, rich and sublimely creamy with a perfect amount of cinnamon added; I had planned to go back and ask for the recipe but never did make it, sadly. Chocolate lovers can even take classes in making their own.
Shops abound, many with a spiritual vibe channelling the mystical surroundings – I bought a shaman’s rattle at this little shop down the road from the Incan wall and the 12-sided stone.
In the Gallery above I found a tapestry representing the quipu, the series of knotted strings used for counting, and some believe for language transmission as well. Very few of the precious original quipu survive, so I knew I’d never get my hands on a real one, but my small wall-hanging is good enough for me, a tribute to that remarkable ancient culture.
Touring the Spanish constructions is de rigueur, and gives insight into the blending of the two cultures. In the Cathedral, you can see evidence of the subversive insertion of Incan symbology: every image of the Virgin Mary in her robes is in the shape of the sacred mountain, a painting of the Last Supper features guinea pig on the table, and many of the carved wooden seats have startling finials on the arms in the shape of bare-breasted women. Photography wasn’t allowed in the interior, so you’ll have to go and see all this for yourself 🙂
Cuzco also has an excellent museum to learn more about the Incas and their remarkable civilization.
Surrounding the city are a collection of lesser-known but important sacred sights. My favourite was Sacsayhuaman, long stacked walls with massive stone blocks undulating under the deep blue sky and showing the astounding expertise of the Incan builders – they found that making the layers rise and fall within each wall rendered them virtually earthquake-proof.
Tambomachay is believed to have been an ancient palace, and is replete with fountains and baths. It’s set in a lovely valley along a stream lined with olive trees and small shrubs. At the end of the valley, even if you’re not doing the famous hike to Machu Picchu, you can walk for a while in solitary enjoyment along the original trail first laid down by the Incas, who created a vast network of paths for their runners throughout the country, one of which ran far out to the coast at Puerto Inka (see this blog post). People live on the slopes above the site, and women in traditional dress bring colour to the scene.
At Qenko you descend into the Incan underworld, into a deep cold chamber used for sacrifices. It is a huaca, a natural stone site that was believed by the Incas to have intrinsic sacred qualities.
As you might have discerned, we loved Cuzco and could happily have spent at least a week there if we’d had the time. My research had shown reports about a high crime rate, but all of us wandered all over the place and had no incidents, apart from one fellow who left foolishly $700 locked up in his dufflebag in the hotel storage while we spent two days in the Amazon jungle and returned to find it had been stolen. (Note to travelers: always carry your valuables with you.) Cuzco is an intriguing and charming city in a spectacular setting with a large amount of history and culture to explore, so give yourself more than a single day there.
On the day we set out for Aguas Calientes, our package included a tour of the Sacred Valley itself, where the silvery Urubamba River winds among emerald-sided mountains until it reaches Machu Picchu itself.
We visited the ancient agricultural site of Pisac, where tall terraces step steeply down a mountainside like a massive stadium. Among their many talents, the Inca civilization also included skilled farmers – each level of the terraces had a different microclimate that would support different types of plants. Modern Peruvians still use these ancient techniques to grow food in what would seem some of the most difficult locations.
We also spent a delightful hour at the Awana Kancha Cooperative, where sixteen families keep alive the ancient weaving and dying techniques. We learned that the four different camelids of South America – the llama, the alpaca, the vicuna and the guanaco, are all related to the camels we’d seen (and ridden) in Egypt. You can pet and feed some of them, if they’re willing, and learn how dyes are traditionally made from different plants. Women in beautifully coloured clothing demonstrate their remarkable weaving. For visitors to Peru, this place should not be missed.
Following a steady stream of tour buses, we finally reached Ollantaytambo, well-known as the jumping-off point for the Inca Trail hike, but more significantly as the ceremonial centre of the Incan empire, as well as the royal estate for the emperor Pachacuti, whose golden statue dominates the Plaza de Armas in Cuzco.
More steep agricultural terraces rise up a hillside, interspersed with grain storehouses, while at the bottom there are houses, baths and fountains.
This site was chosen because of a natural feature on the mountainside which the Inca believed was the face of Tunupa, better known as Viracocha, the great creator god who rose from the waters of Lake Titicaca high up in the Andes; we would later see that lake itself and more of Viracocha at the remote ruins of Tiwanaku in Bolivia.
