Altitude sickness is not what I expected at all.
I’d heard about people getting dizzy or queasy – but to be honest, I brushed off the warnings quite naively. After all, I’d visited plenty of mountains around the world: Jungfrau in Switzerland (standing at 13,642 ft) and Tai Shan in China (which involved an 8-hour hike up a ridiculous 6,666 granite steps). Our destination: Cusco, near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountain range, sits at 11,200 ft high. This was going to be easy, I thought. Unfortunately for me, it didn’t quite go down this way.
I had arrived in the beautiful European-like town of Cusco with my roommate and fellow volunteer, Holly at around 9am. We were wide-eyed and excited to be embarking on our 5-day trek to Machu Picchu via the Salkantay Mountain. Even the thought of lugging our 10 kilogram backpacks around was not daunting us at this stage.
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Stepping off the airplane, I immediately had an overwhelming sense of wooziness – like I’d just smoked a packet of cigarettes in 5 minutes. I shook it off and didn’t give it another thought – surely it was nothing a cup of coca tea couldn’t fix!
We checked into Hostal Resbalosa, got ourselves settled and drank a complimentary mug of coca tea on the rooftop. It was bliss – a spectacular birds-eye view of the city and a luxurious two days to acclimatize before we set off on our camping trek.
A few hours later and it was a whole other story. We had wandered down to the main square of Cusco to soak up the much-missed sun that we had been deprived of in Lima. Sitting on a park bench, Holly and I looked at each other knowingly, and expressed how our bodies were reacting, this was the start of our experience with altitude sickness.
She was experiencing heart palpitations and dizziness and just wanted to sit down. For me – altitude sickness felt something like cerebral edema – almost like my brain was expanding to the size of a watermelon, pushing intensely on my skull. I could not open my eyes, and used my hand to shield my face from the sun. There was so much activity going on around, with several local Peruanas approaching us to shine our shoes or sell us paintings. I rudely replied ‘no, gracias…’ and ignored them. At that point, I could do nothing more… everything felt so internalized and I could not deal with anything or anyone at that moment.
Quite suddenly, I felt nauseous and bolted up the steps into trusty McDonalds to use the bathrooms. I didn’t make it in time, my body suddenly hurled forth and the next minute I was projectile vomiting across the room. I made it to the toilet and continued this for the next 3 minutes. Altitude sickness gave me a severe lack of oxygen and in between throwing up was gasping for air desperately. At one point, I even thought the altitude sickness wouldn’t stop and that my life might end here on the floor of a McDonalds. With hindsight, I know my emotions had definitely taken over and I needed to relax.
This continued again for the next half hour, until I knew I just needed to somehow get back to the hostel. The most daunting thing was knowing that it was still a 200 meter hike up a large stone pathway to the hostel. With shortness of breath, I knew this would be hard.
The hostel kindly called the doctor for me. I had vomited again another 10 to 20 times, but this time there was no food left in my stomach. He arrived within 15 minutes, his little black bag in hand and a friendly smile on his face.
My oxygen level was down at 70, and it needed to be at 90. He told me the next 24 hours were critical for altitude sickness and that I needed to sit upright in the same position to increase my oxygen levels. He suggested a shot in the backside, but I wasn’t comfortable with this at all, so I opted towards several rounds of pills. Coca tea and too much water were not recommended – apparently once the altitude sickness symptoms like this are onset, they only upset the stomach more.
The visit from the doctor cost me S/170, which is around AUD$66, a service that I could never receive in my home country… so I was pretty impressed. What’s more, I even had the local pharmacy delivering pills to my bedside. They cost me S/78, which is equivalent to AUD$30.
I don’t remember a lot more about the day other than this. Altitude sickness was an intense experience. I hope to never go through altitude sickness again! At least next time I’ll be a little more prepared, both physically and emotionally.
Obviously everyone’s body reacts differently to a change in altitude and to altitude sickness, but my main advice is to take it easy, and this means – do nothing! Sit in your hotel room and watch TV, sip on tea and don’t go anywhere. It is exciting arriving in a new city, but listen to your body and relax. Oh, and make sure you give yourself a day or two before setting off on a trek to Machu Picchu!
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Eleanor is a user experience designer from Melbourne, Australia who is taking a short hiatus from everyday life to experience Peru and volunteer with Karikuy. Having travelled throughout Europe and Asia she thought it was about time to hit up South America and find out what all the fuss is about. She won't be seen without her camera and loves people watching, when she can get away with it.