August 18-26, 2019
This post covers two parts of my recent travels: a trek in Colca Canyon, Peru, and a visit to Copacabana, Bolivia.
My walk in Colca Canyon happened a little more than a week ago, but it has already receded into a past so foreign and unlikely that I am puzzled by what I might say about it that could bring it back to life. It was a small, unique adventure, unrelated to what preceded and followed it, and, in retrospect, noteworthy mostly for what it wasn’t. It wasn’t wilderness, or canyoneering, or comfortable, or social, in any meaningful way, and it wasn’t really something that I would recommend to anyone – yet it also wasn’t ordinary or predictable or sedentary. And it was often beautiful.
The bus that picked me up in Arequipa at 3:00 in the morning led through darkness in which glimpses of small houses and farms flashed by in the penumbra of the headlights. At sunup we were driving through an unearthly landscape at 16,000 feet – the Altiplano, the second-most extensive area of high plateau on Earth, behind only the high plains of Tibet. Nothing larger than a tuft of grass grew anywhere in the open miles around us, slabs of ice stuck out of the earth by the roadside, and, out the windows, past the sleeping heads of the women across the aisle, a plume of ash hung over the fumarole of an erupting volcano.
We stopped for breakfast at a little place and had what our guide gamely called a “bread buffet”: margarine and strawberry jam on Peru’s ubiquitous and deplorable cow-pat bread. With chamomile tea. This was a sign of things to come; the trekking outfit saved money by feeding us small portions of bad, cheap food, and encouraged us to make up the deficit by buying snacks from the little tiendas along the trail.
Another hour of driving took us to an overlook above Colca Canyon. Ice-topped mountains plunged down to a river, far below. Some of the marketing for Colca Canyon calls it the world’s deepest canyon, a claim which may be true, depending on what the words “canyon” and “deepest” mean. It is easy to believe that this canyon may have no rivals, if measured from the mountaintops to the river, but this doesn’t seem fair to me; from my perspective, the canyon was the gorge at my feet, and the mountains above me were an entirely different feature of the landscape. That night, when it came out over dinner that I have been to the Grand Canyon, everybody wanted to know how this experience compared. “Colca Canyon is very pretty,” I said. “But it isn’t shocking. The Grand Canyon is shocking.”
There were about 14 trekkers in my group; Spaniards, Germans (of course), Canadians, a Peruvian, a woman from India, an Irish woman, and one American – me. Our guide was an energetic young Peruvian who went by “Paul.” I was the oldest member of the group, of course, but there was a woman who was within perhaps ten years of my age; this was a Canadian mother who was traveling with her three sons, who ranged in age from 15 to perhaps 24. This woman, Kristin, was very fit by any standard, and shockingly fit for a woman of more than 50. She was twice the age of most of the other women in the group, and probably twice as strong.
I would tell you more about Kristin here, except that, despite having had several conversations with her, I hardly know anything about her. Kristin is one of those people who speaks very quietly and, when you lean in close to try to catch an occasional fricative, speaks quieter still. She told me something about a death in the family that prevented her husband from being there. The death may have involved a drug overdose, or maybe that was a story about someone else. Bone tumors may have been involved, or we may have already moved on to another person with that anecdote. To be fair, at one point I was shocked when she said something inaudible while seated next to me at the table and someone halfway across the room responded with a laugh and a comment that proved they’d heard her. I’d probably have done better if I’d been wearing my hearing aids, but I can’t wear them all day every day, on the off-chance that I might encounter someone like Kristin. My hearing is always poor but it is only rarely crippling – but it was crippling when I was trying to talk to this interesting person.
Her sons were excellent young men. Their mother had banned them from using the occasional wifi signals we encountered, so they resorted to playing cards with each other. They had converted the kid’s game, Crazy Eights, into something that an adult might enjoy, by adding an element of bluffing to it. In their version, if you have, say, three tens, you can play them all at once. You play one of the tens face up and the other two face down, and then look blithely into the faces of your brothers and say, “Well? Do you believe me?” If you call their bluff, and they didn’t have three tens, they lose their turn, but if they did have the tens, then you have to take as many cards from the draw pile as they just played. (Sorry about this dull recitation of rules, but the game seemed worth preserving.)