The town of Ollantaytambo is charming, with a colourful market and the train station where, after a quick lunch in town, we boarded our window-lined Vistadome train to Aguas Calientes.
For me this was one of our best train rides ever, as we were transported along the winding Urubamba River along the same route that Hiram Bingham followed in 1911 when he searched for the lost city of Vilcabamba, instead making one of the most famous archeological finds in history, the lost citadel of Machu Picchu. With soft pan-pipe music playing over the intercom, through the domed windows we watched the river tumble by over a series of rapids, past thick walls of vegetation and clouds rolling in over distant peaks.
I could picture what it must have been like for Bingham’s expedition hacking through the untouched jungle in search of ancient mysteries (see this photo from his journeys of crossing a rough log bridge over the raging river below the mountain on which Machu Picchu sits, and more, on the Machu Picchu Explorer website, about the book written by his son).
As dusk began to fall, we arrived at the station in Aguas Calientes,
A representative from the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel collected our luggage and we followed her through town to the property, set in 12 acres of cloud forest on the edge of town, where we would spend the next two nights in Andean comfort as we explored Bingham’s legacy for ourselves. Check back in November for what we saw and experienced in one of the world’s most famous places.
I fully support all the measures our government has recommended during this pandemic – I wear a reusable mask in all public indoor spaces, wash my hands thoroughly as soon as I get home and stay home as much as I can without going stir-crazy. In fact, everyone in our neighbourhood seems to be doing the same, regularly hanging out in their yards.
I’m extremely grateful to have a back yard to safely spend time in, and I feel for everyone living in apartments or condos these days. We’re even hoping to eat Thanksgiving dinner with my brother on our patio in three weeks if the weather holds out. We may have to bundle up in toasty sweaters and sip hot cocoa to ward off the chill as we eat surrounded by fall colours, but that will be half the fun.
But this sudden press of humanity on a daily basis has its pros and cons. We’ve chatted with our neighbours more this summer than any time in the past, from a safe distance of course. The flip side has been a sometimes disconcerting lack of privacy. My hubby and I have remedied that as much as possible by putting a small privacy garden along our back fence, with trees that should grow in fairly quickly so that it stops feeling like we’re in two fish bowls side by side.
No one’s talked about what to do if you have aggravating neighbours, though – in our case, kids who haven’t been taught to respect boundaries. Over the years I’ve loved the sound of generations of kids playing on the large island we have in our cul-de-sac, but this summer with everyone home most of the time, several neighbours have complained to one family in particular about hockey pucks hitting their parked vehicles, toys left all over the road and on other people’s lawns, and repeated trespassing. Not the worst problem to have (judging by what I’ve been reading online), but after several months it’s gotten pretty tiresome.
Yesterday, before I blew my stack and turned into a complete witch, I decided a better idea would be to take a break. Channeling Sheldon Cooper, first I did a restocking run to our local pharmacy. There’s something satisfying about foraging for all the things that help to make your life more comfortable, even in small ways – a sense of accomplishment, especially now when so much is on hold.
After that, I checked out the new Halloween stock at our Home Sense store, then hit the country roads for some fresh-air R&R.
First purchase was an assortment of pumpkins for our front porch – a vermilion Cinderella, a squat blue pumpkin and a fat white one, and of course a big orange pumpkin for carving next month. A small pumpkin pie also came home with me for an after-dinner treat. To me, pumpkins are the icons of fall – so warm and homey-looking, and so delicious in pies and Pumpkin Spice Lattes!
Next I spent some time at our local botanical garden. It must be a well-kept secret because whenever I’ve visited this year I’ve largely had the place to myself, even though the gardens are extensive and free to visit.
The peacefulness of soft sun and a light breeze on my face, the chirping of birds in the trees and bees buzzing around the flowers, never fails to help me decompress, and I love taking photos of all the artistic details – the glow of sun through leaves, the sculptural quality of plants as they bend over the water, a butterfly flitting among the bright fall-tinted flowers.
