Short of breath in Cusco, Peru

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Cusco, Peru took our breath away- literally.  At 3,400 meters  above sea level (that’s 11, 150 feet for you non metric folks!),  we were quite literally gasping for air.

 We had flown in that afternoon from lower-lying Lima (after our plane was senselessly delayed for over 4 hours, gah!), and the rapid jump in altitude meant that Cusco, through no fault of its own, offered us less oxygen to suck into our lungs. As we de-planed in the airport, I moved slowly, ever so slowly, afraid that my body wouldn’t be able to adjust to the change. I already knew from my trip to the Atacama Desert in Chile (one of the highest and driest in the world) last year that I was prone to altitude sickness, so it came as no surprise when the nausea came and an acute headache started pounding at my temples.

It felt like we were sucking air through a straw. We exited the airport and the sun bore down on us mercilessly, making it even harder to breathe and reminding us that our packs were heavy and our bodies weary.

It was with pleasure that we reached our hotel, the Golden Inca,  and luxuriated in the air-conditioned haven of our room, our home for three nights.  The young man at the reception, sensing our weariness, brought us cups of coca leaf tea, known to ward off altitude sickness.  I added two heaping spoons of brown sugar to mine and greedily slurped it down.  Bliss.

But Cusco took our breath away in many ways as well.  Known as the unofficial gateway to Machu Picchu (many people stop here before  heading to see Peru’s most popular landmark), the city is large, bustling, and vibrant, if a bit gritty.  Our second day in town, recovered somewhat from our acute bout of altitude sickness, we headed to Cusco’s gorgeous main square.

Now,  you guys know that I am crazy in love with colonial cities.  I love architectural wonders like ornate cathedrals and cobble-stoned streets, of which Cusco’s main drag has aplenty. We even got the added bonus of running into some very purposeful looking  men of the cloth. Holy s…mokes!

Have you ever suffered from altitude sickness?  What places or things have taken your breath away?

A big thanks to HostelBookers who hosted us at the Golden Inca in Cusco and Miraflores Apartments in Lima.

28 Comments

  • Gaelyn says:

    Thanks for the reminder about Cusco’s extreme elevation. I think spending a few days there before going to Machu Picchu is an excellent idea. Will keep in mind for next winter’s trip to Central and South America.

    The first time elevation made me sick was stopping at the top of a pass into Oaxaca Mexico. Even our cat was woozy.

    Have a great time.

    • I lived in Mexico for a year but never made it to Oaxaca- had no idea that you could get altitude sickness while there! Cusco is a great place to acclimate to the altitude before going to MP or Lake Titicaca!

  • Such lovely photos that make me really excited about going there! I too love architecture, cobbled streets and the like. I just hope I don’t suffer too much from the altitude. Ekk! Keep the South America posts coming! :)

  • Deidre says:

    My brothers live at 10,000 feet so I get altitude sickness everytime I go visit them. I find that being dehydrated is normally what causes it, so I just drink a ton of water before I land and while I’m there!

    Your photos are fantastic per usual!

  • Mary Ellen says:

    I have visited Cusco twice now, and was fine both times, but then went to Huancayo, Peru and got the worst altitude sickness! You never know when it will hit. Cusco is one of my favorite places in the world- it somehow manages to retain its Peruvian-ness even with all the tourists and internationals that live there. I hope to spend longer in Cusco soon!

  • jen says:

    Oneika that looks just lovely. Seriously lovely. Sigh… another area of the world to visit.

    On another note, i’m thinking of WWOOFing in France in September………. we must chat tomorrow. I mean Wednesday.

  • I luckily haven’t ever gotten sick from altitude, but I definitely had my moments of having to stop while gasping on the steps up to our hostel in Cuzco! I agree that it’s a beautiful town, despite being so touristy.

  • Memoria says:

    Hey Oneika,

    I’ve been following your blog for about a year now; you always keep my wanderlust and xenophilic nature alive. I have been enjoying your photos of Peru and experiences in other countries as well. Your life is enviable and exciting.

    I am delurking to ask you for advice. I am hoping to move to Italy in July without a work visa (bought my one-way ticket last week!). I plan to apply for a permesso di soggiorno (permission to stay) and get a work visa later and work as a tutor of all the languages I know. In the meantime, however, I need to know where to go to find apartments for rent for at least 3 months (the max amt of time I can be there without the permesso). Could you give me some tips or lead me to the right place? I have visited blogs written by expats in Italy, but I thought maybe you could give me other tips or websites. Thanks!!

    If I ever make it back to Europe, I will try to visit you if ever I go back to England. That would be awesome! I love your writing style.

  • Cata says:

    Coca tea is amazing to help with altitude sickness and stomach ache. I love the taste!! Quito has the largest colonial center. You would probably love it. It is only 2800 m. Maybe you won’t feel sick. I never felt sick in bogota (2600 m) and in Quito I was sick for a while. I might just b getting old. Cusco is high on my list of places I want to go. Not only bc of machu picchu. The pictures that you posted confirm that I need to plan a visit soon.

    • I am also a huge fan of the taste of coca tea- I couldn’t get enough while there! I’ve heard that the center of Quito is really beautiful. We were thinking about going on this trip but the flight schedules didn’t work out!

  • Kaiea says:

    Same thing happened to me in Cusco. It took me two weeks to get used to it and by then I had to leave!!! I walked everywhere and loved it!!

  • wes says:

    few pictures of you and more of the sites you are visiting would be good.

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  • It must have been one-heck-of-an adventure! ;)
    I’m a great fan of Peru and your photos made my blood boil.

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