Battling the Altitude in Cusco

One of the best things about travelling, in my mind, is the misadventure and disaster that always seems to surround backpackers with budgets too tight to improve their circumstances. I suppose, someday, I may look back at this experience that way.

Rather than flying and wasting a precious $100 getting from Lima to Cusco, the obvious solution is to take a $25 bus. We’ve done our fair share of 24+ hour buses, especially in Asia, so it really didn’t phase either of us. And we also opted to save $3 by sitting on the upper level of the bus, which really just made the result that much worse. What we failed to account for was the altitude change between Lima and Cusco (ie. the straight vertical climb between the cities). Stabbing a screwdriver through your ear would be less painful than this trip. Because the bus was also taking an unnecessarily serpentine path of the mountains and, being perched on the top level, I would liken it to being caught in a deep sea storm on a sail boat. We spent about half of the bus ride laying on the floor near the toilets, in case we needed to regurgitate our lunch.

We are both feeling really stupid by the time we arrive in Cusco, especially after arriving at our home stay and speaking to the other volunteers, every single one of which has flown. That $100 we saved better be the difference between life and death, come the end of the trip.

In a brilliant stroke of luck, we have arrived to Cusco several days before our volunteer projects start. These days are mostly spent sleeping, because our poor oxygen-starved bodies are still struggling to survive at this height. Luckily, there is an endless supply of tea at the volunteer hq (and I love tea), so I waste no time acquainting myself with the kettle. Coca tea, as it turns out, also works wonders on altitude sickness.

By day 2, I no longer feel like projectile vomiting everywhere, nor do I have a splitting headache, but my poor little sea-level lungs are struggling hard. They say it takes 10 years for lungs to physically adapt to elevation, and obviously our time here is slightly short of a decade, so we settle in for a few weeks of unavoidable panting and under-oxygenated muscles. It is literally a day’s work just going up the stairs to our room, and I feel like I need a nap if I have to bend over to get something.

We are, as always, overconfident and decide to go for a hike on day 4, despite still being unable to stand up from dinner without blacking out. What Aristo and I have lovingly named “baby Christ the Redeemer” is actually Cristo Blanco, a white statue sitting atop a hill overlooking the city. It’s a fitting activity for our first week in South America, seeing as we will finish our three-month trip in Rio, home of big-sized Christ the Redeemer.

To get up the hill, we have to walk up through San Blas and then climb a dizzying number of stairs straight up. This would ordinarily be a short little walk, maybe 20 minutes or less, but the frequent stops to gasp for air drag the trek out much longer. The girls we’ve gone with are the gym junkie type, and they are up the hill before I’ve managed to regain balance after tying my shoe. Of course, I hate being shown up at hiking, so I trod along like I’m not dying inside and disguise my panting as breathy snickering, like “ha ha this is so simple, I am not struggling to climb stairs”.