Next time you’re out in nature, lose yourself for a while in admiring the details – of an intricate flower pistil, the undersides of flowers, bees industriously gathering pollen, the juxtaposition of colours and shapes. Several gardeners were pruning and clearing, and one of them chatted pleasantly with me as I strolled by.
Gardens are magical healing places if you take the time to enjoy all their layers, even if you just sit on a bench for a while and close your eyes to steep yourself in the scents and sounds.
As I turned home, I stopped in at my favourite roadside market to buy some fresh fruit and vegetables – it’s always a treat to see what’s filling their baskets and bushels that can be turned into something delectable for our next few meals.
Feeling much better, my hubby and I had a nice, easy meal topped off with freshly-baked pumpkin pie and whipped cream, and we relaxed for the evening. It’s easy to get caught up in the news and pandemic politics, and in trying to manage daily life while things are all cockeyed, so take a break once in a while and do something that restores your equanimity. And since we’re all in this together, be mindful of everyone around you. Kindness and consideration will help smooth a lot of the journey.
As a kid, I always loved the return to school every September. I missed a lot of my friends who I hadn’t seen all summer. I couldn’t wait to go out shopping for a new outfit for the first day with my mom. I knew that fall colours and Halloween were getting closer. But most of all, I loved the buzz of learning.
I started school a year earlier than most children because my brother, five years older than me, had been going to school for a while and I wanted to go too, pestering my parents enough that they finally gave in and found a private kindergarten run by nuns that was willing to take me on.
By grade one I’d taught myself how to read and was so excited to go to the big school with my brother, who I’d guess wasn’t tickled to have me in tow on the walk to and from. I loved grade one so much that I chattered constantly, until I was reprimanded by my teacher. On the flip side, I was a good reader, and several times during that season the school hauled me around to higher classes to read to them, which I thought was pretty cool but which likely didn’t impress the older kids who had to listen to it.
What I actually remember the most was sometimes going to the factory where my dad was a security guard. I’d do the rounds with him, at night when everything was shut down, and all the machinery, hulking and shadowed, was like an intriguing alien city. Machinery fascinates me to this day.
When I was six we moved to a farm in northern Ontario, where school became a wild adventure. Elementary school took place in a classic little brown one-roomed schoolhouse, heated by a wood stove.
Autumn was wonderful there, long walks to the school past our friends’ farms, surrounded by gorgeously-coloured trees and goldenrod waving along the roadside, the tang of woodsmoke scenting the cool fall air. I think that’s where I irrevocably fell in love with autumn.
There was a crab apple tree flourishing in one corner of the school yard that provided ammunition for friendly wars during recess, and across the road a small hall that the school used for special projects and our annual Christmas ‘play’.
Winter presented a challenge, with several feet of snow blanketing the roads from November to April, and temperatures that could drop well below zero. Sometimes our teacher, who lived in a small town about 30 minutes away at the best of times, couldn’t make it to work, typically because ice had knocked out the bridge crossing the river that separated the wider world from our little hamlet, but just as often because we’d had a major snowfall and the roads were impassable from our farmhouses. One of our neighbours had a snowmobile, so sometimes he’d make the rounds picking us all up – I remember huddling in multiple layers of clothing against the extra chill from the wind in my face as we zipped over the snow.
Spring was always welcome, with sugaring season and the first bits of green peeking through the snow, although trips to town for groceries could be dicey with sudden flooding from snow melt. Summers were long and full of wildflowers, whip-poor-wills calling to each other at dusk, and swimming in a local lake.
It was a glorious place to be a child, entwined with nature and wildlife. I missed it desperately when we first moved to southern Ontario when I turned eight, but Halloween saved the day – I was finally old enough to go trick-or-treating without my parents, and we lived in a city where the houses with candy were all next to each other in walkable blocks instead of a quarter-mile apart. There was even a lady who made popcorn balls!
Since then I’ve never stopped learning. Travelling with my hubby, the whole world has become a fascinating classroom. Every culture has had something to teach us, and with each trip we’ve grown both personally and as global citizens. And we’ve had a blast doing it.
My mother-in-law for many years couldn’t understand what the appeal was; as part of the post-war generation, her vision of adult life was to settle down in a big house (with a big mortgage) and fill it with kids. But then she finally came with us to Europe, on a sort of ‘tale-of-two-cities’ adventure to London and Paris.
