As we navigate the challenges of the pandemic, it sometimes reminds me of the challenges of the next leg of our Peru journey, and how we weathered those.
I always used to wonder why people would push themselves to physical extremes – to climb 29,000 feet up Mt. Everest into what’s called the Death Zone, where there’s so little oxygen that your body begins to die and you have just a few hours to summit and remain alive even as the majestic mountain hurls wind and snow at your battered body.
I was going to have a small taste of that on our trip to Peru and Bolivia, where we’d be spending more than a week at very high altitudes – and there was no way to discover in advance how each of our bodies would react to the stresses of being so high. I’d been nervous as we embarked on this grand adventure, but I’d done a lot of advance research and our group of travellers was as prepped as we could be.
I’d chosen this tour because it had a decent amount of time for acclimatizing to the high altitudes we’d be reaching as we journeyed up and up toward our final point, the city of La Paz in Bolivia – the highest capital city in the world.
Most people fly into Lima for a week and make a quick trip to see Machu Picchu – their limited exposure to high altitude doesn’t usually require getting acclimatized (although there have been a few fatalities even under those circumstances). High altitude isn’t something to take lightly.
Our journey was a different story, though, and as we left Huacachina to drive south along the lengthy Peruvian coastline to the town of Camana, where we would then turn eastwards up into the Andes Mountains, the coming physical challenge was on everyone’s mind.
High altitude is very different to what most of us are used to. Here in southern Ontario we live a little above sea-level, at around 300 feet. On this trip we’d be going 53 times higher than that, over 16,000 feet at one point.
My hubby and I had already weathered a brief stint at about 8,000 feet when we were in Kenya, and apart from a mild headache we’d been fine. But every 1,000 feet above that puts increasing strain on your body.
Although most people think that there’s less oxygen the higher you go, what actually happens is that the air pressure gets lower, which means that there’s less pressure available to push oxygen into your lungs to then make it available for you body’s needs.
Your body responds by working harder to make up the difference – it speeds everything up, including your breathing, shoving oxygen through your tissues as fast as it can.
This can be rather uncomfortable until your body ‘acclimatizes’ – gets used to the accelerated pace needed to survive. Some people reach that equilibrium state faster than others.
The really interesting thing is that there’s (currently, at least) no way to tell in advance how any individual’s system will react – it doesn’t matter whether you’re an athlete or a couch potato, young or old, in great health or not so much. Essentially you just have to go and see what happens – but there are ways to help your body make the adaptation more easily and to manage the symptoms until it does.
Most people start out with a headache and nausea, and perhaps a little trouble sleeping for a few days, and that’s often as bad as it gets. If you’re one of the few that has more trouble acclimatizing, or you do something unwise, you can wind up in a great deal of trouble, though.
The worst-case scenario is edema, i.e. fluid leaking into places it’s not supposed to. There are two possibilities: HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema, fluid leaking into the lungs) and HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema, fluid leaking into the brain), and while pulmonary edema is slightly less dangerous than cerebral, you really don’t want to get either of them – if they’re not treated in time, they can be fatal. In fact, a great number of the fatalities among climbers of Mt. Everest are due to one of these two conditions. They make it to the summit, but then are in such bad shape – exhausted, in pain and badly disoriented – that they either fall off the peak or sit down to rest and never get back up.
Although we weren’t facing such extreme conditions, one of our larger group of travellers would find out that choosing to not follow the acclimatization rules can be a very bad idea.
As I’ve mentioned, in Peru the mountains plunge precipitously down to the ocean, making the winding coastal road a rather white-knuckle ride. In places the road clings to the mountainside, a slender groove cut sharply into the steep slopes, with nary a barrier to stop your vehicle from tumbling a thousand feet or so onto the jagged rocks and crashing waves below.
I have a pretty good head for heights, but I took these photos leaning to the left side of the bus with my camera stuck nervously out the window on the right. Luckily the pictures turned out fairly well.
In spots the road would run through narrow cuts in the rocks, where we often saw loads of the ubiquitous potato being transported. We were actually headed nearer and nearer to the potato epicentre of the country.
Other times the coast road drops down to run endlessly away toward the hazy blue horizon, scalloped by odd inlets where the ocean runs inward enough to irrigate small farms that sit in patchwork green quilts amid the long stretches of bleached sand. The Peruvians seem to be expert at both desalination as well as finding ways to grow crops in places that look impossible.
We continued to pass a variety of tiny towns with billboards painted onto walls.
Finally we arrived in Camana in the midst of an All Souls Day festival. After a picnic lunch in an empty parking lot, some of us wandered over to the festivities, where groups clothed in a variety of colourful costumes preparing for a big parade. They were all very friendly and happy to pose for photos in all their finery.
The road began to climb as soon as we left Camana, through more surreal scenery, including some spectacular barchan dunes. These mysterious crescent-shaped dunes migrate across the desert, sometimes calving smaller dune from their horns.
