Cusco: the Altitude and the Atmosphere

To take a bus to Cusco from Lima takes 21 hours…to fly to Cusco from Lima takes 1 hour. You would think that this would help me put in perspective how high in the mountains Cusco truly is, but I was still pretty ignorant about the whole thing.

Elle and I flew into Cusco on Saturday morning. We were starting the Salkantay Trek on Monday, and apparently needed 2 days to acclimate. When getting off the plane, it was immediately apparent that the altitude was a big money maker for a lot of locals. There are pamphlets about it, coca candies, coca teas, pills you can take, and (I kid you not) giant canisters of oxygen for sale. As you could imagine, I was a little skeptical. I mean, I’ve been to high altitudes before…Colorado, California…I was going to be fine, right? WRONG.

The metric to feet conversions can really throw you off here. Denver, the “mile high” city, isn’t even half the altitude that Cusco is. Denver is at 1,609 meters (or 5,280 feet); Cusco is at approximately 3,400 meters (or 11,200 feet). Also, altitudes in this part of Peru seem to be sort of guesstimates; everywhere you look they tell you a different figure, and that number always seems to go up.

As we got in a taxi and headed to our hostel (both with the assumption that all the altitude talk is totally excessive and we’re going to be fine) we started to feel it. At first, it started just with a little fatigue, and then we were both a little light-headed. Then, our altitude sickness journeys split and went in TOTALLY different directions.

Elle got a piercing headache, and I got so dizzy I thought I was going to fall over. Both of us were completely debilitated by it. We struggled through lunch, and tried to sit outdoors for awhile and get used to it. Then, Elle got nauseous. I tried to talk her out of it, but it was inevitable…she was going to puke. And not just once. After projectile vomiting in the McDonald’s bathroom, she proceeded to puke like 15 more times throughout the day. Eventually, she had to call the doctor. He put her on bed rest and gave her a bunch of pills to take for her head, but she kept puking them up.

Meanwhile, not a big fan of vomit, I set up camp on the rooftop deck to try to cure my own case of altitude sickness. My symptoms had progressed to include heart palpitations and shortness of breath, and honestly, I felt better when sitting outside in the open air.

The weird thing about altitude sickness is that it affects everyone so differently, and at such different times. Talking to a lot of fellow travelers up on the roof, everyone seemed to have a different remedy to feel better, a different way to avoid it, and a different day it affected them. All together, here are some points that I learned:

1. If possible, go up in altitude slowly. A lot of people went to Arequipa first before coming to Cusco, as I guess it is also fairly high so it helps you get used to it. A lot of people also took a bus instead of a plane and said that that helped as well.

2. Don’t overdo it. Even if you don’t feel bad the first day, take it easy. I talked to a couple where the guy didn’t feel it at all the first day, but then got hit hard on the second.

3. Drink lots of water and avoid alcohol. This will help you stay hydrated, which apparently is one of the best ways to acclimate.

4. Eat small, and nothing raw for the first day. I’m not sure why exactly, but our local expert Oscar told us this, so I trust it. (Maybe it helps to prevent the puking…)

Anyways, after doing a whole lot of nothing for a few hours, I ventured down to the plaza (from out hostel it was literally straight down a hill) to grab something to eat. Cusco is exactly what I imagined Peru would be like. It is vibrant..full of life and color and energy…yet quaint and aging like a small European town. The cobblestone roads, decaying buildings, endless hills, and large open plazas set a very slow and relaxed pace for tourists and locals alike.

Besides shopping (lots of markets and street vendors), eating, or planning an outdoor excursion nearby, there is not a whole lot to do in Cusco. But after a week in the chaos of Lima, doing nothing was exactly what Elle and I wanted to do. Literally during the 2 days we spent there, I left the hostel about 4 times. The rest of the time we soaked up the sun on the rooftop, drank copious amounts of coca tea, and watched bad TV in our room.

By the time Sunday night rolled around, Elle still wasn’t 100%, so we hired an extra porter for our bags on the trek. It was only about 80 soles (like $30) so it seemed well worth it. Then, we packed our bags, and tried to get some shut eye before our 4am wake up time to head up into the mountains….

Holly Brinkman is a researcher and volunteer with the Karikuy Volunteer Program in Lima, Peru.

Holly Brinkman

Holly is a writer and strategist from Chicago, Illinois, taking a break from reality to spend time volunteering with Karikuy and exploring Peru. She loves nature, the outdoors, meeting new people, and trying new things. An avid traveler, Holly is excited to see what Peru has to offer.

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