Saturday #14: Here’s To Family

I boarded a bus in the mid-sized Peruvian city of Arequipa at 6:00 a.m. on Friday and by early that evening I was settled into my hostel in the small rural town of Chivay. I knew this wasn’t going to be an all-inclusive beach vacation but nevertheless Chivay was a bit of a shock to the system. At 3657m (12,000′) above sea level there were traces of snow in the cobblestone alleys and a damp chill in Chiva’s high mountain air.
According to Wikipedia: “No passable roads existed between Arequipa and Chivay until the 1940s when a road was completed to serve the silver and copper mines of the region.” Even with an aggressive bus driver, we managed to cover the 160 km distance in 11 hours. The new road is that good.

To be fair, part of the reason for the long day was that we stopped for snacks, photos and coca products on several occasions. I knew next-to-nothing about coca until I met Pedro, a Peruvian national who was riding the bus. Pedro knew a lot about coca. He could talk at length about coca tea, coca leaves, and presumably other derivatives of the coca plant.

Our un-spoken agreement with Pedro was that he would teach us the finer points of chewing coca and in exchange we would listen to his well-practiced 30-minute diatribe on why the coca leaf should be removed from the United Nations list of prohibited drugs. Cocaine, after all, is a derivative of the coca leaf. As far as I know, none of the backpackers on the bus had Ban Ki-moon’s cell number handy. Pedro didn’t seem to grasp that minor detail.


“When chewed, coca acts as a mild stimulant and suppresses hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue. It helps overcome altitude sickness. Coca chewing and drinking of coca tea is carried out daily by millions of people in the Andes without problems, and is considered sacred within indigenous cultures.” –

Pedro placed about 25 leaves in the palm of his hand. He then dug deep into the pocket of his alpaca-wool coat and produced a piece of grey, chalk-like material about the size of my thumb. He broke off Chicklet-sized pieces, passed them around, and showed us how to wrap the leaves around the “activator”. This substance (who’s name escapes me) acts as a catalyst for the alkaloids in the coca leaves, making them more potent and less bitter.

“Only swallow saliva, no leaves,” cautioned Pedro. This proved to be easier said than done.

While the bus wound its way up literally hundreds of mountainside switchbacks most of the riders chewed a new wad of leaves for about 30 minutes out of every hour. That’s 30 minutes of chewing followed by 30 minutes of picking spinach out of your teeth, another 30 minutes of chewing, etc.

Despite the mildly unpleasant taste, I chewed with gusto. In fact, before my first 30-minute session was up I had absolutely no leaves left in my mouth. Oops. By the third round I had mastered the art of placing a wad of leaves between cheek and gum, although its unlikely that anyone would confuse me with Brad Pitt in Moneyball.

While coca might make a very nice (but illegal) shrub, there’s no chance that I’ll become hooked on this stuff. The taste was similar to what I imagine bay leaves soaked in turpentine might be like.

After dinner at a local pub with two extremely nice Swiss couples (Kaspar & Leonie and Daniel & Fabienne) and my German and Singaporean bus buddies Falk and Joshua, we all had one thing on our minds: bed. I’ve been told many times that altitude affects everyone differently. Our little group of seven was in unanimous agreement that it had zapped us. We had absolutely no desire to check out the vibrant nightlife in this small but bustling town. I was last to bed and I was sound asleep before 9:30 p.m.
With ice cold showers, live electrical wires protruding from the wall just above the headboard, and a mattress seemingly stuffed with straw and stones, the Hostel Tree Luna was truly hideous. The upside is that I had no problem getting out of bed at 5:00 a.m. By 6:00 a.m. I was on another bus to the Colca Canyon.

Saturday #14 would be spent traveling through the Inca towns of Yanque, Achoma, Maca, and Pinchollo, on to the Mirador Cruz del Cóndor, and finally back to Arequipa for dinner.

Fully aware that 24 lives rested in his hands, our driver did his best to avoid scraping the bus against the guardrail. Okay, who am I kidding? There are no guardrails on the narrow, twisting mountain road that winds through the Colca Canyon. There are several tunnels though. Our driver slowed ever so slightly at the entrance to one 400m tunnel, honked the horn once, then proceed into the dark abyss at about 60 km per hour.

At a depth of 4160m (13,650′), the Colca Canyon is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and generally recognized as the deepest canyon in the world.

Thankfully the driver stopped for short breaks in several small towns on the way. We stopped in the village of Maca and most passengers headed straight for the Saturday morning market. It looked a tad ‘touristy’ to me so I walked a few blocks off the beaten path to find this woman cleaning and peeling fruit in her front yard.

