View from Wiñay Wayna
It’s the cardinal rule for any current and past resident of the Canadian Atlantic Provinces before ordering seafood of any kind. The farther one is away from the seacoast, the more suspect of the freshness.
In life, I’ve had general success in following the rule, until the end of a three week stay in the Peruvian city of Cusco in April 2001. I travelled there with a Canadian friend, Linda, who had dreamed of making a trek to the lost city of Machu Picchu since childhood. The plan from the start was to spend three weeks in Cusco immersed in Spanish language classes complete with a family home stay. In addition to the educational component, Cuso was also carefully picked for its proximity to Machu Picchu and its elevation (3226m above sea level) which would allow for gradual acclimatization to higher altitudes.
Friends back home and new acquaintances in Cusco had advised us to scrap our original plans of a two day trek to Machu Picchu in favor of the more demanding and rewarding four day excursion. From day one, the severity of altitude sickness in Cusco did not strike us too badly. In my own case, within hours after arriving in the city, my host Cusqueñan family whisked me to country locations at even higher elevations. Throughout our study time, Linda and I had the good fortune to go on “test hikes” at eight sites of Inca ruins in the immediate area of Cusco. We were saving Machu Picchu as our grand finale.
In what seemed like a flash, the three weeks with my host family were drawing to an end. On the last day of my stay, I joined the family for a full course meal (Peruvians in the Andes eat their main meal of the day at lunchtime) featuring soup, rice and chicken. After finishing the meal, the father of my host family suddenly remembered that I had yet to try Peruvian ceviche, which consists of raw seafood, including octopus, served with a lemony onion topping. Before I knew it, an order of takeout ceviche had been procured from a local establishment and the family proceeded to watch me make my way through the dish.
Before my departure, my Peruvian-born landlord and his Canadian wife both raved about coastal Lima’s cevicherías and said I must indulge in visiting one at some point. On top of a full meal, I should have had my first doubts about Cusqueñan ceviche prepared far from the sea in the mountains.
After lunch, Linda and I bought our last few supplies for the trek, including the obligatory rain ponchos. One Canadian classmate at the language school had assured me that in spite of the approaching fall dry season in the Andes, “at some point, it will rain.”
Wiñay Wayna Inca ruins
My diet for this day took on new twists at the evening meal with my family which featured
scrambled eggs and steamed milk. Since this was also the final day for Linda with her host family, I had received a warm Peruvian invitation to join this group for “postre” (dessert) later on that evening.
After three weeks of being healthy as a horse, I received my first signs of an upset stomach that had been a feature of almost every South American guidebook I had glanced at prior to my departure. I took early leave from Linda’s host family and stopped at a tiny restaurant to buy a bottle of Coke. It’s normally enough to set my system straight again, but not this particular evening.
Back at the home of my host family, I had a devil of a time trying to open the Coke bottle. At last, a situation presented itself with a chance to use my brand new trusty jacknife which had been presented as a thoughtful gift from my roommate before I left Canada.
In trying to open the Coke, the knife slipped and sliced open the knuckle on my right index finger. Now in addition to having a queasy stomach, my finger was bleeding profusely. It took a good few minutes before I was able to bring the bleeding under control. Fortunately, my first aid kit contained some adhesive tape which I was able to fashion to seal the cut somewhat. Then I finally started throwing items in my pack for the all-too-soon approaching trek.
The evening proceeded from bad to worse. In spite of six alpaca blankets on my bed (there is no central heating in Peruvian homes), I spent the remainder of the evening shuddering under the covers and making frequent trips to the bathroom with a full blown case of diarrhea.
After a sleepless night, my alarm rang at 5:00 a.m. to signal the day of the long-awaited trek to Machu Picchu. I could barely pull myself out of bed, but did so thinking I could not let Linda down after travelling this far. Because my host family were not yet awake, they had not turned on the hot water switch for the shower next to my room, which meant an automatic cold blast over my already trembling outer shell.
In deference to my state, I opted to hail a taxi on the street for the all-of-one minute drive to Linda’s host family’s home. I greeted Linda with a quick overview of my situation, but told her that I was determined to go through with the hike. We arrived at the departure point of the tour agency just in time for me to watch the group being served a breakfast including scrambled eggs. I attempted to nibble at some dry toast, but found myself in need of the facilities yet again.
