Happy Peru Year
Kicking off 2023 from Lima, Peru, going to take a minute to talk about the experience because it is definitely bucket-list worthy.
Part I: Rough start
It was clear by Christmas Day, the day of my first excursion from Cusco, that I had badly miscalculated and was very, very ill. I was supposed to be headed to Laguna Humantay, a mineral-turquoise body of water underneath a picturesque, snow-capped mountain. I was unsurprised, initially, to feel like shit for this venture since we had to wake up at 3:30 to leave for it, and hey who feels good waking up that early? But as the day progressed, it became clear that my problems were far more than altitude sickness.
The previous day arriving in the hilly, cobblestoned streets of Cusco I had noticed the normal altitude sickness cocktail of windedness, headache, and poor appetite. Being a humid-east-coast swamp-dweller, I usually struggle with altitude adjustment. I may have noticed with some surprise that first night that even a block or so of walking had me winded, but I didn't think much of it and assumed it would improve.
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The van ride to Laguna Humantay was quite literally bruising, with roads so irregular and winding that I felt like a rock in a rock tumbler. Against my will and despite my tightly buckled seatbelt I bounced around like a cooking popcorn kernel with my shoulder colliding again and again into the van window. Here, I had my first introduction to what I can only theorize is the hardiness of the Peruvian people against mountain weather, as no matter how high we went our driver cavalierly kept the main window open letting freezing oxygen-poor air saturate the van. Freezing, nauseous, and increasingly worried about hurling I wrapped myself in a rain poncho and hoped for the best.
Through the backdrop of bleary discomfort, I remained as easily impressed as ever by mountains. The scope and sweep of the Andes was so vast and incomprehensible. How did anyone, especially early humans, climb even one of these mountains, much less many of them?
At the included lunch ahead of our main destination I gamely tried drinking coco tea, a mild stimulant used heavily in Peru and known to help with altitude sickness. I forced myself to shovel down fruit and some unfamiliar dish that seemed to consist of dry, milk-less cereal with some type of sugary pink condiment. Each turned to ash in my mouth, and I wondered at the wisdom of even attempting to eat, as I'd already verged several times on having to ask that we pull over so I could throw up.
We wound our way further and further through the mountains, higher and higher past small villages with incidental, ad-hoc layouts and a full retinue of beaming children and lazy dogs observing our progression. Women in traditional dress, bright colored clothes and sturdy leather hats lightly swatted groups of sheep along the roadside.
When we arrived at Humantay a painfully cold drizzle had started, and we donned ponchos and marched single file up a gravel path towards our destination. An hour-and-a-half of hiking each way, I was told.
I lasted about two hundred feet, if that.
Not only couldn't I breathe, even trying was painful. It reminded me of a far worse version of having to run in middle school gym class on cold mornings and feeling the sharp frozen air knife down your throat. This was deeper in my chest though, and a worse pain. But that same jagged scrape of cold combined with inability to breathe had me embarrassed and I requested to just go back to the van. My guides were sympathetic and tried some sort of liquid you rub on your hands and inhale that is supposed to help with altitude problems. Even breathing in the scent made me feel at risk of throwing up, so I gave up and was given the van keys. Once back, I quickly was freezing again and wrapped my legs in my poncho. Scanning the van, I saw yet again, the window left open. So, it was near freezing. I was tired enough that I fell into a light sleep anyway.
I was deeply annoyed at myself for missing the excursion and my mind turned over and over whether I was overreacting, and why the altitude sickness should be THIS bad. I hated missing activities, in fact had been hopeful that since I had begun hiking so much the past few years I would do far better with the altitude on this trip than I had in trips past.
After what felt like millennia dozing and freezing in the van, the group returned, and we made the bouncy, nauseating trip back. When we were dropped off in a central square, I began the six block walk home and again nearly immediately could hardly catch my breath at all. I wound up taking a taxi and planning to regroup. I felt too awful to get dinner and instead forced myself to eat some chips and drink some water.