I grew up with four brothers, so the adversarial affection and apparently limitless vitality displayed by the Canadian brothers was as familiar to me as an old pair of jeans. Of course they communicated in a series of insults and disparaging observations about the food, their comfort, and the world at large. Of course they competed to see how quickly they could climb the switchbacks. Of course their relationship with their mother was respectful, irritated, affectionate, amused, and vaguely condescending; it could hardly have been otherwise. When a lovely German girl sat down to peel an orange, her shirt gaping open negligently, of course two of the boys stood nearby, as still and rigid as tomb effigies, their faces masks behind their sunglasses, breathing slowly and deeply and filling the air with musk. Of course they did. I was charmed by the power and purity of their youth.
The hike from the rim of the canyon to the Colca River at its base took three or four hours. We hadn’t been on the trail long when an Andean condor floated slowly by, at head height, 30 feet off the trail, watching us warily from tiny black eyes set in a scarlet head. “He is looking for dead animals,” said Paul. “He likes to eat the eyes, and then the testicles.” Paul turned to address the Irish woman. “I am sorry to say it, but it is true.”
The trail descended to and then under cliffs of columnar basalt. At one point I slipped and fell hard on a rock whose shape and position were perfectly calibrated to bludgeon the sciatic nerve in my right-side glute. I bounced to my feet with a merry “Ha ha!,” to demonstrate that the Canadians weren’t the only ones with apparently limitless vitality, but in fact the impact and pain had left me feeling slightly sick, and now, as I write these words, ten days later, I am reminded of the fall whenever I shift in my chair.
A couple from Mallorca was traveling in South America while they rented out their Mallorcan house as an Airbnb. These were Michel (Michelangelo) and Alicia. They were so happy to be together in Peru that their joy was infectious; when I saw how Alicia looked at Michel, it made me like him more; when Michel gave Alicia a little kiss, I wanted to do the same. It was a pleasure to be around them.
We spent two nights in the canyon. On the first night, we stayed with a family that had built a series of simple rooms and installed a solar-powered shower. A turkey in the yard spent his time asserting dominance over the chickens, and a shed next to the bathrooms contained several dozen fat, oblivious guinea pigs. After a relatively easy walk on the second day, which took us through two small villages where the people farmed terraces that led down to the river, we ended at little hamlet that was an oasis of palm trees and startling green at the river’s edge. I was still hungry after dinner that night, so I made friends with an enormous Peruvian dog while waiting in line at the snack shop; by the time I was able to tell the muchacho what I wanted, the dog was so excited to have a new friend that he had almost taken my arm off. I was in no hurry to return to my room – overbooking by the trekking agency had compelled me to share a room with a couple of newlyweds – so I ate my potato chips while standing away from the lights and noise, looking up at the Milky Way and the unfamiliar constellations.
At 4:30 on the following morning, we set off to climb the switchbacks up to the canyon rim – a climb of 3,700 vertical feet that ends at almost 11,000 feet. Kristin and her kids surged ahead of the pack almost immediately. I picked a pace that I thought I could maintain for hours, put my head down, and did the work without any particular trauma. A few of the members of our party, who really should not have attempted this hike in the first place, needed to be hauled out of the canyon on the backs of mules; no one seemed alarmed or put out by this, as it is something that must happen every morning, and we were all at the top by 8:30.
The bus took us back over the Altiplano during the daylight hours. There was nothing but rock and ice at 16,000 feet, but, when we dropped down to 15,000′, herds of alpaca began to show up. I was glad to see vicuña, a species of the South American camelids that was hunted nearly to extinction but which has staged a comeback after conservation measures were put into place. Instead of going back to Arequipa, I had booked a bus that would take me from Colca Canyon to Lake Titicaca, at the Bolivian border. After spending one night in Puno, Peru, I planned to cross the border and spend a few days in the town of Copacabana, on the shores of the lake.
The town of Copacabana, Bolivia, is home to about 6,000 people, all of whom seem to be at peace with the idea of living and working at an altitude that forced me to ask myself an unusual question while climbing the hill to my hotel: how slowly am I willing to walk? The town spills down a slope into Lake Titicaca, which, at 12,500 feet, is often called the “highest navigable body of water in the world,” whatever that might mean. Patrolling the lake is the Bolivian navy, which exists even though Bolivia has been landlocked since 1904; the Bolivians are not reconciled to the idea of having lost their coastline to Chile, and hope to use their Navy to reclaim their rightful territory, should the opportunity ever present itself. I’m not sure how they intend to get their navy into the Pacific Ocean, but questions like that are above my pay grade.
