The air is pretty thin in Cusco. The Incas built Cusco, their capital city, at the breathtaking altitude of 11,000 feet in the Andes.
All of us felt our hearts and lungs struggle to deliver enough blood to our brains. The hotel provided hot coca tea in the lobby for guests. Coca is, of course, the internationally famous plant used as the base for cocaine. In its natural leafy form, coca is an extremely useful tea to alleviate the symptoms of altitude adjustment. We all tried it, and it did seem to help some. The nights were worse than the days, Suzanne and I were both awakened in the middle of the night by throbbing headaches and parched mouths. All four of us had strange, vivid, and colorful dreams. In the morning we walked down two flights of stairs for breakfast; then slowly drug ourselves, huffing and puffing, back up the stairs to our room for a nap.
The Don Bosco hotel is connected to a grade school, and just outside our window we watched, in between our wheezing breathes, the kids playing basketball, volleyball, and soccer. How could they do that in such thin air? It was all we could do on that first day to conduct a little road-school, read, and breath. In the evening we finally caught our breath and decided to venture the 150 meters to the main square of Plaza de Armes and find a place for dinner. Unfortunately the 150 meters was down a steep, narrow cobblestone street, and as we returned from dinner we were once again huffing-and-puffing with our hearts flopping around in our chests. There was a school event that night celebrating Mother’s Day, people were singing and dancing, we could barely talk. [Editor’s note: Suzanne thinks my description is a bit dramatic – but this is how I remember it]
The second night Alex and I started to feel a little better; however, even with coca tea, ibuprofen, and bottles of water; Suzanne and Patrick got worse. By dawn they were both feeling quite ill. Altitude sickness feels similar to a bad hangover – and Suzanne and I told the kids to remember this feeling and not to be in a hurry to have a real hangover. About this time it occurred to us that we had been carrying around pills for altitude sickness for the past year. Hmmm… maybe we should try them? Sure enough, the pills kicked in after a few hours and we felt much better. We were all still out of breath after walking up a few flights of stairs, but the headaches and nausea decreased and we could start to slowly enjoy Cusco. After our excursions to Machu Picchu and the jungle we had to readjust to the altitude after we returned.
History is tangible in the old parts of Cusco in a way that I have not seen in any other North or South American city. The old Inca walls are incorporated right into the newer colonial Spanish buildings, and since it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, the place retains its unique look and feel.
The women who walk around the streets with babies wrapped in blankets and slung over their backs have the look and feel of the old Andean culture. Tourism is clearly a major industry here, and now that we were all feeling better, Suzanne started arranging tours and activities. First priority was the trip to Machu Picchu, which involved a day on a bus touring the Sacred Valley of the Inca, a train ride through a beautiful canyon with a rushing mountain river, a night at a hostel in the little town of Aqua Caliente, and a 5:30 AM bus ride up a steep twisty mountain road to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu. We will discuss that outing in another post.
The second tour from Cusco was a 4-day/3-night Amazon jungle experience near the Manu national reserve. This trip involved lots of bird spotting, a harrowing drive on slippery jungle roads along steep ravines, boat rides down a swift running muddy jungle river, a night sleeping in a tree platform, and day and night treks along the muddy jungle floor in borrowed rubber boots. The Jungle trip also deserves its own post.
The third excursion was a city tour of Cusco which consisted of a few hours of guided tours to 5 historical Inca sites in and around the city.
The itinerary included: Korichancha, the former Inca imperial palace grounds in Cusco that was converted to a Catholic church; Sacsayhuaman (pronounced like “Sexy Woman”), an impressive defensive and religious structure overlooking the city made of giant carved stones; Q’endo, an Inca sacred site with a stone table for sacrifices (usually not human) carved from the stone mountain;
Pacapucara, a ruin of one of the many “rest stops” along the Inca Trail where travelers could sleep, eat, and get new gear for their travels; and finally we visited Tambomachay, an ancient cold water fountain that has had continuous water flow from an underground spring for about 900 years.
Our last day in Cusco we stopped by a small cul du sac full of local vendors selling all manner of memorabilia. We picked up a painting, several alpaca hats, key chains, bracelets, necklaces, and other little things that we can stuff into Alex’s roller bag. Since we are only a few weeks from arriving back in Danville, we relaxed our rule about buying souvenirs and picked up a few little things.