We were picked up at the hotel by Elfer (our guide), Pepe (the driver) and Nestor (drivers assistant). Elfer took a little while to adjust to. His almost over friendliness and staged humour did, by the end of the day, reveal itself to be part of his "act". Our initial view that he was irritating was replaced by liking him. Pepe was good fun and chatted to us off and on during the tour, improving his English as we improved our Spanish.
There are about 17 in our group, a mix of Germans, Scots, Peruvians and Aussies. The Aussies were father and daughter - she was irritating and I think everyone found he so. In some ways I felt a bit sorry for her. Everything about her from the way she dressed, behaved, spoke, struck up conversations, was screaming out that she wanted attention. She seemed very different to her father and I wondered what he made of his daughter.
On this trip they have the tourist route perfected. Before we had even left Arequipa there was the first stop to "buy water, biscuits, local handicrafts, use the toilets", one of several en route. Ahead of us we have a five hour journey until we reach our overnight hotel at Corporaque. I've woken up with a cold and do not feel great. There is a bus strike tomorrow and if it wasn't for that we would have tried to delay our trip. The strike means that all roads into and out of Arequipa will be closed for most of the day.
Writing this 2 days on, I can't really remember much of the trip. The countryside was similar to Northern Chile - vast open expanses of desert like landscape, framed by high mountains. Where there is water there is agriculture and green strips of fertile land. These are few and far between. As we climb the landscape changes and long spiky grass appears, itself also replaced higher up by cactus and moss style plants. Higher still we see vicunas and llamas - all very similar to our trip in Chile to Lago Chungaro.
Shortly after the tarmac runs out and you are on to bumpy roads we stopped for a break. The usual assortment of colourful textiles are on display and we both bought a hat (bad buys that we'll probably leave behind). We also opted for a local brew - coca leaves and something else I can't remember the name of. The locals claim its a good way of combating altitude sickness and settling your tummy. With a spoonful of sugar it didn't taste too bad and I was thankful that the gurgling in my tummy was a pleasant acceptance of this local delicacy rather than an adverse reaction!
We stopped a couple more times. At each stop I felt a little more light-headed and unsteady on my feet. At the highest point, just over 5,000m, I did not get off the bus. Stef was fine and snapped away capturing the piles of stones placed by locals and visitors alike, each of which is an offering asking for good luck (I think!). By this stage I had a thumping headache and couldn't correct the pressure in my ears. After forty minutes and 1,300m downhill we arrived at Chivay, the entrance to the National Park of the canyon. By then the pressure in my head was high and I felt like I had a migraine.
Our hotel at Corporaque was about 15 minutes further on. I'm not one to succumb lightly to illness but when I do it always reduces me to tears. These came as soon as we were in our room. My head was pounding, I felt sick and I was hot and cold at the same time. Seeing the tears Stef knew something was wrong. He checked the health section of Lonely Planet and then called someone from the hotel. His suspicions were confirmed - I had altitude sickness!
Smile @ S/.1 each...
The lady from the hotel was superb. I was anxious and scared because it can be dangerous. She reassured me that its quite normal, to relax and try to sleep. She wrapped me warmly in blankets and having dismissed Stef and sent him off to lunch she set about sorting me out.
She had come armed with a bottle of alcohol - not the drinking kind - which she poured onto her hands and made me inhale. This helped to clear the airways and ease my breathing. She massaged my head to relieve the pressure, fed me aspirin and water and left me to sleep, checking in on me during the afternoon. Bad as I was, I wasn't the worst affected - nurses were called out to check on one lady who had tingling sensations in her arms and legs.
Rather than seeing the local sights and having a dip in the thermal pools, the standard part of the tour, I spent the rest of the day tucked up in bed and feeling lousy. Stef also stayed at the hotel and I could tell he was concerned about me. In the evening I managed to make it to dinner but could only face a small bowl of soup. I still felt strange and moments of total lucidity were interspersed with a pounding head and a distracted, not entirely there, type of feeling.
I was anxious about the next day knowing that the return trip would take us back through the same path and altitude. The pressure in my head has eased but I'm still full of cold. I didn't suffer like this at higher altitudes in Chile and am rationalising it (and hoping) that the cold is a significant factor!
Postscript note from Stef: Yes, Ness was feeling like sh*t this day, but in the evening she did make it out for a little bite of the buffet and afterwards we stood outside, looking at the stars - I had managed to cajole Ness to come outside briefly. Unfortunately the scene was rather lost on Ness, but the setting was simply stunning, with a dark, black sky filled with stars, more than I have ever seen in a sky (and I have seen a few by now!), with a dense thick ribbon of the Milky Way. Being at high altitude in the thin cold air it added to the special atmosphere of the place. Even now, writing this postscript over a year later (Nov 2006 to be precise), this was one of those moments that still stands out in my mind, even after all the other sights that followed. Oh, and the buffet was pretty amazing too, with tasty local fresh veggies, soups and fruit - it just tastes so ... intense, simple things like a tomato burst with flavour.