Seeing the world, one country at the time

Colca Canyon and the Coca Leaf

Anyone who has been to the Grand Canyon knows how vast and impressive it is. Now imagine visiting a canyon twice as deep (at 3400 meters), and three times as wide (2000 meters). That is the Colca Canyon, located in the department of Arequipa in southern Peru, between the Ampato and Coropuna volcanoes,
and that was the destination of our first tour. It was considered the deepest canyon in the world until recently outdone by Cotahuasi canyon, in the same region. We’re joining a two day tour to see this natural marvel.

Elvis has been spotted! He is our driver and touches his two icons of the Virgin Mary hanging in the window every time he gets behind the wheel, to ask for protection and safety on our trip. Raul, our guide, explains tirelessly about the landscape and cultures of the region. Our bus is full of older Americans. All they talk about is what and where they shop and for how much. As we climb into the mountains, the air becomes very dry and dusty, not surprising as this is the driest season, just before the rains begin. There are piles of small stones all along the road, skillfully placed on top of each other; offerings to Pachamama, the earth goddess, for a safe trip. It is a local tradition, but nowadays, visiting travelers are more prone to build these offerings for continued good luck on their journey, wherever it may lead them. There are 60-70 volcanoes in the area, and the white color of the ground and surrounding hills is ash from an eruption 400+ years ago in another region.

We enter the Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca and spot some vicuna. This graceful and fleetfooted cousin of the llama, is wild and difficult to catch. Its rare wool is so fine that it takes four animals to make one kilo of wool and is therefore the most expensive. It cannot be dyed and remains the tanned or beige color of the animal. We stopped at a restaurant for our first mate de coca, the liquid version of the narcotic.
The leaves floating in the hot water are recommended to deal with the altitude.

Besides the vicunas, this area is full of domestic sheep and alpaca, as that is the primary sustenance of the Andean people in this area. Alpaca are used for both their wool and their meat. Their wool is much softer than that of the llama, and their meat is tasty and low in cholesterol. They are smaller than llamas, lighter, shorter and have more wool. And they are about the cutest animals I have ever seen, with large doe eyes and long lashes. Young girls take care of baby alpacas like dolls or pets, grooming, feeding and wrapping them in their arms and holding them in their laps. At the cafeteria, several alpaca boldly approach us to beg for food and we tourists are hard pressed to refuse such adorable furry creatures.

As we continue from the cafeteria we enter a dirt road and are then asked to pay a toll. To use a dirt road?! We spot Andean Geese, gulls and ducks. Straw houses and stone walls separated by large spaces hold in the animals. We arrive at the Mirador de los Andes (higher than Mont Blanc), which is our highest point at 4900 meters or more than 16,000 feet. There are stone offerings everywhere, and out of breath I try to climb to see some of them. This is our first experience with high altitudes and even the smallest effort requires a disproportionate amount of lung capacity. Our muscles just don’t seem to work – something we would experience time and again over the next couple of months.

Driving on, I observe “Alan 2006” painted everywhere on walls and rocks. Alan Garcia, a current candidate for president, is running for a second run. He was President in the 80’s and wreaked havoc on the economy. How he has the nerve to run again or why they want him back is beyond me. Large furry dogs lie randomly on the side of the road, seemingly without owner or home, but what are they doing here in the middle of nowhere? We come upon large rocks spread out along our lane, where newly laid asphalt is drying. These boulders could tear up your tires at night when it is pitch dark. It is much more effort to place these than to throw down some orange cones. We sway around them on these endless curving roads. At one point we are stopped short by a burro in the middle of the road. We think its herder put it there on purpose, to entice us to take photos of his llamas, and elicit a tip.

As we wind through the mountains, the altitude puts everyone to sleep. My lips are dry, my heart pounding, it feels like there is a brick in my head. My eyes are dry and swollen, my nose stopped up. I feel a burning sensation as if I need to sneeze. Today I have learned that in these Andean heights, you need sun block. The sun in strong and bright this high up. You also need sunglasses, chapstick, toilet paper, water and a sweater. The fresh air is great, but cold. Outside, I try to fill my lungs, but my tiny sea-level lungs are just too small to swallow enough oxygen.

Raul must sense the suffering of us weak tourists, so he takes the time to explain how to chew coca, a staple of the Andean diet. In his book “Realm of the Incas, Victor W. Von Hagen states that “Coca, its use and disuse, has been a subject of debate – now more than ever – since white men came upon it in full use among the Incas. Coca is as old as Peru; of it Pedro de Cieza de Leon wrote: ‘If coca did not exist – neither would Peru’ “. The Incas called it the “divine plant”.

You can get coca anywhere in Peru and Raul had bought some on our way out of town. We didn’t try any ourselves, so I can’t confirm the effects, but he was obviously an expert, keeping a wad in his mouth at all times. Garcilaso “The Inca” de la Vega wrote “…so pleasant is cuca to the Indians that they prefer it to gold and silver and precious stones… They chew them but do not swallow, they merely savour the fragrance and swallow the juice.” Raul knew how to savor coca.

For those of you planning a trip to Peru or Bolivia or even northern Argentina, I offer the following guidelines:
• In your bag of coca leaves, you should find a small block, called llucta, of limestone and ash mixed with other herbs such as anis. If not, you should obtain one.
• Take eight to ten leaves, then break off a piece of the llucta and roll it into the leaves.
• Place this in the back of your mouth, and wait eight to ten minutes until it is thoroughly wet.
• By now your tongue should be numb, and you are ready to chew.
• The effects should last 20 to 40 minutes and according to those that know, it should take away any effects of altitude sickness and give you energy to handle the harsh terrain of the Andes.

Von Hagen, however, suggests that “the method is to make a wad of coca leaves about the size of a brazil nut. The quid is stuffed into the side of the mouth, into which is placed a pinch of lime, which helps to extract the juice. This when swallowed makes the chewer less susceptible to cold, thirst, hunger and fatigue.”

It is good to point out at this juncture that coca leaves are the raw material for the production of cocaine, but are in no way equal to the refined cocaine drug. Coca was used for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years. It was an original ingredient of our well-loved Coca Cola soft drink. As for addiction, the word on the street is that it isn’t addictive, though those who chew do so almost constantly. Von Hagen wrote “…and not alone in Peru, but throughout all the Andes and into the Amazon; today there are over five million people addicted to it.” Let me just add that the first to make money off of coca were the Spanish conquerors and then their clergy, as they sold and resold it in the Indian markets. Colombian cartels are just the new kids on the block.

Our first night is spent at the Hotel Casa Andina, a gorgeous hideaway of Andean-style cabins in Chivay, a little oasis valley between the volcanoes. The room cost $70, the most expensive hotel room we would have and a major blow to our budget. But, on a night when Atahualpa’s revenge was about to strike, it was worth every penny to be comfortable. Maybe we should have chewed some coca, because the altitude and stomach troubles hit us so hard that we were in bed by 5 pm while everyone else went to enjoy the thermal baths. Even when our buffet dinner was served with the accompaniment of dancers and Andean singers, Lars preferred to crawl back under our huge comforter. Rest was crucial because we had a big day coming up. We were headed to see the Condors.