After about one-and-a-half weeks into our South American trip, my family and I would be heading to higher altitudes on our way to the enigmatic, but stunning Machu Picchu. It would be my first time experiencing life at greater than 8000 feet (or 2500 meters), and I was at once nervous and excited to see how it would go.
Prior to going, I’d looked up what altitude sickness was– considering that I had never traveled to a place so high up until then, I wanted to inform myself on the symptoms and preventative measures to ensure that I wouldn’t be feeling uncomfortable during the trip. According to WebMD, symptoms include dizziness, headaches, muscle aches, and nausea. Anyone is susceptible to getting it, from children to even professional athletes. That said, it did concern me a bit, despite being in my mid-twenties and considerably fit.
I ended up taking pills in hopes of preventing the sickness. The pills had been prescribed to my parents, who were even more concerned about experiencing the effects in high altitude– I took them for a couple of days before I stopped, as the side effects were rather uncomfortable, e.g. intense tingling in my fingers and toes. I also drank coca tea, which is an herbal infusion made from the native-grown coca leaves. Interestingly, the leaves are the ingredients to make cocaine, although it’s far from having such effects in tea form. In any case, I didn’t find the coca tea to make much of a difference in terms of combating altitude sickness, as I drank no more than two cups per day (and that you’d need to drink much more than that to feel anything).
The question is, did I end up getting altitude sickness? I’m actually not quite sure. While visiting Cusco and Chinchero (in the Sacred Valley of the Incas), I did feel a bit more sluggish than usual while exploring, and somewhat tired more easily. I wasn’t necessarily feeling nauseous or short-of-breath, so maybe I did have a *very-mild* case of altitude sickness. There were maybe one or two people in my tour group who weren’t faring so well, but our tour guide was really nice to take it slow throughout our full-day excursions.
Any case, I’ll be recapping two destinations from our trip to Peru. Granted, these places were visited separately, but similar in that they were at high elevation and gave us a look into Incan civilization centuries ago. Here they are!
Sacred Valley of the Incas
Following two brief nights in Lima, my family and I joined our tour group to head to the airport and board our morning flight to Cusco, the nearest city on our way to Machu Picchu. The flight took no more than 90 minutes, and soon enough, we landed in the seventh-largest city in the country. It’s also one of the highest cities in Peru, at an elevation of 11,100 feet (or 3400 meters). In fact, it’s higher than Machu Picchu itself, which pales in comparison at 8000 feet (2400 meters). Apart from the fact that Cusco had the closest airport to the ancient-terraced city, its elevation also allowed for tourists to get acclimated to the high altitude, so that they would feel fine by the time they reached Machu Picchu.
Upon arriving in Cusco around noon, we clambered on-board our tour’s coach, which would take us to our hotel literally in the middle of nowhere (closest town being Urubamba), where we would stay for one night to get acclimated to the high altitude and to see the famous Sacred Valley of the Incas. It was a two-hour drive over, and by the time we made it to the hotel, we were utterly exhausted. After checking in and getting the room keys, we got settled in our rooms with beautiful views of the sweeping valleys in front of us.
Compared with Cusco, the Urubamba valley wasn’t as high up at 9400 feet (or 2800 meters). Still, it was still high up, and I suppose the sudden elevation to Cusco and notable drop to Urubamba within a couple of hours was enough to make me feel sluggish. Or perhaps we’d just been traveling the whole day, from flight to bus ride, that made me feel so tired.
In any case, we didn’t do so much upon arrival, with the exception of afternoon tea in the hotel lobby (where I tried coca tea for the first time) and an evening walk to see constellations, including the Southern Cross, in the sky– we even saw part of the Milky Way while we were at it! Unfortunately, it was way too dark to capture the spectacular views, but I can say that it was a new, beautiful experience to see.
We checked out the next morning, and we began our full-day tour in the Sacred Valley. First stop of the day was in Chinchero, a notable district at a staggering 12,300 feet (3700 meters). The sudden climb up was enough to make me feel even more sluggish– even some of the other people in my tour group were feeling it, along with the warmer sun. All the same, we explored the sweeping terraces near its ancient outdoor market, before checking out a silversmith shop and wool-dying store. Next to the latter was a small animal farm where we saw adorable llamas, alpacas, even guinea pigs!
After a stop for lunch back in Urubamba, we continued with the tour’s second half to Ollantaytambo, an archaeological site with naturally-carved images of Incan gods and the terraces of Pumatallis. We climbed the terraces to the top, where we got lovely, green views of the rolling mountains and Old Town below. It was shortly thereafter we caught the train to Aguas Calientes, where we would base our night before heading to Machu Picchu.
Also written as “Cuzco,” this Peruvian city was once the Incan capital between the 13th and 16th centuries. Today, it remains a popular tourist spot, with a busy, vibrant Old Town and plenty of historic ruins surrounding it. We spent two nights in town following our visit of Machu Picchu, as means of resting a bit before we had to catch our flight back to Lima (then to Los Angeles) thereafter.
During our only full day in town, my family and I explored on our own in the morning: we checked out the 12-angled stone erected along the wall of a former Inca palace. While it might be unassuming, it goes to show just how advanced the Inca Empire’s architecture was. Just around the corner was a stone spread shaped in a puma, along with a snake– using a bit of imagination goes a long way!
We took a guided tour in the afternoon to several sites in and around Cusco. The first stop was at Qorikancha, which was a former Inca temple that had transformed into a Spanish convent when taken over in the 16th century. We then drove over to Q’enqo (pronounced “ken-ko”), where sacrificial ceremonies were made by the Quechua people, before making it to Saqsaywaman, a 12th-century citadel that’d been constructed with massive, sharp-cut boulders. What makes it so incredible is that its walls weren’t cemented, but rather fitted tightly together, so that not even a sheet of paper could slip inside– same goes for similar structures in the area, which makes ancient Peruvian architecture quite innovative of its time.
Finally, we ended our visit back in Cusco’s center, where we visited its cathedral. My family and I rounded off the day (as well as our entire trip) at a nice restaurant that served delicious, traditional dishes. We had our share of gamey guinea pig, appetizing alpaca, and tender tubers. It was my first time trying guinea pig and alpaca, and I would say they weren’t bad!
Overall, our visit of the Sacred Valley of the Incas and Cusco were rather intense, but offered plenty of insight into Inca and Quechua culture. As for getting acclimated to the high altitude, it went better than I thought, even though I did experience a bit of its effects. However, when it came to conquering Machu Picchu afterwards, it was no sweat at all!
Last installment of my South American trip to come soon. Next up: Machu Picchu, Peru!