From San Pedro in the Atacama desert, Chile. To Machu Picchu near Cusco, Peru. Covering our first experience of altitude to the last. Three countries. Including a great experience of the Andes. Bouts of altitude sickness. A seismic earthquake. Living with local communities in the mountains. Lots of fried chicken and much more.
We spent the majority of our time in Chile, Bolivia and Peru living at high altitude, peaking at a spectacular height of 5,400metres on Rainbow Mountain. During this time I understood first hand what it felt like to experience altitude sickness. A devastating, all encompassing feeling that makes you feel trapped for air and queezy in the stomach. This took hold while climbing a significant number of steps in the city of La Paz, Bolivia. La Paz is a city in the mountains, the cities highest region, El Alto, 3,640 meters up. El Alto simply means ´the top´ which my lungs and head were definitely aware of. As I climbed the steps of El Alto, I was suddenly overcome with great headrush and a feeling of faintness. Before I knew it, I had to sit down, catch my breath, and quickly gasp in the thin air, while trying to ignore a thumping headache bursting through my ears. I thought I was experiencing a minor heart attack until I turned my head and saw the boys sitting next to me in the same state I was. That evening we discussed our fitness and soon came to an understanding that if we were to take a four-day trek to climb Machu Picchu, where we would reach highs of 4km, we will need some altitude training before hand.
Our first encounter with high altitude started in San Pedro, Chile. San Pedro is located in the north of Chile in the Atacama desert. The small town is situated on the border of Bolivia with a range of mountains and volcanoes splitting up the two countries. San Pedro itself is a very simple town with buildings mostly made from wood and stone, plastered over with mud. There is a pretty little square in the center of the town with cafes and restaurants and souvenir shops circulating the majority of the plaza. Coming off the square are little streets filled with tour operators advertising many different tours into the desert and around San Pedro. In fact, the main street in the town has about four tour operators to every cafe. Ali and Will took the challenge to surf each shop for the best price of each tour and managed to create a spreadsheet filled with roughly 12 tours from at least 15 different tour companies. However, Ali claims there must have been at least 80 tour companies surrounding the area of San Pedro. After a long discussion of which tour company we should take, we decided to book a day trip up 3,500 metres into one of the national parks in San Pedro, ´Parc Nacional de los Flamencos´. We never really thought about how difficult it might be for us to suddenly climb this high having no experience from altitude sickness before. However, after the day trip, I soon knew I was a victim for altitude sickness and would need to take extra precaution before our next galavant.
Before we set off on our day trip, we decided to have an early night in our hostel. The only problem was that the hostel took it upon themselves to organise a huge party. As it is technically illegal to “dance” (have any form of party) in the town of San Pedro. The hostel offered a great location a few miles out of town for people to let their hair down, away from the police. The small party of a least 200 people gathered under a large dome tent in the back garden. Least to say, our early night sleep wasn’t so early after all. At 5:00am I woke up to my bed shaking at an alarming rate. I initially thought the vibration of the speakers from the party were so loud they were causing a tremor in the ground. This lasted for a good few seconds. It wasn’t until after the shaking had finished that I realised how silly I was to not think ‘maybe this could be an earthquake – as we are in Chile!?’ I looked around the room to find everyone fast asleep around me, until I turned to find Will bolt upright in his bed with eyes wide open. I asked if he was ok and he replied ‘that was either an earthquake, or the volcano has erupted.’ Great… What the hell do we do now? Although an earthquake happened (which we later found out measured 6.3 on the richter scale), the party outside did not seem to be phased at all. This did put Will and I at ease. If the volcano had erupted, I think there would have been a slightly different reaction from the array of young adults. One of the reasons why the earthquake measured so high on the Richter scale, and yet there was so little damage done, is because of the thick crust lying on top of the plates of Chile. The country is so prone to earthquakes that 6.3 doesn’t really mean much to the local people. So off we went, after experiencing hopefully the largest earthquake in my lifetime, I packed my day bag ready for my tour that day.
We were in a minibus for most of the journey, full of other young travelers discussing their experience with the “minor” earthquake. I don’t know if this was the best form of transport up the mountain as I was hit by the altitude much faster than when I was walking. Despite this, the scenery and views that day were incredible. The rolling mountains, blue lagoons, and pale blue skies made these idyllic settings look like they had been painted, something by Salvador Dali. The best comparison I can make is like I had simply stepped into the setting of ´The Persistence of Memory`. Every time I got back onto the bus and we climbed that little bit higher into the mountains, I could not help but feel like I was going to throw up over everyone in front of me. My face dropped in colour and my eyes were fixed on the road in front of me. The juxtaposition of the day consisted of either feeling stunned by the beauty in front of me or the overwhelming feeling of light-headiness and stomach churning. To sum it up, my first experience of altitude made my day just that little more challenging.
