Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 24, 2022
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Captured in the Andes

It's a rocky road to the top for an FM and her husband on a trek in Peru

There were fleeting moments when I considered the possibility that our guide Abel was leading us to slaughter in the high Andes of Peru. He seemed a nice enough fellow, with his toothy smile and gentle demeanor, but as our trekking leader for an arduous seven-day hike through the Cordillera Blanca, we were depending on him completely for our well-being. Unfortunately, a nasty seed of doubt had been planted early on in our relationship when we had been "captured" in Huaraz, before our trek had even started.

Peru is a mountain hiker's paradise. In comparison to Europe which has only a single peak over 5500 metres, and North America where three mountains reach that stature, Peru has 27 summits surpassing that mark. With abundant routes winding over high passes and skirting the hulking glaciers, the trekking is spectacular.

The small city of Huaraz, in Peru's northwest, is a hiker's mecca sometimes referred to as Chamonix south. It is nestled at 3091 metres between two mountain ranges, the lower Cordillera Negra and the snow-capped Cordillera Blanca, and is within easy striking distance of some of the most magnificent routes in the country. To top it all off, even in the cool, dry, high season between June and September, visitors are far fewer than in the more frequently visited Cuzco-Machu Picchu region and the prices remain 30 to 40 percent lower.

With all this in mind, but without a definite itinerary, we had boarded a direct flight from Toronto to Lima. Flying almost due south overnight meant that we simply woke up in a completely new geography and culture without the ill effects of jet lag.

Deal with a devil
On our eight-hour journey from the coast to Huaraz, a portrait of Jesus stared forlornly down the aisle, overseeing the safety of the bus as it climbed into the Andes. We moved through the shanties of suburban Lima, cruised north along the Pan-American Highway, perched precariously on 45-degree sand cliffs along the Pacific, and turned inland for a three-hour, 3000-metre climb along a seemingly infinite series of switchbacks leading up to the altiplano, or plateau.

At the bus station in Huaraz, we walked headlong through the bevy of peddlers hawking excursions and rooms on commission. We were weighed down by our heavy packs, but we were determined not to make the prime mistake of the unseasoned traveller -- cutting a deal in the bus station.

With a broad smile and a few quirky words of English, Richard greeted us at the door of his family hostel, the Jackal, about a kilometre from the station. For just 30 soles (about $10) a night, we could have a comfortable four-bed room with hot water all to ourselves. In addition, he happened to run a trekking agency, and would be more than willing to assist us with our arrangements. To two weary travellers, this sounded perfect.

Three weeks in the Andes may seem short to the young backpackers who spend six to 12 months in South America, but for a couple of Canadians with only sparse days off, it was monumental. We didn't want to waste a single day comparison shopping just to save a few dollars on a trek. It was with this mindset that, on our first night, we explained to Richard our intention to embark on the demanding seven-day Alpamayo Base Camp Trek, with several passes over 4000 metres, just two days later. Richard saw absolutely no problem with this plan. He said he could arrange everything, including a guide and an arriero, or donkey driver, for US$450, with an advance payment of US$100. We briefly deliberated, and then forked over the cash while congratulating one another for making all the necessary arrangements with such efficiency.

We never saw Richard again. Like Peru's alpine glaciers, he receded from view, and then disappeared completely. He didn't show up for a scheduled meeting. The voices on the other end of the contact numbers he left had never heard of him. He didn't work for the agency he claimed to. And the real hotel owner, a kindly retired Peruvian civil servant named José, delicately explained that Richard was not, in fact, his nephew. Richard was what they call a captador, or captor. A conman earned his living through a combination of his own cunning and the abundant trust of his fresh-off-the-bus victims. Our US$100 was his fee for the simple service of delivering us to another service provider. We had been captured.

Thoughts of deception still weighed on us when Abel arrived at the hostel. He introduced himself and announced that our contract had been transferred to him, and he would be our leader for the Alpamayo route. In sturdy hiking boots, jeans, a thermal jacket and a bright yellow outer shell, he looked the part of a man accustomed to the mountains.

He explained to us frankly that, yes, in fact we had been fleeced by a captador and we would never see our deposit, or Richard, again. With his solid Quechua features and steady gaze, he appeared to be quite earnest. However, our faith had been shaken. Could this all be a set-up for another scam, a heist, or worse?

We watched him closely for any gesture or inconsistency that might betray a sinister intent. Abel distracted us from that line of thought by informing us that, since our last down payment had evaporated, he would require another deposit -- this time of US$200 -- to secure the essentials for our expedition. While our instinct had betrayed us once already, we decided to give it one more chance and hesitantly handed over the cash.

