We set off from Arequipa in a small bus with a new guide. Peter announced he would be our doctor and gave a detailed lecture on preventing altitude sickness. I had brought a prescription but opted for the recommended combination of coca leaf, dark chocolate and mineral water. I soon had a big wad of coca tucked in my cheek, interspersing fresh chews with chocolate and water. A difficult regime but seemed to work. The highest point we reached was Abra Patapampa — over 16,000 ft. and a similar elevation to Everest base camp — and I did all right. Your experience may vary.
It was remarkable to see just how common coca leaf is in Peru. It is completely legal and every hotel breakfast bar provides a basket of coca leaves and coca teabags. There is no buzz from chewing coca leaf and it seems to be a very innocuous plant unless, of course, converted into cocaine at ~500lb of leaves for a pound of white powder. There was little evidence of drug use in Peru; almost no tobacco except among tourists and no evidence of drunkenness. Presumably it all exists but we saw none. My experience makes me sympathetic to the widespread South American belief that the drug problem results from our consumption not their production.
It was quite a drive. We passed through the Aguada Blanca National Park with its herds of alpaca, llama and vicuña, their wild camelid relative. Beautiful animals.
The road wound its way up to Abra Patapampa which, at over 16,000 feet, is on a level with Everest base camp and said to be the highest paved pass in the Americas. Then it was 4,000 feet down endless long switchbacks until the terraced fields of Chivay, at the head of the Colca Canyon, came into view.
Next task was a walk from the village of Coporaque to the Tumbas de Yuraq Qaqa, looted pre-Incan tombs. A steep hike; hard on the lungs going up and hard on the knees coming down. Trekking poles are recommended!
It all came right with a nice hot mineral bath at La Calera Thermal Waters and a meal and bed at the quirky Pozo De Cielo hotel in Chivay.