Rainbow Mountain is located near Cusco and measures 5,200metres high. The mountain is famous for its range of colours, created from the formations of minerals in the rocks and layered into the shape of a rainbow. Many people climbing the mountain suffer from the high altitude and lack of oxygen in the air, putting their body through an incredibly challenging hike for about 2-4 hours. In the early morning at 3am, we all piled into a minivan in Cusco and set off on a three-hour drive to the starting point of our hike. Cusco has a very strange atmosphere during the early hours of the morning. This is crossed between drunken people staggering the streets after a night out in the town and hikers waking up to begin their day in the mountains. Although the hike itself doesn’t seem that steep and could be very easy if it was only 1,000 metres, the altitude turns the hike into a gruelling experience. We spent the majority of the hike taking a few steps and stopping to catch our breath. Kieran had a thumping headache the whole time he was climbing and I found it very difficult to catch my breath towards the top of the mountain. Despite the terrible feeling up, the hike is beautiful. We walked up a dirt path in a valley between mountains of green and red rock. The locals have little settlements along the valley and should the hike be too hard, the villagers have created a business where they will take you on their horse up most of the mountain. Never have I seen so many horses in one area before. All four of us managed to climb the mountain on foot. Reaching the top was incredibly hard, however, once we caught our breath back ( this took a good ten minutes), we were able to enjoy just how beautiful the mountain really is and the scenery surrounding it. Not only is the mountain spectacular on its own, it is engulfed by great cluster of mountain peaks, creating a panoramic view of just how high we were. Next to the mountain was a great glacier feeding back in the valley we had walked up. There were children at the top of the mountain from the local village, these children were selling drinks and snacks for the hikers who had completed the trek up the mountain. I could not believe how much each child had to carry and how young they were. They looked like little superheroes, weighing great bags of food and drink on their backs and hiking past all the adults who were near to collapsing. Although Rainbow Mountain was indeed the toughest hike I have done to date, I do not regret making the effort to climb the height we did and take my time to catch my breath so that I could admire the picture postcard setting.
We adapted to altitude by the time we reached Machu Picchu after our brief but intense training. We were finally able to climb a flight of steps at 3,800metres without the need to take a long break. We felt invincible. We booked a four-day trek through a place called Lares, hiking a trail in the mountains that the Inca’s regularly took between two towns, Wakawasi and Patacancha. This trek is now a popular hike to take before visiting Machu Picchu. Before I tell you about our trek to Machu Picchu I will talk very briefly about the Incas and who they were. The Inca Empire began in Peru between c.1400 – 1500CE. The empire then expanded between Equador and northern Chile. The term ´Inca´ means ruler or lord and this was the name given to the ruling class or family in the empire. The people under the rule of the Incas had many different names depending on their tribes. The economy functioned largely without money and without markets. Instead, exchange of goods and services was based on reciprocity between individuals, groups, and Inca rulers. The Incan people would build settlements in the mountains so that they had natural shelter from the mountain side to harvest produce. In 1533, the Spanish completed their conquer over the Incan Empire. Those who managed to escape built hidden settlements in the mountains that were secret to the Spanish, one of these settlements is Machu Picchu.
During our trek in Lares, we were lucky enough to hike through and stay with local Andean communities that are descendants from the Incas. They live and dress very similar to their ancestors. The locals were lovely and always very helpful, coming out to meet us and welcoming us into their community. As we hiked further up the mountains, we passed families dwelling in the most hostile and remote settlements. It was fascinating to see people living as they would have done hundreds of years ago and showing us that life does not need materialistic values, so long as there is a patch of land to grow food and a roof over your head for shelter. We passed a young girl aged five. Our guide, Santiago, spoke fluent Quechua ( the language of the Andean community) and he asked her where she was going. She replied, ‘to collect the horses.’ We watched her as she walked into the great valley behind us on her own, dressed in traditional bright colors with a floral hat on her head. The sight held us all in silence as we witnessed in amazement the independence of this five-year-old. Santiago discovered that we had already climbed Rainbow Mountain. Because we would be fit enough, he decided to take us up to his favorite spot in the mountains. We climbed 4,830meters and I can’t lie, it was hard, but not as hard as it could have been if it was our first time at altitude. We finished high up in the mountains with a huge glacier next to us. We felt on top of the world. Mountain peaks spread for miles in front of us and still we found little settlements of people living on the sides, sheltered by the peaks of the mountain tops. We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Lares and did not see any other tourists for four days.
Because we had such strength in our lungs from all the altitude training, we were able to basically run the steps up to Machu Picchu nice and early at 4am. Due to the very early wake-up, we were one of the first people to visit Machu Picchu that day and watch the sunrise over the beautiful scenery surrounding the lost city. It really was a highlight of our travels, feeling like we had Machu Picchu to ourselves. The high tropical mountains surrounding the architecture of Machu Picchu can completely alter man’s perspective of how talented the Incas were as people and the great lengths they went to in order to sustain their culture and their people despite the conquer of the Spanish.
A concluding memory has to be playing football with the children in the town Patacancha. The pitch had no real barriers and was incredibly muddy. I slipped and fell over every time the ball was passed to me. Each time I fell, an eruption of laughter came from the children. We lost the game 4-3. No matter how slippy the mud was, none of the children fell over. All four of us managed to stack it at least six times throughout the match and finished with our clothes soaked and grey from the mud. In the mountains, it is the local people and the children who continue to amaze me. Whether it be living on the edge of a peak 4km high, or simply carrying great loads of food and drink up the mountain with no hassle.