A Walk to Wilkacocha

On our last day in Huaraz, we decided to hike up to Lake Wilkacocha.  In retrospect, we should have done this one earlier, as it was much better suited for acclimatization than our other choice.  I guess now we know a little better and will be better prepared next time.

Lago Wilkacocha

The Cordillera Blanca

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Health, Happiness, and Lots of Cats

Two hours after our alarm originally went off on Wednesday, I was still sitting in the dark in our hostel room, because Craig awoke with a fever and chills. After taking some tylenol (or paracetamol, as it’s known everywhere else in the world… why do we call it acetaminophen?), he tried to sleep it off and our early start for that day’s hike was missed. It’s not the first time in the past several days that one of us has felt poorly–in fact, that morning looked almost the same as it did on Monday, but with our roles reversed. As Craig described earlier, the altitude here in the Cordillera Blanca is playing havoc with our health. And in my case, it’s been one long slog of ailments.

Craig trying to regain equilibrium during our Laguna Churup hike. Ultimately unsuccessful.

My body has seemed to be in rebellion since our ill-fated Salkantay trek. It started with a cold, which waylaid me in Ollantaytambo for several days. A part of me was disappointed since the landscape was beautiful, but to be honest, a larger part of me was just really sick of hiking and glad for an excuse to avoid it. When we returned to Cusco, I felt fairly well despite SAE’s assistant manager, Bryan, commenting every day on the amount of snot one woman could produce.

And then the rash started.

Now, I have a holy horror of scabies. Several months before our trip, one of the patients on my floor was found to have scabies, and gave it to two of the nurses. The Swedes, who we met in San Martin de los Andes, also got scabies during their trip (they think from dirty hammocks in Cuba). In either case, the experiences did not sound fun. “Scabies” is also one of the most grotesque names a contagious, crusty, parasitic rash can have. So, as you can imagine, when the itching started, my immediate fear was that it was scabies. But, as I didn’t want it to be scabies, I managed to convince myself for some time that it was not.

Feeling well enough to get drunk with these fools on our last night in Cusco, a fiasco involving two Chileans, two Peruvians, lots of vodka and pisco, and an international shoving match.

Despite some moments of contentment, for those three weeks from Ollantaytambo to Lima, I was in a definite funk. I didn’t care where we were or where we were going. I was sick of Peruvian food. If I never saw another Incan ruin for the next ten years, it would be too soon. And amid everything else, the rash was not going away. As a medical health professional, I know that I should have gone to see a doctor. But navigating the medical system here is somewhat daunting. We considered just going to a pharmacy and describing my symptoms to whoever was there and asking for something, but I could never bring myself to do it. Too public a place, perhaps. To make things worse, when I described it to my brother, who’s a PA, his first thought was also scabies. Not encouraging.

And so we arrived in Lima. Our hostel (Che Lagarto), was about three blocks away from Parque Kennedy, a small plaza where about 50-60 cats live permanently. CATS! In abundance! But they still weren’t enough to penetrate my haze of indifference.

One Limeña, who had lived in Miraflores her whole life, said that the cats had “always” been there. She also said the city, as well as cat-loving citizens, feed them. And if you want to take one home? No problem!

Craig, fed up with dragging my sorry ass around, finally called me on it. He wanted me to read the guidebook. He wanted me to have an opinion on what we were doing. He wanted me to actually care about things. In short, he wanted me to be involved, when it felt like doing anything beyond existing was not in my willpower. Though I knew what he was asking of me was totally reasonable, I resented it.

But Lima, that wonderful “horror” of metropolitan proportions, was up to the challenge of breaking through my ennui. With a population of 8.4 million, it is about 10 times larger than the next biggest city in Peru–Arequipa. It is the 5th largest city in South America. Miraflores, the most popular tourist neighborhood, is stuffed with shopping malls, department stores, restaurants, cinemas, and fast food chains. Not since Santiago, when we first arrived in South America nearly 5 months ago, had we been in a city of such epic proportions. It didn’t feel exactly like home, but it did feel like I could get anything I wanted in Lima, which is a feeling that I haven’t had since we started traveling. In one grocery store, I found ranch dressing. It was a heady feeling.

When we met up with Sarai and her friend, Melissa, for drinks on our third night in Lima, I decided to ask them what I should do about my rash. I thought they, being Limeñas, would know what to do.