The journey to the starting point of the four day trek involved a three hour bus ride over some fairly narrow and rutted country roads. I warned the guide of my condition and then focused on making it through the journey without being sick again. At some points, I tried to sleep, but the travellers ahead of me spent the entire trip talking about their illness experiences in different countries which probably didn’t help matters.
When we reached the starting point, I could barely hold my head up. Linda’s blunt question at this point was whether I could start off in my current state on a four day hike on a climb even more grueling than we had encountered to this point. In defeat, I had to admit that I couldn’t and made arrangements to go back to Cusco on the bus that had transported us.
A silver lining was held out by the tour operators that I could always come back to the area for an abbreviated two day hike, which would allow me to catch up with Linda and her group. With this reassurance, I boarded the bus again. I ended up being the sole passenger for most of the trip, although we picked up various local passengers travelling a short distance. Although groggy, I finally took note of the multi-colored fields and the green and snowy mountain vistas that had also marked the journey from Cusco. The total trip on the bus both ways was about seven hours since we had a flat tire that needed repairs on the way back.
Once back in Cusco late that afternoon, my host family smothered me with TLC. The first person I encountered was “mi abuela” (grandmother) on my host mother’s side of the family. Within minutes, my host mother appeared and ordered me to bed. When I woke from a mini-nap, she took my temperature and then bluntly told me to come with her to see the family doctor.
All those basic emergency Spanish language scenarios were playing themselves out at once. In a strange way, this was probably the best bonding session I had with the mother of my host family. She explained as we approached the doctor’s office that the building it was housed in was once the hospital where she herself had been born. She waited with me to explain the key symptoms to the doctor, indicating her suspicion that it was probably the ceviche that did me in. After she left the room, the doctor determined that I had a stomach infection and he prescribed antibiotics. He also reassured me that the cut finger was nothing to worry about, but that it would probably be irritating for awhile.
Once back at the house, I started receiving the first of a constant parade of bedside visitors. The father of my host family arrived home with grave concern that I was ill. Hot chicken soup with a celery-like vegetable was brought up by my host mother later on in the evening. I even had an embarrassing visit from “mi abuela” once again with her second husband dressed in their Friday evening finest clothes.
The next morning, I managed to get permission to leave my bedside to visit the travel agency in Cusco’s central square to rearrange my trek plans. I confirmed the two day excursion for the next day and went back to rest at my host family’s home, all the while determined to set out the next day whatever the consequences.
Every cloud has a silver lining. As indicated, getting sick brought an even greater bonding experience with my host family. They packed a lunch of bland chicken and rolls to send me off the next morning. It turned out that I was the only person who had signed on for the two day trek, so I ended up with my very own personal guide. On the train to the starting point, I had the most amazing Spanish conversation of my entire time in Peru with the guide, two women lawyers from Lima and a Swiss couple who were stationed in Bolivia. All were appreciative of my fractured Spanish explanation of why I was travelling alone with a guide and trying to catch up with Linda and the rest of the four day group.
My guide instinctively knew that I was functioning at about 60% of capacity and we made rest stops along the Inca Trail every 30 minutes or so. I had the luxury of not only a knowledgeable guide, but one who coached me in my photo taking endeavors. The shots I took that day were some of the most striking in my entire month in Peru. As the day wound down, we made our way to the rendezvous site, where within a matter of hours, Linda and the rest of the four day trekkers appeared.
Machu Picchu after the ceviche-induced delay
In hindsight, although I missed out on bragging rights to the entire trek, my personal journey was rewarding in its own way. In spite of heavy rain and fog, the next day’s pre-dawn hike to see Machu Picchu took on extra significance due to the events of the previous 72 hours. As predicted by our guide, the rain and fog eventually lifted for a proper grand finale visit that we had hoped for all along.
Based on my experiences, I regret that I never did take up the tip of my landlord and his wife. The cevicherías of Lima will just have to wait for my next trip to Peru.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our South America Insiders page.