I discovered, after having been there for a few hours, that I was not really in the mood to be in Copacabana. My hotel was cute, but the town itself is another one of those decrepit brick-and-concrete accretions that speckle the beautiful landscape in this part of the world like carbuncles on Aphrodite Kallipygos. Luckily, the chimney from the downstairs wood stove went through a corner of my room, leaking so much smoke into the air that staying indoors wasn’t really possible; I turned necessity into a virtue and escaped the fumes while exploring the town and climbing the nearby hills. Mostly, though, the wood stove wasn’t running, so I stayed in my room, working on reservations for my upcoming visit to Europe and finishing The Life of Johnson.
Four alpacas lived at my hotel. When I saw that one had tangled his tether around some bushes, I untied the lead and led him around the shrubbery until he was untangled again. When I bent to retie the lead, he bit me on the ass.
I was looking forward to visiting the Isla del Sol, a purportedly charming place just a short ferry ride from Copacabana. This island is the setting for an important Inca creation myth. During a great flood, the sun hid under a crag on the north side of the island; Isla del Sol was the first land that appeared after the flood waters began to recede, and the sun emerged from the crag to illuminate the world once again. The island has no paved roads or motorized vehicles; donkeys are used to haul anything that the inhabitants would rather not carry on their backs. I booked a splurgy hotel for the upcoming Sunday night.
The ferry ride was cold, breezy, and so slow that I began to wonder whether I should have simply swum. After two hours, I was deposited on the beach at Yumani, where a dour man charged me a 10 Boliviano fee for setting foot on his island, and I began to climb the long flight of stone stairs that led from the harbor to the houses on the clifftops above.
At the top of the stairs I met a trim woman of approximately my age who had put down her pack to catch her breath. She had a charming English accent and was clearly an intrepid traveler; she said she had come to the island without a reservation, and intended simply to carry her gear from one hostal to another until she found one she liked. I wished her well and continued along the track, up and up, until I found my hotel, which was indeed sumptuous, by my standards. I had put my pack down and sat myself on the bed before it occurred to me that I could have invited that woman to share this lovely room with me.
This would have been absurd, of course. But still. She and I were both alone, neither of us has any time to waste, we have in common an eagerness to see the world and a willingness to be uncomfortable doing so, if necessary. She and I would have eventually learned each other’s names. She would probably have said “no” to my proposition, of course – but what if she hadn’t? Why hadn’t I thought to make the offer? Was the explanation really nothing more complicated than simple cowardice?
I went on a long walk over the south part of the island, taking pictures, making friends with a puppy, admiring the donkeys, and trying to imagine what life must have been like here among the Inca and pre-Inca people. I had read that I didn’t need to worry about food and water, because I could depend on finding them for sale in many little shops, but this information hadn’t taken Sundays into account; everything was closed, so my walk was a thirstier experience than I’d expected. The whole time I was walking, my lost opportunity with that traveler preyed on my mind. How could I have been so dull-witted and timorous? I returned to my empty room eventually, with its enormous bed and view out over the lake, and cursed myself.
That night, well after dark, I went out to find something to eat. I had to step to one side of the track to let a train of donkeys pass me, and then make my way using my phone’s flashlight. I remembered there having been a restaurant at the bend up ahead that advertised pizza on its chalkboard.
And there she was, sitting at a table in the otherwise empty restaurant, frowning down at the pizza she was sawing at with a knife. The moment I saw her, the entire absurd fantasy that I had constructed around her collapsed into the donkey-scented darkness. She was simply an old lady, no more likely to be a friend to me than anyone else, no more likely to indulge in a meaningless assignation than I have ever been, no more likely to find me an interesting person than I might be to think the same of her. What had I been thinking? What price do I imagine I am willing to pay for a few hours of human company? How desperate am I?
As I stood there in the cool darkness, aghast at my frantic, childish naivete, the last line of James Joyce’s story, Araby, came to mind. I know this claim may seem absurd, but this story affected me profoundly when I first read it, decades ago, and its concluding words are always close at hand:
Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.
My appetite was gone, so I returned to my room. The next day, I caught a bus back to Peru.