It’s the aftermath of the party, minus the libation-fueled antics of the previous night of revelry. Altitude sickness surfaces in different ways, depending on the person. Given my sleep deprivation and the recent flight straight from sea level to Cusco, which sits at an elevation of roughly 3,400 metres, I’m feeling like I’ve had one pisco sour too many. Also, everything seems hilarious.
After a slow walk through the art-filled hallway of Tierra Viva Cusco Saphi, I sit snickering on a low bench in the milky breakfast room — the air permeated with the scent of tamales and wood smoke. Sipping my coca tea, I compare itineraries with a young couple from San Francisco, who are as pale as the walls and rubbing their temples with their forefingers. We’ve been given similar advice for our arrival to Cusco: take it easy on the first day, drink plenty of fluids (but no alcohol), eat regular light meals, and give yourself time to get used to the low air pressure and reduced oxygen.
Once the capital of the Incan Empire, and later conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century, the city of Cusco (often spelled Cuzco) is one of the 11 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Peru. Narrow cobblestone streets move through Baroque churches, simple whitewashed homes, and intricately cut dry stone walls that are set together by an interlocking method, without the use of mortar. The main square of Plaza de Armas is engulfed in live music, textile venues, alpacas with enviable lashes, and a sea of hats perched on heads from various regions of the Andes.
Terracotta roofs arch in the distance, rolling up lush mountains, as the azure sky slowly embraces the lights of the city. Ducking past a few streets and a flight of stairs in the San Blas district, I head in to meet with Agnes Moes at RESPONSible Travel Peru to pick up my Machu Picchu tickets. Being that there is a limit to how many people can visit the site every day, it’s wise to book in advance, and this community-focused travel office has made the whole process quite simple.
Though cautioned by a friend to avoid being out past 6pm, I feel secure in the busy streets after a full day of wandering, so I heed the call of fresh vittles at Bodega 138. You won’t find cuy on the menu (the traditional Andean entrée of baked guinea pig), but fresh pasta, thin-crust pizza, and tender salads shine in full organic splendor. When referencing Peruvian fare, pizza typically doesn’t come to mind, however this is some of the finest pie that I have ever encountered.
Back at the hotel the staff welcome me with smiles and more coca tea. Some say this drink keeps altitude sickness at bay, though maybe not for the California couple, who are sitting motionless in the courtyard, heads resting on a patio table. A weary thumbs-up is raised in my direction as I move past them and up the stairs to my room, furnished with an enormous crisply made bed and high vaulted ceilings.
After a 4am wake up call, followed by a taxi and bus connector, I’m snacking on the Vistadome train and playing cards with two law school students from London. My guide fails to show in Aguas Calientes, the über touristy venue at the foot of Machu Picchu, so I make my way to the bus, which creeps up the side of a one-lane road that is woven into the greenery like a length of white ribbon.
Seated above the valley like a wise elder revered for their wisdom, Machu Picchu simultaneously overwhelms and exhilarates. Emerald curves unfold, one after the other, fueling shallow gasps and timid footing in surroundings fit for an emperor. The air grows thick with the promise of rain, and low thunder rolls in the distance. I watch a woman huff up steep stairs in stiletto heels, cursing under her breath and dabbing at her forehead with a washcloth. A baby alpaca and I exchange glances, and I’m back on my way.
The lingering lightheadedness, headache, and vague lethargy begin to make their exit once I’m back in the city of Lima for a layover en route to Vancouver. “Nothing a little fresh air can’t fix”, the hotel bartender says as he sets a short glass on the counter. “And by fresh air, I mean pisco sour, of course”. I raise this complementary blend of fresh lime, simple syrup, egg whites and aromatic bitters and toast the delicious wisdom of this Peruvian mixologist. Headache be damned.
Words and photos ©Ehren Seeland