Central and South America / Travel

How Altitude Could Affect Your Travel Plans

Dying Alpaca Yarn the Traditional Way in Chinchero ((©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Make Sure Your Body Receives Enough Oxygen

A Statue of Inca Leader, Pachacuti in Plaza de Armas in Cusco, Peru (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
A Statue of Inca Leader, Pachacuti in Plaza de Armas in Cusco, Peru (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Tossing and turning in my bed and struggling to get enough air into my lungs I finally had to admit that even after a full week in Cusco I had still not completely acclimatized to the altitude.

I am now reliving some of my memories of gasping for breath in the Andes as I watch Penny still struggling for breath on a daily basis four weeks after she went into the hospital for what has turned out to be an extremely severe case of swine flu, and the associated pneumonia. So rather than dwelling on Penny’s current situation, I thought it might be more engaging to present some of my experiences from my visit to Peru in 2015. 

However, just a quick mention that Penny is now out of ICU and making slow progress towards recovery.

Why Peru?

In my early twenties, I had had the opportunity to explore a number of the Mayan ruins in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. I found the history and knowledge of this pre-Hispanic culture fascinating. No discussion of the Mayans is complete without mention of the Aztecs and the Incas. So long before the term “bucket list” existed I knew that a visit to Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca was a lofty but attainable goal. And I was finally able to realize my 40-year-old dream. But the unanticipated problems I encountered made me realize the importance of taking altitude into consideration when planning a vacation.

Arrival in Cusco

Flying from Lima into Cusco there is a dramatic change in elevation from about 115 ft to over 10,000 feet above sea level so it is reasonable to expect that your body needs time to adapt. But not everyone adapts in the same way and I was not sure what specific effects it would have on me.

I had come to Peru without Penny to participate in a photography workshop organized by Great Escape Publishing (GEP) with the primary goal of a visit to Machu Picchu. But there were also secondary goals of seizing photographic opportunities in Cusco itself and in some of the villages within the area known as the Sacred Valley.

Knowing that altitude can play games with the human body and that everyone reacts differently I intentionally arrived several days early to become acclimatized. I also wanted to visit some specific photogenic locations that I knew were not part of the GEP tour.

On arriving at my hostale the first thing that happened was that the receptionist served me a tea made from coca leaves. This is a pretty standard offering at high altitude hotels in Peru and I gather also in other South American countries, too. It is used to counteract some of the typical symptoms of altitude sickness. For more persistent symptoms there is a medication called Diamox (Acetazolamide) that is available from pharmacies in Peru without a prescription

For those of you planning a trip to a high altitude location consider building time into your schedule to travel by road rather than flying into your destination. This is less of a problem if you are going to cities with a moderate degree of elevation like Denver or Albuquerque at around 5000 feet but could be a more important factor if you are headed to Santa Fe or Flagstaff both around 7000 feet, or Keystone at around 9000 feet. In terms of international travel, it is advisable to check the altitude of the cities you are planning on visiting especially in the Andes (Cusco, Peru, at 11,000 feet; Quito, Ecuador, at 9000 feet) and not to forget locations in Nepal and Bhutan that may be even higher.

Visiting Cusco

Since I had flown into Cusco I intentionally took things very slowly the first day, just participating in a gentle walking tour of some of the more interesting areas in the center of Cusco. My reaction to the altitude was manageable but I did find that I tired more rapidly and that I had to pause fairly frequently while walking to catch my breath. 

Iglesia De La Compañia De Jesús on Plaza de Armas in Cusco (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Iglesia De La Compañia De Jesús on Plaza de Armas in Cusco (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

I was lucky that neither headaches nor nausea troubled me on my initial arrival in Cusco nor throughout my stay. But after several days of fairly ambitious sightseeing in around Cusco, I found that I did have trouble sleeping because, particularly when lying down, I suffered from shortness of breath. It got so bad one night that I had to go to the hotel lobby and request access to an oxygen mask. It was quite amazing that after less than 30 minutes how much better I felt and this short exposure then allowed me to return to my room and fall asleep.

Visit to Chinchero, Moray and Maras

Before joining the GEP photography program I took a day tour from Cusco to visit Chinchero, Moray and Maras.

Chinchero is known for its fine handwoven fabrics made from alpaca yarn. Demonstrations were provided to show the entire process from shorn wool, through washing, dying, carding, spinning to the weaving of the magnificent fabrics. Having been exposed as a child to spinning and hand weaving I was fascinated to watch how the ladies in Chinchero create their yarn with a simple handspun bobbin and the intricately patterned fabrics with the very simplest of looms.

Washing the Raw Alpaca Wool Prior to Dying in Chinchero (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
Washing the Raw Alpaca Wool Prior to Dying in Chinchero (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Simple Loom Used to Create Lengths of Alpaca Wool Cloth (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Simple Loom Used to Create Lengths of Alpaca Wool Cloth (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

 

If you think that agricultural research is a modern day phenomenon, think again. A visit to the agricultural “experimental station” at Moray (altitude 11,500 feet) you will learn that the Incas seemed to have had a very sophisticated approach to crop production. They were apparently relying on the microclimates developed in a natural bowl in the terrain. The terracing provides differing levels of shade, hydration and even slight variations in temperature. 

The Irrigated Terrace Used by the Inca Farmers to Experiment with Micro Climates in Moray (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Irrigated Terrace Used by the Inca Farmers to Experiment with Micro Climates in Moray (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Not only were the Incas agriculturalists but they were also entrepreneurs, evidenced by the Maras salt ponds. Over a 700 year period from AD200 to AD900 over 5000 salt ponds were constructed into a canyon running from an altitude of about 9800 feet down into the valley of the Rio Vilcanota. 

The Maras Salt Ponds (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)
The Maras Salt Ponds (©simon@myeclecticimages.com)

Mineral rich water from a spring higher up the mountain is still, to this day, channeled into the ponds and the fluid is allowed to evaporate off leaving the salt crystals. A multitude of small channels gravity feed all the ponds and then small wooden dams control when the ponds are filled to start the evaporation process. Access to the ponds is controlled by a co-operative but each family in the co-operative is responsible for collecting the salt crystals created in their respective ponds.

It is hard to be too energetic visiting this site because the paths are narrow and one has to move slowly to maintain ones balance and not fall into one of the ponds.

The next article in this series will cover the Sacred Valley of the Incas and Machu Picchu. The final article will talk about Lake Titicaca

4 Comments

  • avatar image

    Annie Hawman

    Mar 23, 2019

    Reply

    Simon, this is a beautiful article, and I love your gorgeous photos. I'm so sorry that Penny has been so sick. Please let her know that Kevin and I are thinking of her, and wish her a quick and full recovery. We are looking forward to Japan with you next year!

    • avatar image

      Simon

      Mar 23, 2019

      Reply

      Thank you for your kind words, Annie. Unfortunately, Penny’s recovery is going to be a slow process because of how seriously ill she was. But each day I do see some slight improvements as her body slowly heals itself. We definitely still have the Japan cruise on our radar as well as another transatlantic on board the Rotterdam in the late fall - of course assuming that Penny is ready to travel again by then.

  • avatar image

    Jane Dempster-Smith

    Mar 22, 2019

    Reply

    Hi Simon Great article. Glad to hear that Penny is out of ICU. Cusco and the high altitude is something else. Duncan was affected the minute we landed and I seemed to be ok. We had to acclimatise for our Inca Trail Trek. Coco tea certainly helps.

    • avatar image

      Simon

      Mar 22, 2019

      Reply

      I appreciate the feedback because as you know I am not usually the one writing the articles. Penny did give me her nod of approval.

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