“You’ve had this for THREE weeks?” they shrieked. Sarai, that wonderful type of person who loves to boss other people around, immediately grabbed a pen and paper and proceeded to write down what hospital I should go to and where it was.

“But we’re leaving tomorrow, and our bus is at 11:00! We won’t have enough time to go to the hospital in the morning,” we protested. “Maybe we should just go to a hospital in Huaraz.”

“Don’t go to a hospital in Huaraz,” said Melissa. “You will die.” (The disdain some Peruvians have for their own country’s amenities is something that surprises us from time to time.)

Since I didn’t want to die, we decided to take up Sarai’s offer to stay with her for another few nights in Lima, while I got my problems straightened out. “I don’t think it’s parasitic, though,” she told me. I immediately felt relief. We had a plan, and if Sarai thought something, then it was sure to be true.

At 27-years-old, Sarai is three years younger than me, but she and Melissa, who was 28, acted as if we were mere infants, needing their guidance and instruction in every aspect of our lives, instead of just in matters of South American health care. Sarai told us matter-of-factly that she was the most successful family member of her generation, because she had had a legitimate job with possibilities of advancement, and she had been supporting her parents. Then she fell in love with a Frenchman and quit to travel and volunteer for charities. She said herself that her family was a little disappointed, but there’s no fighting against love… especially when it’s in French.

Still, Sarai was a great hostess, and I’m grateful to her not only for letting us stay with her, but for being so inexorable in her practicality and optimism, that she unknowingly pulled me out of my funk. It’s hard to be depressed around somebody who has no understanding of its concept. Life, to Sarai, was something to enjoy and experience… something to be consumed with a voracious appetite, not to be wasted and floated through like an amoeba.

Lining the pathways of Parque Kennedy. Naptime, apparently.

The hospital experience was relatively painless. I paid S./9 (US $3.50!) for an appointment with a dermatologist, and after only about an hour wait, we were seen. I described my symptoms and confirmed that Craig did not have any of them. She took one look at my back and immediately wrote me prescriptions for clobetasol, the strongest topical steroid you can get, and levocetirizine, an antihistamine.

“But what is it?” I asked.

She told me I had pityriasis rosea, a non-contagious rash that is almost always preceded by an upper respiratory infection–the cold that I got in Ollantaytambo, presumably. It wasn’t serious and should go away soon; meanwhile, the drugs she prescribed would help with the itching. While the consultation was practically free, the drugs were not. Together, they cost S./86, or US $32. But anything for peace of mind (and to stop that infernal itching).

When I heard the diagnosis, I think the last remaining cobwebs of my indifference were swept away. I didn’t have scabies, life was good. The rest of our time in Lima was spent mostly in relaxation at Sarai’s tiny, but comfortable, home. We never saw the sun the entire time we were there–Lima is one of the cloudiest cities in its latitude and low-level fog persists throughout the winter–but it was still relatively warm. We managed a last visit to see the cats, we went to the coast, and we bought new jeans for Craig.

Cats cats cats… everywhere you looked.

We were sorry to leave Sarai when the time came, but we made promises to see each other again someday.

Since we left Lima, however, I’ve experienced one or the other of the following, as either a side effect of the antihistamine I was prescribed or a symptom of altitude-sickness:

  • fever
  • chills
  • muscle aches
  • fatigue
  • constipation
  • diarrhea
  • headache
  • loss of appetite (this one’s probably a real shocker to anyone who knows me)

But my rash is almost all gone, and, more importantly, I’ve regained my sense of humor. Traveling without a sense of humor is not a productive endeavor. Huaraz is an incredibly beautiful spot; they say you can see 23 peaks over 5,000 meters from the city. I haven’t personally counted, but it is awe-inspiring. And although we failed to reach Laguna Churup, at least the weather was great and the scenery gorgeous.

I like the way they worded the trail regulations. I agree that there’s nothing wrong with killing as many mosquitos as possible. There are far too many in existence.

Some people I talked to thought my depression was due to the fatigue of traveling for four months. Others thought it was because of my health issues. And still others thought the Salkantay trek just sort of destroyed my confidence in making good decisions and handling ups and downs. I think it was some combination of the three… and you can’t underestimate the soul-sucking power of a Bob.

