Condors at Colca Canyon

It was another early start this morning (5.30am) as today we would be leaving Arequipa to continue exploring this fascinating South American country.

At least when we woke up the room was clear of any CO fumes, and I started the day with a clear head, feeling in fine health and looking forward to my breakfast.

We joined the others in the dining room and I enjoyed a breakfast of boiled eggs, ham and cheese, and washed it down with some good strong Peruvian coffee.  Then we returned to room 125 in the basement and packed up our cases and took them to the foyer, ready to be loaded onto the bus.

Off we went once again, into the wide open spaces of the varied landscape.  The bus continued its way along the roads and dirt tracks, and we climbed steadily higher and higher into the Andes.  All around us was a rugged volcanic landscape with the occasional lush green cultivated valleys, where the farmers still use the ancient Inca agricultural terraces to grow their crops and try to earn a living from the land.  We also saw lots of sheep, llama and alpaca, and passed small villages and trading posts where the locals would wait for the tour buses to come along so they could try to sell their hand-made wares.

After a couple of hours we stopped for a comfort break (to use the ‘facilities’).  As we were climbing higher Roasario recommended a cup of the coca leaf tea which is reputed to relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness.  The café where the tea was served was also a shop, selling all sorts of souvenirs from panpipes, to alpaca knits and leather to silver jewellery, handbags – all sorts of stuff.  I was looking for a gorgeous soft alpaca wrap or shawl, but there were none that particularly caught my eye, although they were all very nice.  There were lots of hand-knitted hats typical of those worn in the Andes (and indeed quite fashionable at home) with the ear-flaps and the plaited ties; I bought one for the bargain price of 10 soles, which is only £2.50!  How cheap is that?  In fact, quite a lot of the people in our party bought hats and scarves, if not for themselves then as gifts to give to those back home.

The sun was out but the day was not particularly warm; as we were climbing higher so the air would be cooler, and we already noticed that the breeze had quite a nip to it.  I had brought a hooded sweatshirt so I could put it on over the top of my t-shirt when the weather got cooler.

Once we were all rounded up and back on the bus, we continued on our way, Lizzie rabbiting on as usual.  She had a particularly irritating habit of saying “No?” or “Huh?” every three or four words; for example “Today… no?  We are going to Colca Valley… no?  Where you might see condors…no?”  In the end, Alison and I weren’t actually listening to what she was saying, but now many times she would say “No?”    Aaargh!   In fact, Alison put in her iPod earphones to try to block Lizzie’s voice out!   🙂

After another couple of hours, we arrived at a terrific viewing spot high above Colca Canyon.  Colca Canyon, at 13,000 feet deep, is more than twice the depth of the Grand Canyon in the USA.  All we could see were soaring mountains, valleys and lakes.  You felt as if you were on top of the world, in fact it brought to my mind those lyrics by the ‘Carpenters’:

I’m on the top of the world, looking down on creation…

When we got off the bus, we noticed that the air temperature had cooled significantly, even though the sun was shining brightly.  We had now reached our highest point of the holiday so far (in the literal sense!) as we were at an altitude of just under 16,000 feet.  Today we were going to enjoy a packed lunch al fresco, and I noticed as we collected our lunches and bottles of water and found somewhere to sit and eat them that it was much more difficult to breathe in the thinner air.

We had been provided with a prodigal lunch; there were two lots of club sandwiches; one containing cheese and ham and one containing chicken, avocado and salad, as well as an orange and banana, fruit juice, cake, chocolate and a little packet of sweets.  To be honest, however, most people didn’t seem to have much of an appetite, but we made sure to drink all of our water as dehydration (due to the increased rate in breathing) will make altitude sickness worse.

We sat there looking at the amazing scenery and indeed we were lucky enough to see some condors swooping, wheeling and gliding majestically on the mountain updrafts.  The condor is Peru’s national bird and is the most famous bird of the Andes.

After I’d eaten my lunch I decided to go and sit in a shaded area as I didn’t want to get sunburnt, and it would be easy to underestimate the sunshine in the cool mountain air.  So I walked over to sit behind some rocks, and I couldn’t believe how much of an effort it was, it really made me puff and pant.  One or two of the others looked as if they were feeling the effects of the altitude; one guy in our party had difficulty breathing as he has a bad chest.

Just to explain what altitude sickness is – it’s a phenomenon that affects people at altitudes of over 8,000 feet.  It doesn’t matter if you’re old or young, fit or unfit, some people are susceptible to it and others aren’t.  The symptoms are brought about due to two things; the reduction of atmospheric pressure and the drop in oxygen levels.  The drop in pressure causes your guts to expand, so you’ll find your clothes feel a little tighter and you also might suffer from flatulence (!!) as your intestines fill with gas.   🙂

Also, the lack of oxygen means that your breathing and heart rate increase to try to get the oxygen round your system; this also has the effect of suppressing the appetite.  The less-pleasant symptoms include a severe headache as well as dizziness, nausea and/or vomiting.   😦   During this tour we had been climbing up slowly in order to try to acclimatise ourselves to the altitude, and 16,000 feet was the highest we’d go to, so as long as we could cope with that, we should be OK.

We finished our lunches, packed up our stuff and got back on the bus, where I collapsed, puffing and panting, into my seat.  Quite a few of us had a nap on the bus; it was either due to the thinner air or the early-morning start, or both.

We arrived at the Casa Andina Colca hotel around 5.00pm.  The hotel looked very nice; it consisted of individual log-style cabins which were very spacious inside.  Trevor and I had a gigantic double bed; in fact you could have put four of us in it easily.  There was also a large bathroom, table and chair, flat screen TV and some thoughtfully provided portable oil-filled electric radiators.  We also noticed that electric blankets were provided.  🙂

Dinner tonight was included, and we’d already given our choices to Rosario earlier.  We had a couple of hours to kill before dinner; I went outside to have a look around, but the sun had gone and with the dusk came the cold night.  Also, as I was walking along the path to the main part of the hotel, I noticed my breath coming heavily and quickly, so I went back to our room and decided to have a nap until it was time to eat.  Trevor had already gone to bed as the altitude was starting to get to him too.

Just before 7.00pm I decided to go over and join Stephen and Alison and the others for dinner, but Trevor said he wasn’t hungry and decided to stay in bed; nothing I could say would tempt him to come and eat.  He said he had a headache and also his guts were rumbling in an ominous manner; I’d said I’d bring him back some coca tea.

The meal was very good.  I started off with potato soup which was hot and tasty, then I had vegetable rigatoni in a spicy tomato sauce, followed by fresh fruit.  We were then entertained by a group of local musicians who played the traditional and easily-recognisable music of the Andes using panpipes, the flute, guitar, mandolin and drums.  They were all dressed in the traditional woollen ponchos and wide-brimmed hats and they were joined by a couple of dancers who gave us a display.  Trevor had picked the wrong night to miss dinner!

I wanted to buy the musicians’ CD, so I returned to the room and got some money from Trevor, then went back and bought the CD for 30 soles (£7.50).  I then decided to chance a glass of white wine (it’s not recommended to drink alcohol at high altitude as it contributes to dehydration).  So I bought the wine and decided to take it back to our room to drink.  But I couldn’t finish it!  It’s never been known for me not to finish a glass of wine!!  I must have been feeling out of sorts!   😦

We went to bed early tonight, after first of all turning on the portable heater to take the chill off.  Despite the nice big bed with huge quilt and plenty of firm pillows, we both slept restlessly, punctuated by visits to the loo.  We hoped we weren’t going to be struck down with anything; already quite a few people in our party had shown signs of sickness.


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