Although many passengers had their heads buried in their smart phones or tablets during the day-long drive, I found the changing landscape to be endlessly fascinating.
We approached the city of Arequipa, our home for the next couple of days, as the sun was setting and painting the rocky mountain ridges orange against the cloud-collared white volcanoes.
Arequipa sits at about 8,000 feet, the entry-level height to high altitude, so it makes a perfect spot to begin acclimatizing. Giving your body time to adapt is the single best thing you can do to help yourself.
Ideally you’re supposed to ascend no more than 1,000 feet in a day, but realistically most visitors to Peru don’t have the time to take it that slowly. Spending a couple of days at around 8,000 feet though is a good start, and generally people tolerate this height fairly well. (In fact, Machu Picchu itself sits at about that height and fast visits are usually problem-free, though not always).
In addition, Arequipa is a beautiful city, full of culture and charm, and I always recommend it to people who ask me about going to Peru.
It’s often called the White City, partly because many of the buildings in its UNESCO-recognized historic centre are made from white ashlar stone from the three surrounding volcanoes, Misti, Pichu Pichu and Chachani. The pale tree-studded streets with cozy sizewalk cafes are a delight to explore, and to nosh in. We had fabulous stone-oven pizza and the best vanilla milkshakes I’ve ever had in my life – should have asked for the recipe!
There are all kinds of colourful markets and pretty gardens, but there are two standout sights that shouldn’t be missed.
The first, the Museo Santuario Andinos, to my great excitement when I found out, holds the famous Ice Maiden, the mummy of a young girl who was revealed at the peak of Mt Ampato in 1995 when a neighbouring volcano erupted and melted some of the ice at the top. Given the name Juanita, she had a short life with a dramatic ending, sacrificed to the gods in the eerie cold and wind at the top of the mountain after an arduous climb up the almost 21,000 feet of Ampato’s height, after which she was given a drugged ceremonial drink to ease her state of mind and then clubbed severely on the head to kill her.
She would likely have been sacrificed to appease the gods after an eruption of Mt. Misti, so it seems fitting that her final resting place is in the city below its white peak, Arequipa. She’s still dressed in her ceremonial garb, curled into position and kept carefully in a glass shroud in the museum. I’d seen her haunting story on National Geographic a few years previously, and was honored to be able to see her in person. Photography isn’t allowed inside the museum, but you can find out a bit more about her on the Smithsonian YouTube channel.
The other must-see is the Monasterio Santa Catalina, which hides a world of 16th century convent life inside its white walls, when extra daughters without marriage prospects were sent to make a different life.
Outside the walls, you’ll see women selling refreshments or religious items, sometimes with a child in tow.
The complex inside is enormous, a small city within a city, with zigzagging streets and hidden gardens. Nuns still live there to this day in more modern buildings, secluded from the historic front sections that you can walk through.
The novices could meet their family from time to time in this long passageway through latticed windows.
They slept in simple rooms, their beds positioned in alcoves set into the thick stone walls to shelter them from earthquakes and eruptions.
Within the stern white exterior walls, a fantastic world of colour opens up before you, with surprising juxtapositions almost Cubist in appearance, interspersed with beautiful religious murals painted among the archways.
One entire section was painted in vivid adobe red, a dramatic contrast to the heavy wooden doors and pale stones paving the lanes.
Little gardens offered places for sunlight and contemplation.
Some of the ancient conveniences were amazingly clever. Water was filtered through cones of porous volcanic rock, a process that would take several days but give absolutely clean water for drinking and cooking.
A kitchen storeroom held an array of cookware, including this fish-shaped bread pan.
My favourite contraption was a laundry system where clothes were washed and then rinsed clean in a succession of huge shell-shaped stone basins.
From the rooftops we could see the mountains looming over the city as we looked down on the labyrinth of pale roofs and reddish passages.
It was in Arequipa that we discovered the concept of what we affectionately called ‘Peruvian flat’ – there are no flat streets in most of Peru, everything seems to go uphill, or at least felt like it! The city is like an urban version of a Stairmaster, getting you in shape for the more intense walking you’ll be doing later.
We found the citizens to be very friendly, such as this mom who enjoyed watching her children play with us,
and these two crafty ladies. I prefer to take unposed shots of people going about their daily lives, but they caught me taking a photo of them, and they were so cute that I felt I had to buy one of their dolls. It sits on a shelf next to our rec room fireplace.
Arequipa was the place for those of us taking the only medication available for travel to high altitude, acetazolamide. It helps your body adapt faster, and is to be started 24 hours before you begin to ascend. For those who can’t take it, like me (it conflicted with another medication), the other options help: higher amounts of caffeine (for which the powerful Peruvian coffee was perfect) and lots of carbs to provide your body with more energy, copious amounts of water (drink until your urine is almost colourless — it helps with the headaches), and as much rest as possible between activities.