I still remember the look on her face when we took her to the massive Houses of Parliament overlooking the Thames in London – she was blown away by the age, the history and the incredible architecture. By the time we returned home – after exploring the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey and the British Museum, seeing Princess Diana’s gowns at Kensington Palace followed by delectable afternoon tea in the Orangerie, prowling through all the shopping halls of Harrod’s, watching street performers in Covent Garden and eating great home-cooked food in historic pubs, cramming in as much of the Louvre as we could before having afternoon tea in a Paris tea salon, looking at the grim prisoner cells at the Conciergerie and the medieval tapestries at the Cluny Museum, having chocolat chaud Viennoise piled with whipped cream on a blustery day at the Eiffel Tower and chocolate mousse at every bistro we visited, along with a superb cassoulet just down the street from our funky little boutique hotel in the Left Bank – she’d become an utter convert and couldn’t stop talking about the trip for months afterward.
Travel is one of the best educations available, but everything should remain a wonder and a gift to our minds, big or small. Never lose your curiosity and your willingness to invite something new into your brain – it’s what gives richness and stimulation to our lives. Don’t ever let your kindled flame go out.
To celebrate Labour Day this year, even though I’ve retired from full-time work at a local college and this fall have had no need for a new outfit to kick off the academic year (hey, any excuse for going shopping works for me), I cooked something nostalgic for dinner. Memories of food have always been tied to my learning adventures, whether it was trading lunch items in elementary school or sitting down for Sunday roasts on the weekend, dumping our pillowcase full of Halloween candy out on the carpet to sort through in order of desired eating, or having our first Chicken Satay in a little restaurant in the hills of Bali. My mom excelled at making meatloaf, so I tried out this online recipe from Bon Appetit, served with classic fluffy mashed potatoes, basic onion and mushroom gravy and some buttered tender-crisp asparagus. Perfect!
I’m on hiatus this week due to some pressing commitments, but this is a reminder to look for beauty all around you — it can be found in the smallest places, and it reminds us to be grateful for the beautiful planet we live on. Have a safe and healthy long weekend!
As we navigate the challenges of the pandemic, it sometimes reminds me of the challenges of the next leg of our Peru journey, and how we weathered those.
I always used to wonder why people would push themselves to physical extremes – to climb 29,000 feet up Mt. Everest into what’s called the Death Zone, where there’s so little oxygen that your body begins to die and you have just a few hours to summit and remain alive even as the majestic mountain hurls wind and snow at your battered body.
I was going to have a small taste of that on our trip to Peru and Bolivia, where we’d be spending more than a week at very high altitudes – and there was no way to discover in advance how each of our bodies would react to the stresses of being so high. I’d been nervous as we embarked on this grand adventure, but I’d done a lot of advance research and our group of travellers was as prepped as we could be.
I’d chosen this tour because it had a decent amount of time for acclimatizing to the high altitudes we’d be reaching as we journeyed up and up toward our final point, the city of La Paz in Bolivia – the highest capital city in the world.
Most people fly into Lima for a week and make a quick trip to see Machu Picchu – their limited exposure to high altitude doesn’t usually require getting acclimatized (although there have been a few fatalities even under those circumstances). High altitude isn’t something to take lightly.
Our journey was a different story, though, and as we left Huacachina to drive south along the lengthy Peruvian coastline to the town of Camana, where we would then turn eastwards up into the Andes Mountains, the coming physical challenge was on everyone’s mind.
High altitude is very different to what most of us are used to. Here in southern Ontario we live a little above sea-level, at around 300 feet. On this trip we’d be going 53 times higher than that, over 16,000 feet at one point.
My hubby and I had already weathered a brief stint at about 8,000 feet when we were in Kenya, and apart from a mild headache we’d been fine. But every 1,000 feet above that puts increasing strain on your body.
Although most people think that there’s less oxygen the higher you go, what actually happens is that the air pressure gets lower, which means that there’s less pressure available to push oxygen into your lungs to then make it available for you body’s needs.
Your body responds by working harder to make up the difference – it speeds everything up, including your breathing, shoving oxygen through your tissues as fast as it can.
This can be rather uncomfortable until your body ‘acclimatizes’ – gets used to the accelerated pace needed to survive. Some people reach that equilibrium state faster than others.