As the night went on, it became clear to me that I was not improving at all, and I cancelled the next day's tour to Machu Picchu, knowing how frustrated I would be to wake up at three in the morning again, bounce around a bus again, and only disappoint myself by being unable to make the climb.
The entire night trying to sleep, the pain in what I visualized as abrasions from cold air down my chest acted up. Any time I would so much as turn halfway over in bed, the sharp, shard sensation deep in my chest again. Adding to the fun, whatever stomach problems I had were not appeased by me basically not eating anything but rice, fruit, and a small bag of chips. At this point in my travel career, country #19, I had almost imagined I might be immune to normal traveler GI issues. Previously exercising only the most basic precautions (drinking bottled water when advised) I had been able to sail through location after location eating street food, spicy food, iffy food. I've always joked that the animal that best represents me is something like a goat, or maybe a shark, where they can eat a license plate and keep on trucking. My luck had apparently run out though.
The next day I dozed on and off fitfully drinking water, no appetite, and with the continuing touchiness in my chest. Walking across the room I was winded. Still the tiniest thing, turning in my bed kept the daggers of pain twisting in my chest. In the span of a day, I had gone from thinking “if I get really sick, I may just have to go home early” to being too sick to even organize getting back and realizing “I may need a hospital”.
Trying to discern the cause, I took COVID test after COVID test throughout that week, all negative. I'd gotten my flu shot too. Hadn't had so much as a cold in years and no other culprit came to mind. Internet-sleuthing led me to find that some more severe forms of altitude sickness could cause fluid in the lungs, and I somehow instinctively knew my lungs were the source of the pain. With great difficulty I found a list of clinics in Peru and enlisted a taxi to drag me to one. I felt bad enough that I didn't care about the cost.
Clinica Pardo was both more and less welcoming than the hospitals I'm used to. One glass front door looked to have been bludgeoned by a rock (less welcoming). A lazy border-collie looking dog lazed in the front lobby and enthusiastically barked at street dog passers-by (more welcoming). I was expeditiously processed through an exam, EKG, and one of the more unique blood drawing experiences I've ever had where the needle was injected away from my prominent vein usually used for bloodwork and instead put deep in the crook of my arm and riveted around until the proper location was found (I later learned this may have been something about getting the oxygenated blood to see my blood oxygen levels, apparently the procedure is not always super accurate). It was surprising enough and took enough poking around that even as a blood-collection pro I let out a strangled protest at one point.
With most things at that point looking normal, the doctor recommended a chest x-ray and I happily obliged. I was too sick to care when a language mix-up meant that I took my shirt instead of my bra off in front of the two male doctors. A certain level of sickness, and your shame goes out the window.
Finally, finally after now three or so days feeling so horrible, I had an answer. Bronchitis! Infection of the lungs. In addition to labs showing low oxygen and numerous other low metabolic readings which was not that much of a surprise as I hadn't been eating much in days. Through a haze of sickness, I dimly wondered how this even happened. I hadn't had so much as a cold in years, and always previously had gotten bronchitis on the heels of other illnesses. Continued, dutiful COVID testing revealed nothing along those lines to point to. (At this point, I honestly have no idea what to attribute this to. RSV can cause bronchitis, apparently. I have had no recent cold symptoms and it seems enormously unlikely it was COVID based on the volume of testing).
Whatever the reason, I felt energized when sent away with my medication and prognosis: it was down to business, and I was going to get the trip back on track. The doctor recommended two days' rest, but I bet on myself and planned for just one. I summoned all the mental focus I could through the malaise and mental fog and cancelled all my plans for Costa Rica and rescheduled my activities in Peru. I rerouted the flights and managed to extend my stay in my current hotel. I still had nearly no energy but forced myself to eat Ritz crackers and drink water just to avoid feeling even worse and had a delivery service bring electrolyte drinks and stomach medicine.