Waylaid or worse
Banditry, and even violence, is not unknown on the footpaths of the Andes. Following a decade of terrorism by the Shining Path communists in the 1990s, the country is only just beginning to regain its economic and social footing. Desperation and connivance still occasionally lead to the targeting of vulnerable trekkers sporting expensive gear and toting foreign currency. Wandering around Huaraz, we met a couple of travellers with their own first-hand tales of misadventure. Marcus, a young Englishman, described being held-up by an armed and masked peasant one night while completing the Ausangate Circuit, near Cuzco. Although he and his girlfriend escaped unscathed, they were in no mood to trek solo around Huaraz.

Natan, an Israeli traveller fresh out of military service, recounted being ambushed at gunpoint on the path from the Wari ruin of Wilcahuain to the hotsprings of Monterrey, just eight kilometres from Huaraz. While Natan was clearly shaken by the incident, he laughed when he described how the kindly thief apologized for terrifying his girlfriend, before departing with a small amount of cash.

Not all such incidents are resolved with criminal cordiality. In August of 2002, two trekkers were shot dead during a robbery on a remote stretch of the demanding 12-day Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit. As recently as July 2004, trekkers on the same route were ambushed, bound, robbed and forced to dodge ricocheting bullets before just barely escaping with their lives. According to the South American Explorers Club, none of these incidents has been satisfactorily investigated or resolved by local authorities.

On the eve of our planned departure, we met Abel in the dim lounge of our hostel. He had a photo album of his past treks in tow, and a dog-eared, orange-covered notebook full of testimonials from previous clients. They spoke positively of his service and ability. However, we still remained undecided as to his trustworthiness. On the one hand, we reasoned, he had presented himself as scheduled, had demonstrated a detailed knowledge of our intended route, and reassured us that he had done the same trip many times before without incident.

On the other hand, Richard had promised that a registered guide from the prestigious Huaraz Casa de Guías would accompany us. It turned out that, strictly speaking, Abel was a porter rather than a guide. And wasn't his presence here proof of a willingness to do business with a treacherous captador?

A good man
At 3am, the night before our trek, my body was painfully wringing every last ounce of liquid out of every orifice. The cause of the illness was uncertain. Could it have been the alpaca steaks, the roasted guinea pig, or one of the many soups served before each meal? We would never know. But one thing was certain: there was no chance of me walking out of the hostel -- let alone over a mountain pass -- anytime soon.

On time and laden with all the accoutrements for a lengthy mountain trek, Abel rang the bell at the Jackal. He had his young son in tow to help haul a canister of camping gas and a large carton of eggs bound with twine. He listened patiently as Matt explained our predicament; then Abel proposed a solution.

Trailing at a trot, Matt followed them into the morning market on a mission. Abel had declared that with the right traditional treatment, I would be energized, on my feet and striding down the trails by the following morning. Matt tagged along as Abel scanned baskets of dried seaweed, piles of yucca, stacked ripe red tomatoes, bundles of long tamarind beans, and potatoes and corn of many varieties offered for sale by hundreds of Quechua women in their petticoats, bright skirts, woven sweaters and bowler hats.

It may have been the piping hot maté tea of oregano, mint, corn hair, cinnamon and orange peel Abel had prepared, or perhaps the cocktail of over-the-counter diarrhea medication and Ciprofloxacin that banished the stomach bug. But the biggest impact of the maté was non-medicinal -- in that quest for a cup of tea at six in the morning, we saw real concern and compassion, not the actions of a rogue. The final decision was made: captives or not, we would trek with Abel.

After a solid night of sleep, we awoke refreshed and prepared to tackle the slopes rising away from Huaraz. Instead of the frightening heights of the Alpamayo Base Camp, we would hike the more forgiving Santa Cruz Circuit. With our plan set, we boarded a Volkswagen kombi loaded to the gills with passengers and packages, and headed into the hills.

Our trek was a terrific experience. We were expertly guided through the green valleys and over the high mountains, and we ate like kings. Abel bought and prepared local produce and our donkey driver caught fresh trout in cold swift streams which we'd have for dinner after hearty yucca or yellow-potato soup. One day we even ate ancient glacial ice drenched with fresh squeezed mandarin juice for desert.

Together we identified local hummingbirds, giant purple mountain lupins, and spotted chubby squirrel-rabbits called vizcacha. And after the chores of the day were completed, we sat together sipping coca tea or syrupy Peruvian wine and chatting like friends until the light was obscured by the awesome mountain ranges hugging our campsite. When drowsiness finally overtook our day's stock of stamina, we zipped out the cool, thin air and bedded down in our cosy tent, safe and secure in the knowledge that we had been captured by the Andes.


Sarah Jane Cook and Matt Young travelled to Peru between Sarah's graduation from Dalhousie Medical School and the start of her family medicine residency program in Ottawa. Their most recent adventure is the birth of their first child, Kira, who is now one month old. For the next six months, the challenges and joys of Sarah's residency will be replaced by those of fulltime motherhood. Matt is a public servant in Ottawa. They eagerly anticipate future journeys with Kira, including a trip to Mexico in November.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.