Trekkers Wanted! (Adventures in Peru: Part 1)

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“The mountains are calling, and I must go.” – John Muir

The Andes called to me, their thunderous voices promising beauty and adventure. I listened to their Siren song, strapped inside the belly of a small airplane, my body crunched into the unnatural seated position that civilization all too often forces me into. I dreamed about stretching my long legs out and hiking thru the Andes. It was a dream that I’d visited often in the 6 months since I booked my trip to Peru, but now, from my achingly small seat in the plane, the Andes were so close it felt like I could reach out and touch them.  “Soon,” I reminded myself, “soon I’ll be hiking in these mountains!”

Back in March I’d responded to an ad reading, “Trekkers Wanted: departs September 11/ returns September 23: 12-Day Choquequirao, Salkantay Pass, Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.” It sounded like the perfect adventure for me. It was the longest (and most rigorous) guided trek that I could find that included the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu. The itinerary for the trek listed ascents of 5000 to 6500 feet (~1500 to 2000 m) per day, and involved trekking up to altitudes of ~16,000 ft (~4950 m)… The elevation gains and the daily mileage of 6-11 miles/day (11-18 km/day) seemed very do-able, but being asthmatic and living at sea level, I couldn’t help but worry about how the altitude might impact me…

Though I’d done treks to higher altitudes without any trouble (eg, Kilimanjaro 19,341 ft/ 5,891 m), my asthma had made me slower than most of my fellow PCT thru-hikers whenever we were at altitudes above ~9,000 ft (~2,743 m). Would I end up being the slowest person in the group if I joined this trek? It was possible. The listing told me very little about the group I would be joining, just that they were an American group from the midwest, they welcomed people of all ages, and their previous international trekking experience included high altitude adventures in Nepal (the Annapurna Circuit).

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The Plaza de Armas (Cusco, Peru)

When my flight finally touched down in Cusco (11,152 ft/3,399 meters) I was so excited about finally getting off of the plane that I forgot all my worries about the altitude. As I carried my luggage through the airport, took a cab to my hotel, and settled into my room I still hadn’t noticed any effects of the altitude. It wasn’t until I set off at brisk walk to go explore the Plaza de Armas in downtown Cusco that it hit me. I’d made it across the street and halfway down the block (~20 steps), when suddenly I was out of breath…Was my asthma acting up here in Cusco? Was it the altitude? Was it a combination of both?

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Statue of Pachacuti in the middle of the Plaza de Armas

I stopped and inhaled deeply. The air was cool, dry, and full of diesel fumes. As cars and buses rattled down the cobblestone street beside me, I exhaled slowly… If I was out of breath because my asthma was acting up, exhaling would trigger an asthma attack (never fun). If I was out of breath because of the altitude, I would be able to exhale cleanly.

I exhaled cleanly and smiled… My body was just a little cranky because the high altitude in Cusco meant that I was getting about 33% less oxygen per breath here than I get at home. I reminded myself that my body would adjust to the altitude, but that I should try to take it slow for a couple of days to give my body the time it needed to make those adjustments. Maybe it had been a good idea to spend the extra $$ on a hotel that pumped extra oxygen into the room at night!

  • Boston, USA:
    • elev. 142 ft/42 m
    • atmospheric pressure ~101.325 kPa (760 mmHg)
    • % of 0xygen available compared to sea level: 100%
  • Cusco, Peru:
    • elev. 11,152 ft/3,399 m
    • atmospheric pressure ~68 kPa (512 mmHg)
    • % of oxygen available compared to sea level: 68%
  •  Recommendations for exercising at altitude:
    • Days 1-3: 25% – 50% reduction of activity level compared to sea level is recommended as your body begins to adapt to high altitude
    • Days 4-7: Resume normal amount of exercise, but keep a slower pace/lower intensity than sea level activities

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A quechuan woman rests with her baby llama (Plaza de Armas, Cusco)

Moving slowly, I continued exploring the narrow streets leading to the Plaza de Armas. The layout of the streets and the distinctly Spanish architecture reminded me of wandering through the streets of Toledo, Spain… In many places, however, the old stonework looked like something different, something that I would learn had roots in the masonry of the Incas.

As I wandered through the plaza I was bombarded by people trying to separate me from my vacation dollars. “Massage! Lady, would you like a massage?” cried young women as I walked by. Other people frantically waved artwork and prints in front of my face, “You want?!” Women in traditional dress carrying baby llamas or herding young llamas constantly approached me offering to let me pet the llamas (or take my picture with them) for a small fee. Everywhere I turned someone was trying to get my attention in the hopes that I might buy something.

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Quechuan woman with baby llama in traditional dress on the corner near my hotel (Cusco).

A curt,”No,” and a firm nod was my response to every query. I quickly scanned the plaza de Armas looking for a quieter, less hectic area where I could relax for a minute and soak in the sights unmolested.

Paradoxically, the corner of the plaza that seemed to be the quietest was also the most crowded. A group of ~50-60   young(ish) people were clustered together, motionless, and quietly staring into their cell phones. Although I’d frequently seen the same phenomenon in the plazas and squares around Boston, my mind didn’t put two and two together until someone noticed that I was staring at the crowded corner and said, “Pokemon. They’re playing Pokemon Go.” I laughed and decided to keep exploring in the plaza even if that meant continuing to practice the art of saying “No” every 10 seconds.

Although the Plaza was beautiful, it was with relief that I finally excused myself from it and started walking out of the central tourist district, towards the office where my pre-trek briefing would take place. The adventure I was about to embark on may have started with a “Trekkers Wanted” ad, but I was more than ready to leave the city and head off into the mountains for a couple of weeks. I wanted my trek!!

— Next Installment: Home Again! (Trekking in the Andes: Day 1) —