Part II: Mario Kart in real life
The following day I could immediately sense a difference. I was hitting the threshold of altitude adjustment, but the bronchitis medicine also clearly made an enormous improvement. Not wanting to push it, I coasted on a combination of walking to downhill locations and taxiing any time I ran out of downhill avenues. I went to Qorikancha, one of the more important Inca locations razed and co-opted by the Spanish among with many others.
I had enough executive function to find an ATM. I managed to sit for an hours long tattoo, adding the Andean cock of the rock to a previous tattoo from Ecuador of one of Darwin's finches. (OK, maybe a five hour tattoo wasn't exactly “taking it easy” but I could already tell I was on the mend).
I found an artisan market and knocked out most of my souvenir shopping. I picked up a soft, luxurious alpaca blanket for myself to help with the cold on the excursions.
Although vastly improved, I was still somewhat pathetic in terms of appetite. I forced myself to order a sandwich at a cafe for lunch. I idly noticed, it seemed as if everywhere I ever traveled there has been consistent representation of croissant among the bread family of foods. The entire world at this point must be in agreement that croissant is one of the penultimate bread formats. Even as an admirer, I barely got through half the sandwich and hoped that was enough. My best friend messaged me to ask if my activities were in groups, whether there would be people around if things went sideways and I keeled over on a mountain.
Despite all that, I was in good spirits because the next day I had scheduled something I was looking forward to almost more than Machu Picchu: Rainbow Mountain. The colorfully striated rock formation only came to mainstream notice in 2016 when adjacent hikers stumbled onto it. I was set to ride ATVs to the mountain, another first.
The following day had another equally awful 3am wakeup and another equally un-nappable, bumpy ride, but I was happy enough about no longer feeling deathly ill that I wasn't bothered a bit. It didn't occur to me until several hours into riding the cliff-hanger roads through the Andes that judging on our path so far, we would basically be riding ATVs around the edge of literal mountains. My foolish lollipop head and laughably breakable body would be careening around the edges of mountains, what could go wrong?
We stopped briefly in a tiny village of traditional, Qechua speakers to pick up the ATVs. Chickens strutted and dogs wagged, and nearby alpaca and llama eyed us warily. Glancing upwards, I noticed what looked like the pelt of a desiccated llama thrown haphazardly across the roof of one house. A noncommittally turquoise river surged through the center of the tiny village Japura, and the sky was overcast but luckily no rain.
What happens next, I am so sorry I don't have pictures of but being on an ATV, it would have been impossible to take them responsibly. I'll do my best to describe it faithfully.
Japura and its river were inlaid in a deep valley. Minerals from the mountains gave that beautiful, chalky quality to the river which was high and wild, full of rapids and white. The incalculably high mountain walls on each side were a colorful complement to the river, a mottled yet bright turquoise color due to oxidized copper deposits within. Everywhere you looked, the terrain was near alien and beautiful. Paradoxical plants scruffy of body but lush in color decorated every rock. A Dr. Seuss looking plant on high stalks with curlicue branches added to the unearthly effect. Mosses bright and luscious covered the non-vertical surfaces, and were so visually magnetic I had to resist tearing some off to rub against my skin, or bury my face in, or even to roll around in my mouth.
My ATV riding experience started embarrassingly, as my wheel fell into a “gutter” of a depression in the road and I didn't initially realize how hard I would need to correct the wheel, I drove almost into a mountainside before panicking and braking. My vehicle may also have had some other issue as it kept shutting off unexpectedly, which also threw me the first time it happened. But after a scant few minutes looking foolish any thoughts of how dangerous it was, or problems driving, were gone. I became one with the machine and as we left civilization behind to get farther into this alien landscape, I lost myself in the haunting beauty.
It was also at this point I discovered that OMG ATVS ARE FUCKING FUN and that's going on the list of something that any trip I ever take in the future, if ATV activities are offered, I'm doing them. (Hot air balloon rides are also on this list).
