It’s a week since we were wandering about Cuzco with Francis and a few days since we’ve been back and getting ourselves back into our “normal” lives. We were away four weeks and during that time, the long-awaited OFSTED inspection has happened at work, our boiler has broken and been repaired (thank goodness for housesitters!) and whilst our assorted volunteer commitments have been put one one side, life here, of course, has carried on as usual.
Oh, and it has rained. A lot.
Thankfully, we live on the top of a hill, so unless that valley filled with water first, we’re safe from rising water. However, there is still the threat of running water – streams and rivers begin somewhere, after all, and the constantly flowing water across several local hillside roads are a reminder that all of this wet weather can affect us all.
Thankfully, we are warm and dry here at home. I have to say, however, that it feels so good to be back at “ordinary” altitude again; about 600 feet above sea level around here.
I really did worry about altitude sickness when we were planning our trip, though. We’d heard that it’s unpredictable, that it doesn't depend on age, level of fitness or previous experience of travelling to high places. I read articles like this and scared myself enough to take the whole subject seriously when we were planning our trip. After all, who wants to go on holiday to a dream destination only to find themselves feeling poorly?
So, we took advice from our travel agent, who suggested that, having flown into Cuzco (11,000ft) from our hotel in a coastal suburb of Lima (where the altitude is stated as 16ft!), we go immediately to Urubamba (9,420ft) to acclimatise for a few days. She also advised that we should do very little whilst we were there, that we should not drink alcohol but drink plenty of water. Adriana reinforced this by adding that we should eat lightly and breathe deeply too, particularly if we were feeling breathless.
When I looked at our programme, I felt sorry that we weren’t going to do our usual thing of hitting the ground running, packing in as much activity as we could during our time there, especially when I read about the markets, the crafts, the colour! Just half day activities, then, with a fairly relaxed start and an early finish. How would we pass the rest of the time?
Thankfully, that had been considered already and, of course, we were not the first people to be taking this advice. The Sol y Luna offered more than a mere room for the night and was a pleasant place to mooch around, to spend time relaxing and offered us space to spend a few hours reading, blogging, breathing deeply and drinking water. Having decided to take the “drug free route” to Machu Picchu, then we needed to take time.
We found ourselves feeling breathless and slightly “spaced out”, though after a couple of days, that feeling wore off a little. I wasn’t hungry in the slightest, so the advice to eat lightly was no problem to follow, but I was always thirsty and could have kept on drinking bottle after bottle of water. The worst aspect of the altitude was the dryness of the air and the effects on breathing, especially at night. I would wake with a blocked nose and dry mouth, my sinuses hurt and as a result, I had a headache for much of the time. I felt better after a glass of water, but waking every couple of hours feeling thirsty soon takes its toll. An early morning shower was bliss – standing under running water in a steamy bathroom was a great way to clear the passages and Casita 38 soon acquired the heady camphor and eucalyptus scented aroma of Tiger Balm!
During these days, we spent time at higher altitudes, visiting villages further up the valley and testing ourselves by going that bit further each time but returning to our safe haven after a couple of hours. Having managed that, did that mean we’d be ok? Who knew? The morning at Chinchero (12,000ft) was the test.
Well, you might recall that Chinchero was the home of the weaving cooperative, the textile town and as a result, you probably won’t be surprised to read that I was so distracted by all the wonderful things around me, I forgot to think about how I was feeling!
As a result, by the time we reached Agua Calientes (6,690ft), we were not only feeling more comfortable but also feeling less anxious about altitude generally and thankfully, that last push up the hill to Machu PIcchu (8,000ft) was fine. It’s interesting, though, how a change of just a thousand feet can make such a difference – the whole time we were in the area, we were acutely aware of the altitude by simply assessing of how we felt. I spent the whole week with a sinus-related headache but the joy of being in such an exciting place meant that I frequently forgot about it!
Cuzco (11,000ft) was the last stop on our itinerary, then, and with the exception of Chinchero, was also the highest spot. The dry sinuses and slight breathlessness had become the norm by then and we’d got used to doing what we could to manage it all. We were still taking it slowly, still found climbing stairs more of an effort than usual and were still drinking bottle after bottle of water. The relief of having escaped the altitude sickness was enormous but the prospect of descending to a more comfortable level was the best of all. Our hotel offered an increased oxygen supply to our room via the air conditioning, but having got this far, we didn’t take them up on it.
I referred to my toothpaste in an earlier blog post. Of course, the expansion of all bottles and tubes in our bags continued throughout the week and opening anything for the first time had to be done with caution. On returning home, the reverse happened and we discovered every tube and bottle had squeezed in on itself. Nothing could beat the feeling of waking up with a clear nose and no headache, though.
Lessons learned? That we were right to take the potential of altitude sickness seriously but that it’s possible to lessen the risk by taking time to acclimatise. Who knows if we’d have been ok regardless? But having invested so much in terms of time, effort and money to get to Peru, it just had to be worth taking a few more days to minimise the chances of being too ill to see what we’d come all that way for.
The effects vanished almost as soon as we touched down in Lima. The photo of the yarn hanging above was taken in the lobby of the airport hotel where we spent the afternoon sitting in comfortable armchairs and noticing that for the first time in a week, we weren’t thirsty.
We celebrated with a Cusquena beer each!