I spent my first day in Cusco, Peru — where, at 11,152 feet, the air is, quite literally, breathtakingly thin — drinking cup after cup of mate de coca tea to help prevent and alleviate any symptoms of altitude sickness.
By the second morning, however, I was desperate for a decent cup of coffee. So before my friend and I began our day’s adventures, I requested a quick pit stop in Plaza de Armas, a lively gathering place considered by many to be the cultural center of the city.
Though I consider myself to be relatively fit, it took several humbling minutes — with several stops along the way — to huff and puff my way to the top.
But despite experiencing this shortness of breath, I was otherwise feeling OK.
With my hard-earned coffee in hand and our hired driver at the ready, my friend and I traveled to Pisac, a village in southern Peru’s Sacred Valley region, it’s Archaeological Park featuring a hilltop Incan citadel with ancient temples and a stone structure thought to have been a sundial.
While my friend remained at the base, I embarked on the relatively short but steeply ascending trek. Despite topping out at an elevation just below 10,000 feet, the climb was arduous, requiring frequent stops to consume copious amounts of water and allow my galloping heart to slow to a trot. Returning to our apartment that evening, I ate little and slept a lot, my mind and body perpetually fatigued from constantly fighting the altitude and struggling to take in enough oxygen.
While most everyone has heard of Machu Picchu, Lake Humantay — one of the most picturesque glacier lakes in the region — is one of Peru’s many lesser known hidden gems.
The adventure to the glacial lake began with a four-hour, hair-raising, hairpin-turning bus ride to Soraypampa, the glacier’s base camp, perched at a whopping 12,700 feet. At that altitude, simply walking along a false flat dirt path to the trailhead was challenging. But the fun was just beginning.
Already gasping for breath in the razor-thin air, our group of nine hikers craned our necks upward at the nearly vertical rock-studded path to the lake which, according to our guide, featured a 40 percent incline for the first half of the hike and a 65 to 70 percent incline for the second half.
In addition to a first aid kit, our guide’s pack contained extra water and supplemental oxygen. Two other guides tagged along with several horses in tow to assist hikers who were unable to make the rigorous trek on foot. Four people in our group of nine ended up on horseback.
The hike, a total distance of less than 1,500 feet, took an average of 60-90 minutes to complete, a confounding amount of time for such a short distance. But it only took a few steps for my heart to begin hammering so hard I thought it might explode out of my chest, and I experienced occasional bouts of dizziness and light-headedness.
The only recourse was to stop, rest, drink water, repeat; the goal being to simply keep putting one foot in front of the other. Finally, at an altitude of just over 14,000 feet, I rounded a bend to find the lake nestled like a turquoise jewel at the base of the glacier, its color subtly shifting from blue to green as it reflected the mountains towering above it.
As I stood gazing at this breathtaking place so high in the sky, I relished the beauty around me and the triumph I felt within, for successfully making the climb on my own two feet was simultaneously one of the most rewarding and difficult things I’ve ever done.
My best advice for those who wish to visit Cusco it not to rush the experience. According to Livestrong.com, “it takes your body about three to six weeks to acclimate to high altitude.”
So, be sure to pad your schedule with plenty of time to rest, relax and acclimatize. Begin taking altitude pills 48 hours before arrival at altitude and continue taking them for 48 hours afterward. Ibuprofen is also advisable.
Do not smoke or drink alcohol, but be sure to drink coca tea and plenty of water. Eat light meals that are high in carbs and, most of all, heed this tip from healthcommunities.com: “Don’t go up until your symptoms go down.”
Columnist’s note: This column is the second in a two-part series on acclimating to high altitudes.