After two great days exploring this delightful city, we moved onward to our first serious high-altitude site, Colca Canyon. This canyon, believed by some to be the deepest in the world, is where the magnificent Andean condors nest and glide around on the thermals, and I really wanted to see it even though many blogs talked about how awful people felt when they reached its location at 14,500 feet.
Along the way we were treated to stunning views of the volcanoes, and we got instruction in how to chew coca leaves the way that the people of the Andes have done for a long time.
The leaves reminded me a lot of small bay leaves, if not as smooth. We were each given a bundle of about eight or nine of them, which you layer together and then place a small piece of damp banana-leaf ash in the middle. This is then rolled up like a miniature cigar and place in the corner of your mouth to be slowly chewed on either until you’ve consumed the whole thing or you feel like discarding the remainder. The sweet ash gives it a pleasant taste, and the chemicals in the ash work together with the coca leaf to make the whole thing work even better. It’s an ancient remedy that the high-altitude inhabitants have been using for centuries to help them with a variety of illnesses. It’s said that there are some common North American illnesses that these Andean people never get, but unfortunately coca leaves are illegal outside of Peru and a couple of other South American countries. I didn’t get any buzz even from chewing the leaves directly, and they did help.
We passed an area in the mountains where wild vicuna live, surviving on tough grasses with serrated edges that also sharpen their teeth as they graze.
The road to Colca runs through the town of Chivay, an unremarkable place that serves as a base to get lunch and park your weary body after a trip to the higher locale of the canyon. One of the ways to help your body acclimate, if you can’t do the whole thing slowly, is to spend a few days going up and down in altitude. For some reason that works, as we can attest from this trip.
Not everyone makes an easy transition, though – the husband of a young couple from England approached me after lunch because his wife was already severely nauseated. I gave him a Gravol tablet (aka Dramamine), told him to crush it and give it to her with some juice to hide the very bitter taste in order to get it into her system as fast as possible, and a few coca leaf candies for good measure.
Past a cactus-filled desert landscape straight out of a spaghetti Western, eventually we arrived at the top of the canyon and the viewing platforms.
The canyon itself is a breathtaking sight, which is a good thing as there’s no guarantee that you’re going to see a condor, the sacred bird of the Incas with a huge wingspan of about ten feet – they fly around on their own schedule. We were delighted when eventually a male came out, leaving its mate on her nest of eggs, to look for food. It glided through the canyon walls on its wide black wings.
There’s a small and colourful textile market on site if you’re looking for some weaving, but while my hubby and I were feeling fine, I decided to go and check on a few people who’d felt ill enough to stay on the bus, and it was good choice.
One was headachy and weak, but able to talk; the other was chilled and really out of it – an early sign of moderate High Altitude Sickness, so I hustled to find our overall tour leader and transport everyone 2,500 feet down into Chivay. In such a case, quick descent is the first stage of treatment. Along the way we stopped briefly to view the undulating hillsides of potato farms – this was where the bulk of Peru’s extensive potato crop comes from.
In Chivay we were taken to our cozy hotel to check in, with a handy llama out back to keep the lawn grass short, and great mountain views.
Several people took advantage of the hot springs the town is known for to work out some high-altitude kinks, but I accompanied our ill traveller to the local doctor. She was suffering from high altitude sickness indeed, compounded by an intestinal parasite that she’d likely picked up in Arequipa, either from brushing her teeth with tap water or from an out-of-the-way restaurant serving guinea pig. With a prescription for antibiotic, we got her back to the hotel to sleep. I had instructions from the doctor to call him in a couple of hours and let him know if she’d had any more episodes of vomiting, something she’d unfortunately chosen to conceal from me until now. I checked on her in due time and was happy to see that she was feeling better and able to eat some light chicken soup.
That evening we all gathered for dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, warming up from the high-altitude nighttime chill around the cozy fire.
Some people were already feeling the effects of our Colca Canyon visit, so I gave them recommendations, including to avoid alcohol (which acts as a CNS depressant, fighting the hard work your body is doing to speed things up).
A hearty meal under our belts, my hubby and I both retired early with headaches, something that had worried me as I was already prone to migraines. My hubby was doing a bit better than me, as he was able to take the Diamox. I took what pain medication I could and tried to relax, hoping the headache wouldn’t get much worse.
At length I fell asleep, only to be woken up around midnight by someone knocking on our door. It was one of my own group, asking what she could do for her roommate, who’d ignored my advice to skip wine with dinner and was now sitting on the bathroom floor with her head over the toilet. I dispensed some more Gravol with the same crush-with-juice instructions (when you’re that nauseated, you want to get the medication into your system before you vomit it out) and went back to bed.
By the next morning everyone was feeling more-or-less better, including the young English gal, and we hit the road once more for a long drive through the Andes to Cuzco, the cradle of Inca civilization and the gateway to the main highlight of our journey, Machu Picchu. But more adventures awaited us before we got there. Tune in for more in a couple of weeks.
All photos are by me and all rights reserved.