As beautiful as the original landscape was, with the turquoise river, turquoise/copper mottled rock walls bookending the valley, and colorful moss, things got even more fantastical as we drove on. Slowly, the road began to change. The rocks on each side of us became increasingly colorful until they reached almost jellybean-hued brightness. Turquoise, purple, deep clay-red. The gravel beneath us, even, became colorful as we went on. Instead of a mud brown, puddles over the purple gravel looked like cereal milk after Fruit Loops. Up, up, up we went.
I realized while on the ATV, a) this was one of the most fun things I had done in my entire life, and b) I was basically getting to do the in-real-life equivalent of Rainbow Road in Mario Kart. Watching the gravel beneath me and rocks around me cycle from purple, to turquoise, to grey, to oxidized-copper green. There was even a parallel to dodging banana peels and turtle shells since we would occasionally have to maneuver the ATVs on the narrow roads around llamas, or alpacas, or piles of llama or alpaca poop.
You heard it here first kids: video games are great preparation for life!
The ride alone was so spectacular I would have almost not cared what was at the end of it. It was the type of ride that I imagine I could do every day for the rest of my life and not tire of. Even though I know it is quite the opposite, I felt personally touched by the experience, that the world would go out of its way to be so magical just for little old me. I felt a magnitude of unknowing, that this planet we think we have cataloged and categorized and Google-earth-ed into the known, is hiding surreal treasures that even a creative mind couldn't have dreamt up.
It was a cherry on top that Rainbow Mountain itself was as beautiful as promised. On each side, sister and brother mountains with their own stunning colors, deep clay red and enveloping green. But Rainbow Mountain itself was gorgeous, with striated lanes of sandstone, quartz, clay, copper, and others. A lone daredevil butterfly with yellow wings hovered with us near the top. My lungs hurt a little and at this point there was snow on the ground with us and quite cold, but I was as content as I've been any time in my life. Rainbow mountain alone is worth the trip to Peru.
By the time we got back, I was an old pro with the ATV and able to drive it effortlessly through a tiny cottage doorway where they were kept.
I can think of no other recent experience I've had that so starkly demonstrates the joys of trying new things and going new places.
Part III: Bonus content, Peru travel recommendations
Obviously I can't classify this as a totally smooth trip but it mostly panned out. If I had to give some advice for anyone considering going it would be:
I defend going in December even though I was poorly prepared, I should have just brought a full-on winter coat. Imagining some of these activities if it were warm, much less hot, they would have been absolutely miserable. I don't know why, but several of my van drivers kept the windows open during excursions even though it was aaaaaabsolutely freezing, so my plan of layers/sweatshirt and using transit time to warm back up was completely inadequate. December is prone to more overcast days so switching it up by a couple months if you are worried about that might work, although me personally I liked the moodiness of the clouds and on most of the scenic activities they shifted enough to get some bright shots
Get altitude medicine, just do it. I knew the altitude was high but I didn't realize it was as high as Mt. Everest base camp. Some of the excursions like Rainbow Mountain are 4000 ft higher than Cusco, and anything more than a 3000ft change in altitude can trigger altitude readjustment. There is also a loooooooooooot of climbing so that lack of oxygen is going to hurt
The “difficulty” ratings on various activities are optimistic at best, many said things like “all travelers can participate” but in honesty were fairly grueling vertical climbs. Which is fine. But they were hardly easy even once my bronchitis was better, and I'm in good shape
I possibly could have improved my trip and when I had to wake up by spending my time in some other towns closer to various excursions. I don't know that it would have been worth shlepping my stuff to 4 hotels vs 1, but if you think you will be able to sleep on many of these bus rides you will be mistaken and many/most of the wake up times are 3, 4am
The instruction around “circuits” for Machu Picchu is pretty confusing, but when you buy your ticket they will default to circuit 1 which is generally what you want to get the traditional long shot pictures of the entire site and then afterwards get to progress through the town. You need to be careful because both the dates of entry and amount of entrants per day are limited. This is definitely not something to book last minute, and it may be worth buying in town which you can do in Cusco
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Oh man, bronchitis is bonkers, I get it almost every single time I travel back from India. So...when are you headed back so you can redo the first half of your trip?