The really interesting thing is that there’s (currently, at least) no way to tell in advance how any individual’s system will react – it doesn’t matter whether you’re an athlete or a couch potato, young or old, in great health or not so much. Essentially you just have to go and see what happens – but there are ways to help your body make the adaptation more easily and to manage the symptoms until it does.
Most people start out with a headache and nausea, and perhaps a little trouble sleeping for a few days, and that’s often as bad as it gets. If you’re one of the few that has more trouble acclimatizing, or you do something unwise, you can wind up in a great deal of trouble, though.
The worst-case scenario is edema, i.e. fluid leaking into places it’s not supposed to. There are two possibilities: HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema, fluid leaking into the lungs) and HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema, fluid leaking into the brain), and while pulmonary edema is slightly less dangerous than cerebral, you really don’t want to get either of them – if they’re not treated in time, they can be fatal. In fact, a great number of the fatalities among climbers of Mt. Everest are due to one of these two conditions. They make it to the summit, but then are in such bad shape – exhausted, in pain and badly disoriented – that they either fall off the peak or sit down to rest and never get back up.
Although we weren’t facing such extreme conditions, one of our larger group of travellers would find out that choosing to not follow the acclimatization rules can be a very bad idea.
As I’ve mentioned, in Peru the mountains plunge precipitously down to the ocean, making the winding coastal road a rather white-knuckle ride. In places the road clings to the mountainside, a slender groove cut sharply into the steep slopes, with nary a barrier to stop your vehicle from tumbling a thousand feet or so onto the jagged rocks and crashing waves below.
I have a pretty good head for heights, but I took these photos leaning to the left side of the bus with my camera stuck nervously out the window on the right. Luckily the pictures turned out fairly well.
In spots the road would run through narrow cuts in the rocks, where we often saw loads of the ubiquitous potato being transported. We were actually headed nearer and nearer to the potato epicentre of the country.
Other times the coast road drops down to run endlessly away toward the hazy blue horizon, scalloped by odd inlets where the ocean runs inward enough to irrigate small farms that sit in patchwork green quilts amid the long stretches of bleached sand. The Peruvians seem to be expert at both desalination as well as finding ways to grow crops in places that look impossible.
We continued to pass a variety of tiny towns with billboards painted onto walls.
Finally we arrived in Camana in the midst of an All Souls Day festival. After a picnic lunch in an empty parking lot, some of us wandered over to the festivities, where groups clothed in a variety of colourful costumes preparing for a big parade. They were all very friendly and happy to pose for photos in all their finery.
The road began to climb as soon as we left Camana, through more surreal scenery, including some spectacular barchan dunes. These mysterious crescent-shaped dunes migrate across the desert, sometimes calving smaller dune from their horns.
Although many passengers had their heads buried in their smart phones or tablets during the day-long drive, I found the changing landscape to be endlessly fascinating.
We approached the city of Arequipa, our home for the next couple of days, as the sun was setting and painting the rocky mountain ridges orange against the cloud-collared white volcanoes.
Arequipa sits at about 8,000 feet, the entry-level height to high altitude, so it makes a perfect spot to begin acclimatizing. Giving your body time to adapt is the single best thing you can do to help yourself.
Ideally you’re supposed to ascend no more than 1,000 feet in a day, but realistically most visitors to Peru don’t have the time to take it that slowly. Spending a couple of days at around 8,000 feet though is a good start, and generally people tolerate this height fairly well. (In fact, Machu Picchu itself sits at about that height and fast visits are usually problem-free, though not always).
In addition, Arequipa is a beautiful city, full of culture and charm, and I always recommend it to people who ask me about going to Peru.
It’s often called the White City, partly because many of the buildings in its UNESCO-recognized historic centre are made from white ashlar stone from the three surrounding volcanoes, Misti, Pichu Pichu and Chachani. The pale tree-studded streets with cozy sizewalk cafes are a delight to explore, and to nosh in. We had fabulous stone-oven pizza and the best vanilla milkshakes I’ve ever had in my life – should have asked for the recipe!
There are all kinds of colourful markets and pretty gardens, but there are two standout sights that shouldn’t be missed.