DSCN1099 - Version 2
We conversed for a few minutes in an awkward mix of Grade 1 Spanish and Party Game charades. She didn’t mind me taking her photo but she was also very proud of her donkeys and suggested that I take their photos too. If my charade skills ares to be trusted, she told me that one of these days the donkeys will pull a cart full of pigs to the market. The donkeys will come home with her; the pigs will not.
Besides barnyard animals and thousands of acres of grazing llamas and alpacas, the Colca Canyon is home to the majestic Andean Condor. Our ultimate destination for the day was Mirador Cruz del Cóndor. The condors are easiest to spot in the early to mid-morning hours when they ride the thermal drafts about 3900m above the canyon floor. There were at least eight condors in the area where we stopped and two or three of them were in the air at any one time. The rest of them perched on the rocks just below our feet.
My Nikon Coolpix (camera #2) officially died part way through the Colca Canyon adventure. It had been giving me grief since last week when I took it into the sand dunes near Huacachina. After wrecking camera #1 at Burning Man, you’d think I’d know that cameras and sand/dust don’t mix. Thankfully my bus buddies each had cameras and smartphones and were happy to share their best shots. Joshua is an Instagram addict but I think you’ll agree that the people and scenery in the Colca Canyon are nothing short of stunning with or without Instagram.
I was back in Chivay in time for a late lunch of thinly sliced Alpaca steak in gravy, red peppers stuffed with indeterminate meat, cucumber salad, boiled potatoes, and warm Picarones (deep fried Cassava flour fritters served in honey).

By 2:30 p.m. I was on a bus to Arequipa and by 7:00 I had checked into a hostel that might actually be worse than Hostel Tree Luna.

Being located in a historic 17th century building on a good street in Arequipa, the Bothy Hostel definitely has potential. Unfortunately the ‘little things’ that make or break a hostel were sadly lacking. By ‘little things’ I mean lukewarm water (forget hot water in Peru), electrical outlets (there was one in the entire hostel and it produced sparks), or chairs. To be fair, there were three or four inflatable chairs in the courtyard, but they’d be a bit more comfortable if they actually contained some air. Without air they were just mouldy old plastic bags. Perhaps I was asking too much of a hostel that rents a bed in a 4-bed dorm for 22 Peruvian Soles or about $8 CDN.
Recognizing that a nice dinner and a bottle of wine might help us deal with the Abu Ghraib of Peru, my dorm mates decided to join me at an Italian restaurant that we had seen earlier in the day. We perused the wine list, decided on a Peruvian Malbec, and summoned the waiter.

The first thing out of his mouth was, “No vino debido a elecciones.”

It took me a few seconds to grasp the gravity of the situation. I looked around the candle-lit restaurant to see several couples having romantic dinners over bottles of Sprite and Fanta. It seems that bars and restaurants in Peru must close or go “dry” for two or three days leading up to the regional elections on Sunday.

Perhaps it was just as well since Joshua and Falk had early morning buses to catch. They were in bed before 10:00. Mike Hamilton, on the other hand, has a personal rule that he never goes to bed before 2:00 a.m. on a Saturday/Sunday. I wasn’t about to break a rule after just 14 weeks on the road so I headed to the courtyard where I found a fellow Peru Hop backpacker lounging on one of the flattened chairs. Daniel was from Switzerland and he was travelling with his friend Fabienne who had also gone to bed.

Thankfully the Bothy Hostel’s only redeeming quality was their complete ignorance of Peruvain liquor laws. When Daniel produced a 10 Sole note ($3.80 Cdn) the front desk man was only too happy to crack open a couple of Lowenbraus for us.

When it came time to say goodnight, I asked Daniel if he was on Facebook. He was not, he said, but he happily scribbled his contact info on a coaster. When I read his full name and address – Daniel Burgi from Lucerne, Switzerland – I pulled out my laptop and opened my family tree database.

My maternal grandmother, Frances Hoover (1884-1977) was the daughter of Samuel Hoover (1840-1917). Samuel’s mother was Anna Barkey (1795-1876). Anna’s father was Jacob Barkey (1768-1844). From there the paternal line goes Joseph Berkey Sr. (1740-1797) > Christian Burgi (born in Salles, Bas Rhin, France in 1715 and arrived in the USA in 1737 on the on the ship ‘Charming Nancy’) > Leonard Burki (1691-1751) > Adam Burki (1658-1696) > Christian Burki (b. 1625). All of the Burgi/Burki men before Christian were born and lived their entire lives near Steffisburg, Bern, Switzerland.

In the absence of any other family, and with a quart of Lowenbrau in hand, Daniel and I raised a toast.

“Here’s to family!”

L-R: A grazing Alpaca, myself, fellow Peru Hop travelers Joshua (Singapore) and Fabienne & Daniel (Switzerland).

6 Responses to “Saturday #14: Here’s To Family”

  1. hillerup1962

    Love reading of your journey. I see a book coming out in 2 years, complete with colour photos. Another Bill Bryson in the making.

  2. Daniel Burgi

    Hi Mike

    I am just return from Machu Picchu….we were hiking up to 3000 m. and back at 2000m. (Its riciculous to get pain in my knees from hiking an not of those journeys by Bus…:)

    Now i wonder about your Blog… nice thing man!!! Very Ineressted about your (and mine) family-story…:-) cool stuff!!

    “Here s to family”..or in swiss-german: “D Welt isch es Dorf”

    We will see us

  3. Louisa

    Loving following along, stunning pics, can’t wait to see where you’re taking us next!


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