I love planning trips. Everything needs to be accounted for – which destinations to visit and for how long; the logistics of getting from one place to another; how long the days are according to sunrise and sunset and how much sightseeing can be stuffed into each day; how holidays and weekends affect our travel plans; and how to make sure we are still on our feet by the end of the trip. Planning Peru came with its unique set of challenges. Besides figuring out the what, the how, the how long, we also had to figure out how high. Peru has towns and cities at some of the highest altitudes in the world and that, besides incredible views, also means altitude sickness. I became a bit obsessed with altitude sickness as our trip approached. I read all the possible ways to battle soroche, as locals call it, and warned Julia about it over and over again, as she struggled not to roll her eyes at me. She has been skiing in Keystone, Colorado at 9,000 feet several times and thought I was panicking for no reason. I quickly learned that the best way to prevent headaches, shortness of breath, and fatigue was to start at low altitudes and slowly climb to the highest point of our trip, allowing our bodies to acclimatize. The ancient capital of the Incas, Cusco, seemed to have the highest altitude at 11,000 feet, and I quickly reworked our itinerary to arrive there closer to the end of the trip.
We got prescription medication, learned that avoiding alcohol, eating plenty of carbohydrates, taking low-dosage aspirin, and generally taking it slow should help us acclimatize faster. We were all ready to go. All of our best laid out plans fell apart on day 3 in Peru.
The first two days we spent in Southern Peru, in the beautiful town of Arequipa, surrounded by volcanoes and full of beautiful white-stone colonial architecture. We had no issues with altitude at 7,000 feet and were feeling pretty good.
On the third day, we woke up early and got picked up by a bus to start our two-day Colca Canyon tour, on our way to see Andean condors, alpacas, vicunas, llamas, and all the grandiose sights of one of the deepest canyons in the world. When I initially googled Colca Canyon, I saw that the altitude was at a very manageable 7,000 feet and it made sense – it is a canyon, after all! What we didn’t realize is that to get to a valley between the mountains, one must first… cross the mountains.
As our bus climbed higher and higher through the mountain range, we felt nice and comfortable in our bus seats, gazing out across the gorgeous mountain ranges. The first alarm bells started to ring in my head when our guide cheerfully mentioned that our next stop would have bathrooms, beautiful views, and a small store where we could buy snacks and a very special freshly brewed Inca tea that he recommended for everyone.
“Great for altitude sickness!” he exclaimed. Julia and I looked at each other quizzically. Exactly how much higher is this bus going to climb before descending into the valley?
We got out at the stop and bought two cups of Inca tea – a wild mix of coca leaves, muna leaves (wild mint), and a lot of other twigs and leaves we couldn’t identify. We sipped our tea and giggled at an alpaca spitting on a very persistent tourist who instead of an alpaca selfie got a face full of alpaca spit.
Back on the bus, we watched wild vicunas charge across the steppe, unassuming cows graze on the slopes, and the road slowly turns into a narrow winding climb into the mountains. As the clouds hung lower and lower over our heads and the mountain tops around us no longer looked as tall, the bus pulled over and the guide announced, “The highest point of our journey today! There are bathrooms if anyone needs them.”
Julia later described her experience at the mountain top in the following words, “One minute I was sitting on the bus, feeling just fine. The next moment, I got up from my seat to go to the bathroom and immediately got hit by exhaustion as if I had just run 5 miles. I walked to the bathroom, slowly putting one foot in front of the other, unable to take a deep breath, feeling like I was on an alien planet. The trek to the bathroom and back felt like it took forever. I had to stop multiple times to rest during this 100 feet long trip.”
I didn’t immediately feel the effects. I could tell I was short of breath but was able to walk around and admire the surrounding mountain range without any issues. As I hoisted Julia back on the bus, I could tell that she was not having a great time. And then, strangely enough, as we descended into the valley, I started feeling it as well. By the time we got to Chivay, a small town where we spent the night, I felt completely wiped out, overwhelmingly sleepy, with a slight hint of a headache. Julia, on the other hand, was feeling much better. We slept okay that night and spent the following day exploring the dramatic vistas of the Colca Canyon and looking at the Andean condors flying over our heads.
As the highest point of Colca Valley that we visited came at breathless, head-spinning 16,000 feet and Cusco was only at 11,000 feet, we thought the worse was already behind us. Not for the first or last time during this trip, we were completely wrong.
Disembarking the plane in Cusco, we were almost immediately greeted by a basket full of dry coca leaves. While coca leaves are used to make cocaine, in their natural form they are not addictive, cause mild numbness on the lips and tongue, and relieve altitude sickness. I felt a bit more energetic while chewing them and not quite as shallow-breathed. We spend our days in Cusco chewing coca leaves, sucking on muna mints, drinking variations of Inka tea, taking our prescription medicine and aspirin, and generally taking it slow. And despite all of these precautions, even after two days in Cusco, we still felt like we couldn’t breathe properly. I had slight headaches, while Julia could only move around at a snail's pace and had some trouble sleeping. On the second day, we had to walk twenty minutes to get to a cooking class and Julia’s battery basically ran out about ten minutes in. She wheezed and heaved and stumbled and barely made it to the market where our cooking class group was already assembled and impatiently waiting for us. Later that day, just as Julia complained of feeling like a “maladjusted altitude loser”, we found out that it could take as long as 8 weeks to fully get adjusted to high altitude and that our case wasn’t that unusual.
We spent the last day in Peru in Lima, located at sea level. Julia ran around screaming “I can breathe! I can walk!” and insisted that we take longer and longer walks around the city center. Travel often causes you to learn to appreciate basic things in life that you often take for granted. I never thought I would be in a position to appreciate just how much oxygen my lungs can get, but here we are.