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Gasping for Air in Cuzco

Cusco-cathedralCuzco is an equalizer of newcomers. A heavyweight who effortlessly levels all entering her domain. A formidable opponent who is ruthless to those nonchalant about her power. I did not know this. To my eye she was a forlorn maiden, clothed in Spanish garb while vestiges of her Incan blood protruded here and there. A little over an hour ago Jesse and I had flown from the coastal Peruvian capital of Lima to this city perched 11, 200 feet (3,400 meters) above sea level. Sitting on an empty plinth at the edge of a sidewalk, however, I was insouciant and daring. Three cups of weak coca tea had convinced me I had conquered all traces of altitude sickness. Soroche, as the locals call it, was a blip on my agenda. I was edgy, enthusiastic to explore the dark cathedrals and the streets full of women holding baby lambs. The city’s rarefied atmosphere had, however, already vanquished my traveling companion. 

Cusco-ruins“My head tastes like wool,” Jesse said, blinking at me as if he were not sure who I was.

“You’ll be fine,” I retorted, “what you need is fresh air.” I was disinclined to hear his excuses. We had already rested for an hour after our arrival, inhaled the ubiquitous pale-colored Peruvian curative, and I wanted to show Cuzco I was resilient.

“I dragged us into the streets where both sun and air hung like suspended droplets above us.”

We stumbled our way towards Korikancha, the city’s famed ancient sun temple. Out loud I blamed the steep and uneven pavement for our slow progress, but it was clear to me Jesse was hampering our way. Several blocks from our starting point he stared at me with a glazed expression and asked, “Where are we?”

I lifted my eyebrows and replied, “You’re holding the map, so you would know better.” I flapped the edge of it impatiently to direct his attention.

“Yes,” he said, “but I don’t know where we are.” I was growing exasperated.

“The street sign,” I pointed up at it for emphasis, “says we are on Arequipa.”

“But I don’t know where we are,” he muttered again staring unseeing at the map. The city was turning me short-tempered or perhaps it was the way Jesse kept gaping at the unfolded paper in his hands. Was he playing a joke? If so, I thought sourly, this was a poor attempt.

“We are on Arequipa Street,” I said with clenched teeth, “look on the map for where that is.” A long pause followed in which I paced back and forth. “Well? Did you find it?” I asked.

Jesse shook his head. “This map isn’t making any sense.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I can’t tell if we’re north or south.” We eyed each other while words formed and died before they left my lips. “I really can’t seem to make sense of anything at the moment. I think the thin air has floored me.”

“Amateur,” I thought, “one small change in elevation and he goes down like a nine-pin!” I grabbed the guide from his grasp and stared at it. Of course it made sense! There was Arequipa Street and there, after three right turns, was our destination. I pointed out our course to him.

“So which way would that be?” he asked.

Cusco-streetI gritted my teeth harder and thought some harsh thoughts. “Right would be that way,” I muttered, leading him by the arm. Preening with conceit at my superior stamina, I propelled us towards the remains of the Inca ruin. The Spanish convent of Santo Domingo nestled inside the redoubtable walls of smooth stone, all that remained of the glittering palace.

“This was what became of the conquered, I brooded.”

I walked around the perimeter, bracing myself against the surrounding metal fence, and wondered why I felt short of breath. I found Jesse seated on the opposite sidewalk, exactly where he had been ten minutes ago. He gazed sadly at his feet and I knew that he was incapable of taking any photographs of the place.

“I’m not feeling well,” he mumbled as I dropped down beside him. I nodded, a look of concerned superiority upon my face.

“I know,” I replied, “let’s just make our way to the main plaza and then we’ll head back to the hotel.” He glared at me, mutinous. “See that cathedral dome across there,” I said with an encouraging smile, “we just have to make it there. It’s not far, you can do it.” I helped him up as he, looking unsteady, shuffled next to me oblivious to his surroundings.