The first, the Museo Santuario Andinos, to my great excitement when I found out, holds the famous Ice Maiden, the mummy of a young girl who was revealed at the peak of Mt Ampato in 1995 when a neighbouring volcano erupted and melted some of the ice at the top. Given the name Juanita, she had a short life with a dramatic ending, sacrificed to the gods in the eerie cold and wind at the top of the mountain after an arduous climb up the almost 21,000 feet of Ampato’s height, after which she was given a drugged ceremonial drink to ease her state of mind and then clubbed severely on the head to kill her.
She would likely have been sacrificed to appease the gods after an eruption of Mt. Misti, so it seems fitting that her final resting place is in the city below its white peak, Arequipa. She’s still dressed in her ceremonial garb, curled into position and kept carefully in a glass shroud in the museum. I’d seen her haunting story on National Geographic a few years previously, and was honored to be able to see her in person. Photography isn’t allowed inside the museum, but you can find out a bit more about her on the Smithsonian YouTube channel.
The other must-see is the Monasterio Santa Catalina, which hides a world of 16th century convent life inside its white walls, when extra daughters without marriage prospects were sent to make a different life.
Outside the walls, you’ll see women selling refreshments or religious items, sometimes with a child in tow.
The complex inside is enormous, a small city within a city, with zigzagging streets and hidden gardens. Nuns still live there to this day in more modern buildings, secluded from the historic front sections that you can walk through.
The novices could meet their family from time to time in this long passageway through latticed windows.
They slept in simple rooms, their beds positioned in alcoves set into the thick stone walls to shelter them from earthquakes and eruptions.
Within the stern white exterior walls, a fantastic world of colour opens up before you, with surprising juxtapositions almost Cubist in appearance, interspersed with beautiful religious murals painted among the archways.
One entire section was painted in vivid adobe red, a dramatic contrast to the heavy wooden doors and pale stones paving the lanes.
Little gardens offered places for sunlight and contemplation.
Some of the ancient conveniences were amazingly clever. Water was filtered through cones of porous volcanic rock, a process that would take several days but give absolutely clean water for drinking and cooking.
A kitchen storeroom held an array of cookware, including this fish-shaped bread pan.
My favourite contraption was a laundry system where clothes were washed and then rinsed clean in a succession of huge shell-shaped stone basins.
From the rooftops we could see the mountains looming over the city as we looked down on the labyrinth of pale roofs and reddish passages.
It was in Arequipa that we discovered the concept of what we affectionately called ‘Peruvian flat’ – there are no flat streets in most of Peru, everything seems to go uphill, or at least felt like it! The city is like an urban version of a Stairmaster, getting you in shape for the more intense walking you’ll be doing later.
We found the citizens to be very friendly, such as this mom who enjoyed watching her children play with us,
and these two crafty ladies. I prefer to take unposed shots of people going about their daily lives, but they caught me taking a photo of them, and they were so cute that I felt I had to buy one of their dolls. It sits on a shelf next to our rec room fireplace.
Arequipa was the place for those of us taking the only medication available for travel to high altitude, acetazolamide. It helps your body adapt faster, and is to be started 24 hours before you begin to ascend. For those who can’t take it, like me (it conflicted with another medication), the other options help: higher amounts of caffeine (for which the powerful Peruvian coffee was perfect) and lots of carbs to provide your body with more energy, copious amounts of water (drink until your urine is almost colourless — it helps with the headaches), and as much rest as possible between activities.
After two great days exploring this delightful city, we moved onward to our first serious high-altitude site, Colca Canyon. This canyon, believed by some to be the deepest in the world, is where the magnificent Andean condors nest and glide around on the thermals, and I really wanted to see it even though many blogs talked about how awful people felt when they reached its location at 14,500 feet.
Along the way we were treated to stunning views of the volcanoes, and we got instruction in how to chew coca leaves the way that the people of the Andes have done for a long time.
