Treating Altitude Sickness with Coca Tea in Cuzco, Peru

Andrew and I went to South America last year, and happily, this meant I could visit Machu Picchu!  Which I know I haven’t written about yet.  My brain is a funny thing — it wants to cling to the experiences I love most, and ponder how best to represent my experience to others.  To perfect the story.  This takes time, so I don’t share for a really long time.  Really though, I shouldn’t even say that, because at some point I’m just going to say “screw it” and hammer it out and post it live and that’ll be that and the entire thing’ll be fraught with errors which Andrew will then text me about during his lunch hour.

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It begins!  A coca-infused pisco sour at Maido, in Lima.

So!  While we were preparing to visit the very very high up land of Machu Picchu, we heard a lot about altitude sickness, and the randomness of it.

Looking back, Andrew and I really should’ve taken bets as to which one of us would get it.  You know, infuse a little fun and daring into the situation.  Tempt fate, if you will.

To be honest, the idea of altitude sickness didn’t really concern me.  I’m generally fairly tough in many ways, I rarely get sick… though I should’ve known this would hit me, since I do have a wicked tendency to throw up fairly easily, which really really sucks.

Some of our friends had been to Machu Picchu the year before, and warned us of this ailment, and strongly suggested we get soroche pills.  Like, STRONGLY suggested it.  With great urgency.

We did not heed their advice.

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The first mug of coca tea at our guesthouse in Cuzco.  First of MANY.

Plus, I read that you can just drink coca tea (a LOT) and you’ll be fine!  I really love green tea, so I figured this would be great.  I’d just drink a lot of tea and be good to go.

And anyway, I’M the one that goes to step aerobics and walks to work.  Surely that’s got to count for something, right?

WRONG.

Altitude sickness does not care what your fitness regimen is.  Altitude sickness is no respecter of persons, let me tell you.

It’s kind of funny… I see in my journal that when we arrived in Cuzco, I noted that probably neither Andrew nor I had altitude sickness.  In hindsight, this was likely because Carmen, the lovely proprietor of Casa de la Mama, kept ensuring we had lots of coca tea to sip.

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I subsisted on chicken broth while Andrew blissfully ate his way through Cuzco.

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Trying to look not-ill.  Yay altitude!

The next day we took a taxi to see some smaller ruins (but all no less fantastical!) which is an experience I’ll tell you about sometime.

As we zipped along the highlands (yes they have highlands in Peru, not just Scotland), it was at precisely this time that Brazil was losing in a most tragic way to Germany in the World Cup semi-final.   We know because our taxi driver had the game on the radio.  We don’t speak Spanish, but it was clear to us what was happening.  I mean, it was unbelievable and the driver, Andrew and I were all reacting in shock as Germany scored goal after goal after goal.  Our driver was fairly amused by this unusual turn of events, so it was just a point of interest for the three of us to connect on.

The landscape was fantastic, it was a very hot day, we were rushing along the tops of mountains, passing people working in the fields, and women walking along the road leading donkeys, there were many fast corners.  We didn’t take pictures, because of the speed of the taxi.

I was doing my utmost to have fun and not feel like barfing.

We stopped at Heart’s Cafe.  I had more clear soup and coca tea.  Andrew had the alpaca burger.  Bleh!

Usually I am just as daring as Andrew, maybe even more so because I’m 100% a farm girl who grew up eating chicken organs (cooked, mind you).  But soroche does something to you.  Or, it does something to me, anyway.

Actually, apparently you can’t be sure how it’ll affect you.  After all, we’re all such special and unique snowflakes yay.

So anyway aside from the nausea, I also felt like my feet had turned to lead and I had a 100-pound weight on my shoulders.  Or more accurately, on my heart.  It was like my heart couldn’t take it.  Or maybe that was my lungs that were hurting.  All I know is, I could NOT keep up to Andrew.  Usually I breeze along with great momentum.  But now it was all I could do to put one foot in front of the other.  It’s like the oxygen I was breathing in was just doing NOTHING for me.  #altitudesickness  

He’d turn around, look at me, and call out, “Hey, what’s going on?”

“I CAN’T BREATHE.  OR MOVE.  MY HEART HURTS.”

“Oh.  Can’t you move faster though?”

“NO.  JUST LEAVE ME HERE TO DIE THEN.”

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More coca tea for me, and a bit of bread to nibble, whilst Andrew dines on guinea pig.

(He did not leave me there to die.  Nor was I about to die.  But I was embracing my sudden flair for the melodramatic.)

I realize there are a lot of websites and instructions telling you how to avoid having this happen to you, how to avoid soroche.  Just take the soroche pill for pete’s sake.  But I never did.  Nor did Andrew, he felt fine and in fact could not imagine what I was complaining about all the time (love you honey).  What can I say?  Neither of us is much of a sympathetic caregiver.

Our B&B was actually located on the side of one of the mountains, so to get to it, we’d have to walk up streets  — like, literally UP the street, the sidewalks were stairs.  When we arrived, I collapsed into a chair by the door trying to catch my breath, while Andrew went up to our room with no trouble at all.

But anyway, no worries!  Andrew once again planned everything perfectly.  My altitude sickness left me, just in time for MACHU PICCHU!!!!!   And that’s REALLY the main thing.

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