Cusco-plazaThe quiet village atmosphere of Cuzco was broken at the Plaza de Armas. A bevy of five-year-olds wrapped in bright patterned blankets sprinted from fountain ledge to park bench, women in their red hooped skirts wandered from group to group begging, and a line of suited business men gushed out of one of the Spanish tiled buildings. In spite of the chill in the air, the sun streamed down, softening the harsh lines of stucco and wood. I wanted to examine one of the cathedrals, but Jesse looked like a beaten rag doll so we squeezed our way into a local bar off the main square taking comfort in its dark warm interior. After two hot coca teas Jesse brightened, losing that dazed look. We sat for a while longer and when we reappeared outside, the clouds had overtaken the sky and an icy rain spit at us. Surprisingly, it did not faze Jesse. He scuttled to and fro, his camera clicking away, moving from one alley to the next. However, something seemed to have gone terribly wrong with me. I began to profusely sweat while my hands and arms ached in the joints. Every breath was an anvil successfully lifted off my lungs. My heated face felt like Violet Beauregarde’s, ballooning and ready to explode. I leaned against the staunch weight of the mammoth stones neatly interlocked together by the Inca.

Cusco-womenJesse bounded up, panting with effort, and squinted at me. “You okay?” he asked. I swallowed painfully, but I was uncertain whether I shook my head or nodded in response. My head felt detached from me, a bobbing oddity out of control. “You want to go back to the hotel?” Pause. Bobble, bobble. “You want me to help you to a bench?” Pause. I must have shaken my head again, for he replied, “You’re sure?” Pause. Bobble, bobble. “Okay then, if you change your mind, let me know. Take it easy here and I’ll be back in five minutes.” Pause. Bobble, bobble. He rushed away and I smiled grimly at how the tables had turned. A bench a few yards away beckoned to me and I regretted not having asked him to help me to it. Using the wall and the corners of buildings as crutches I shakily made my way there and collapsed.

“As so often happens in travel, my smugness had been defeated.”

Cuzco had ruptured my bubble of arrogance and shown me exactly what Jesse had suffered. Now I shared his physical pain though I was desperately wishing I did not! Hypobaropathy was not to be taken lightly and I should have respected its consequences from the beginning.

Cusco-balconyWith Jesse’s help I managed it back to our hotel, curled up hedge-hog style on the bed, and fell asleep. At two in the morning I awoke feeling myself again, my senses sharpened, my head its correct size, the fuzziness evaporated. I watched the night shift and sigh in our courtyard and saw the leaves of the cedar tree play with its shadow. A lone cat stalked in the gloom. I inhaled slowly and replayed the events of the previous day. It is effortless to blame one’s misery on a person, a place, or a circumstance, but it never erases the pain. I do not know the purpose of suffering, but its sole lesson for me is the blossoming of empathy.

“Every discomfort and sting allows me to see the world through another’s agony.”

Jesse was someone I knew well, someone I worked with and traveled with, not a statistic or news item. I should have offered him sincere solace rather than reassurance laced with contempt. I had not understood his particular distress until I had gone through it myself. When there is a next time, will I remember this and act differently? I am happy travel brings these moments to me where I experience the same tribulations as my companions, where placing blame reveals more about who I am as a person. My perceptions slowly shift from wanting to find fault to cultivating kinship.Cusco-door


The effect of high altitude on those not used to living above 2,400 meters (8,000 feet) is not to be taken lightly. There are no determined factors that can foretell who will be affected by hypobaropathy and what symptoms will be manifested. For mountain climbers slow ascension is the best way to avoid the effects, although there are a few medications that your physician may prescribe. For those visiting Cusco, the locals recommend resting to acclimatize and mate de coca.

When and where have you felt the effects of altitude sickness? Has illness, while traveling, changed your view of yourself or your destination?

42 replies »

  1. We made the same Lima to Cusco trip. For us, a long nap upon arrival, and a couple of days of slow-paced activity seemed to work fine for us. Of course, we were easily winded, but we just took it slowly. But you’re right, there’s no predicting who will or won’t be affected. It’s sort of the same way with seasickness. ~James

  2. Nice article, and great photos. Friends of mine had a similar experience in Ecuador — their entire wedding party was wiped out for a full day due to the altitude. Caution noted if I’m ever in Cuzco!

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