The leaves reminded me a lot of small bay leaves, if not as smooth. We were each given a bundle of about eight or nine of them, which you layer together and then place a small piece of damp banana-leaf ash in the middle. This is then rolled up like a miniature cigar and place in the corner of your mouth to be slowly chewed on either until you’ve consumed the whole thing or you feel like discarding the remainder. The sweet ash gives it a pleasant taste, and the chemicals in the ash work together with the coca leaf to make the whole thing work even better. It’s an ancient remedy that the high-altitude inhabitants have been using for centuries to help them with a variety of illnesses. It’s said that there are some common North American illnesses that these Andean people never get, but unfortunately coca leaves are illegal outside of Peru and a couple of other South American countries. I didn’t get any buzz even from chewing the leaves directly, and they did help.
We passed an area in the mountains where wild vicuna live, surviving on tough grasses with serrated edges that also sharpen their teeth as they graze.
The road to Colca runs through the town of Chivay, an unremarkable place that serves as a base to get lunch and park your weary body after a trip to the higher locale of the canyon. One of the ways to help your body acclimate, if you can’t do the whole thing slowly, is to spend a few days going up and down in altitude. For some reason that works, as we can attest from this trip.
Not everyone makes an easy transition, though – the husband of a young couple from England approached me after lunch because his wife was already severely nauseated. I gave him a Gravol tablet (aka Dramamine), told him to crush it and give it to her with some juice to hide the very bitter taste in order to get it into her system as fast as possible, and a few coca leaf candies for good measure.
Past a cactus-filled desert landscape straight out of a spaghetti Western, eventually we arrived at the top of the canyon and the viewing platforms.
The canyon itself is a breathtaking sight, which is a good thing as there’s no guarantee that you’re going to see a condor, the sacred bird of the Incas with a huge wingspan of about ten feet – they fly around on their own schedule. We were delighted when eventually a male came out, leaving its mate on her nest of eggs, to look for food. It glided through the canyon walls on its wide black wings.
There’s a small and colourful textile market on site if you’re looking for some weaving, but while my hubby and I were feeling fine, I decided to go and check on a few people who’d felt ill enough to stay on the bus, and it was good choice.
One was headachy and weak, but able to talk; the other was chilled and really out of it – an early sign of moderate High Altitude Sickness, so I hustled to find our overall tour leader and transport everyone 2,500 feet down into Chivay. In such a case, quick descent is the first stage of treatment. Along the way we stopped briefly to view the undulating hillsides of potato farms – this was where the bulk of Peru’s extensive potato crop comes from.
In Chivay we were taken to our cozy hotel to check in, with a handy llama out back to keep the lawn grass short, and great mountain views.
Several people took advantage of the hot springs the town is known for to work out some high-altitude kinks, but I accompanied our ill traveller to the local doctor. She was suffering from high altitude sickness indeed, compounded by an intestinal parasite that she’d likely picked up in Arequipa, either from brushing her teeth with tap water or from an out-of-the-way restaurant serving guinea pig. With a prescription for antibiotic, we got her back to the hotel to sleep. I had instructions from the doctor to call him in a couple of hours and let him know if she’d had any more episodes of vomiting, something she’d unfortunately chosen to conceal from me until now. I checked on her in due time and was happy to see that she was feeling better and able to eat some light chicken soup.
That evening we all gathered for dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, warming up from the high-altitude nighttime chill around the cozy fire.
Some people were already feeling the effects of our Colca Canyon visit, so I gave them recommendations, including to avoid alcohol (which acts as a CNS depressant, fighting the hard work your body is doing to speed things up).
A hearty meal under our belts, my hubby and I both retired early with headaches, something that had worried me as I was already prone to migraines. My hubby was doing a bit better than me, as he was able to take the Diamox. I took what pain medication I could and tried to relax, hoping the headache wouldn’t get much worse.
At length I fell asleep, only to be woken up around midnight by someone knocking on our door. It was one of my own group, asking what she could do for her roommate, who’d ignored my advice to skip wine with dinner and was now sitting on the bathroom floor with her head over the toilet. I dispensed some more Gravol with the same crush-with-juice instructions (when you’re that nauseated, you want to get the medication into your system before you vomit it out) and went back to bed.
By the next morning everyone was feeling more-or-less better, including the young English gal, and we hit the road once more for a long drive through the Andes to Cuzco, the cradle of Inca civilization and the gateway to the main highlight of our journey, Machu Picchu. But more adventures awaited us before we got there. Tune in for more in a couple of weeks.