I’m sure there are tons of people out there who think I’m a ninny for even considering being depressed on a year-long South American adventure. But travel can be exhausting, and when you’re not healthy, it can seem a chore. Still, I suppose I would rather have the bubble guts and be in Peru, than not have the bubble guts and be at home. Illnesses come and go, but who knows when I’ll ever have the chance to see these peaks again?

The Cordillera Blanca. Someday, we will come back and conquer these peaks!! Or at least kind of hike around them a little…

So the best I can do is try to stay positive, and be grateful for what still is a wonderfully fulfilling experience. Craig and I will treat ourselves to some pizza tonight, and then hope that in the morning, for the first time since we’ve arrived in Huaraz, both of us will be feeling good. It’s not too much to hope for, is it? As Sarai would say, with the right attitude, anything is possible.

One last cat. It’s too cute not to post.

Cordillera Blanca

Nevado Huascaran from the Yungay cemetery.

Nevado Huascarán is the tallest mountain in Perú, at 22,200 feet in elevation.  In 1970, an earthquake triggered a massive landslide that completely buried the town of Yungay.  92 people survived by running to the top of this cemetery, but the majority of the town’s inhabitants perished.  It’s pretty difficult to comprehend the magnitude of this disaster; a modern-day Pompeii.  Peru declared the town a national cemetery, and prohibited any excavation.

Lago Llanganuco, in between Nevado Huandoy and Huascaran.

altitude sickness is the worst

After two nights in Huaraz (10,000 ft in elevation), I thought we were acclimatized enough to attempt a day hike to nearby Laguna Churup (14,600 feet).  Surely all of that time in Cusco would help us get used to the elevation quicker, right?  We took a combi to the village of Llupa (11,800 feet), and begin to hike towards Pitec and the entrance to the Huascaran National Park.

On the road to Pitec. Nevado Churup in the distance.

The hike between Llupa and Pitec was stunning.  The peaks of the Cordillera Blanca loom overhead and I was overflowing with happiness to be in such a beautiful place.  We passed by families harvesting potatoes, and others shepherding their small herds of cows and sheep up and down the road.  After a short break at the entrance to the national park (12,450 feet), we started the real climbing, and it was only shortly after we had payed our S./20 ($7.50 USD) entrance fee that I began to think I wasn’t going to make it.

Looking south from the entrance to Huascaran National Park.

Altitude sickness has a way of sneaking up on you.  Initially, I just felt very lightheaded, and short of breath.  Both of these things are pretty normal when hiking at altitude, and they were things we experienced while on the Salkantay trek.  But at some point I had some pretty extreme muscle fatigue set in, and then my lightheaded-ness started to turn into a headache.  The elephant sitting on my chest was only growing heavier.  We passed some other trekkers at about 13,600 feet and were encouraged to learn that we only had about one hour and 1,000 more feet of elevation to go!  It was shortly after this that I sat down on a rock and knew I could go no further.

Walking along a relatively flat part of the trail, close to my turning-back point.

Sheena decided to continue up the trail a bit further, hoping to get a closer shot of Nevado Churup.  She was tired, but not feeling any of the affects of altitude sickness that I was.  As I tried to wait for her to return, sitting in the middle of the trail, I realized that my symptoms were only getting worse.  I quickly wrote a note for her, built a little cairn so that she wouldn’t miss it, and started descending as fast as I could.

“Amber waves of grain” and Nevado Churup.

Looking back down the valley. The beautiful scenery reminded me of both the Colca Canyon (only greener) and the Sacred Valley.

On the descent, we were fortunate to run across a taxi (or colectivo, since others would get in too) which could take us all the way back to Huaraz, thus avoiding the wait for a combi in Llupa.  It turned out to be the loudest vehicle I have ever ridden in.  The whole body shook violently with every ridge and pothole the road presented.  The driver stuffed newspaper between the window glass and the car door to minimize the rattling.  And even though this trip most likely resulted in my continued headache through the night, I sort of loved the randomness and uniqueness of the experience.  Sheena waved back to every child we passed and we laughed at the small chickens, ducks, and dogs that ran for cover in front of us.

Rattling down the mountain road in Mi Rocio.

Altitude sickness can linger too, and I’m still feeling much less than 100% today.  Sheena is actually feeling pretty sick as well.  Perhaps the effects were only just delayed for her.  Our only hope is that we can get over it, and plan some more hikes in the near future.  The landscape is calling for me, and I badly want to go exploring.