Our tour guides woke us up this morning by un-zippng our tents and handing us a cup of hot coca tea as we wiped the crust from our eyes. It was very early… We washed up, got dressed and re-packed our sleeping bags. We all moved quickly over to the food tent where breakfast was being cooked…today we had pancakes. The porters who weren’t cooking were cleaning up the camp site and getting ready for today’s busy hike.
We all re-filled our water bottles with the boiled water provided to us, got our backpacks on our backs and hit the trail. I unfortunately was feeling very bad today…I barely got any sleep because I had a fever all night. It was one of those mornings that if I were home and had to go to work…I would have called in sick. Calling in sick was not an option. The guide told me I really needed to hydrate because more than likely what I was feeling was a result of altitude sickness combined with the fact that I hadn’t given myself enough fluids yesterday. Giff felt fine but there was another girl who also felt sick. The other people in our group took one look at me and immediately offered rehydrating packets to pour into my water bottle so I could replenish on electrolytes. Our fellow trekkers had all kinds of things in their emergency kits that we never thought to bring with us. Giff and I will be more prepared on our next trek!
This day of hiking was absolutely breathtaking. As we climbed these steep, ancient stone steps…we thought about how amazing it was that this path was used and built by ancient civilizations from a time unlike any we have ever known. The steep steps would give us a bit of a break as the path seemed to taper off onto flatter ground before it again took us into lunges using our walking sticks to help balance ourselves. We stopped for a break and a group shot as we all looked around and let ourselves become lost in the scenery surrounding us.
After catching our breath, we pulled out the dried coca leaves and black salty paste. Our guide instructed us we would be climbing to extremely high altitudes and this would be the highest point we would go on our trek. It was called “dead women’s pass”. We circled around our guide as he showed us how to use the dried coca leaves. Usually we drop them in hot water and drink the tea…but this would be chewing on the leaves directly which is the strongest way to use the plant. We took a thick pile of dried leaves, put a smidge of the black salty paste in the middle and rolled the leaves around it. Then we slipped the wad into our mouthes…letting it settle between our teeth and cheek…like a chipmunk. We were told the black paste would assist us in creating saliva which would breakdown the coca leaves..which would then release its medicinal juices to help ease the altitude sickness.
We continued our climb upward, stopping more often than usual. It wasn’t just the steep mountain causing us to catch our breath but the altitude was getting really high and the amount of oxygen was much less. Altitude sickness is a pathological effect on humans…it gives symptoms like the flu or a bad hangover. Most people can climb to about 8000 feet without feeling the effects. We climbed to the peak and saw the posted sign showing 4215 meters which is 13,828 feet! After our group picture at the highest point of our 4 day trek, we began our decent. From this point we would climb up and down mountains but not this high again. The climb down was also difficult as we focused on the stone steps and dirt path being careful not to fall.
We got to our lunch campsite and our porters were already busy cooking. They clapped for each of us as we arrived. Many of us were not feeling great. Several of us laid down to try to rest. People took altitude sickness medicines or regular medications to help with the headaches. We drank a lot of water to keep hydrated and ate the many carbs being given to us at lunch to give our bodies energy.
After lunch, we were back on the trail, only stopping to explore the ancient Incan ruins along the path. Our guides discussed the details of these villages and we tried to imagine what it must have been like to live during this time without the amenities we have today. Since there are no streets and no cars able to drive through these mountains…these ruins can only be viewed via hiking through the mountains. It was surreal to get to experience something only a small few would ever see.
As we kept walking, I was feeling really fatigued and downright awful…looking pale and feeling light-headed. This altitude sickness was definitely not one of the highlights of the trip. Giff was feeling like he had a hangover and specifically a pounding headache but after taking some altitude sickness medicine from one of the guys…he was feeling better. We were walking very slow and were taking a break along with another couple. They weren’t feeling great either…the guy had altitude sickness and his wife had a mix of altitude sickness and the flu. Our tour guide saw I was still struggling so he offered to give me some oxygen. Part of me thought about how embarrassing it would be to sit and have an oxygen mask in front of everyone…plus I knew Giff would be all over this one to make sure there were pictures of me. But the other part of me thought…this will make me feel better and it is extremely healthy to breathe straight oxygen…so I agreed. Of course, Giff was there by my side like the paparazzi being sure to capture this moment on film for our blog!
After the 20 minutes of oxygen, I was feeling much better…it gave me that second wind but I had heard it would only last for about an hour before my body would show altitude sickness symptoms again. There is really no cure for this besides climbing to lower altitude. We finally arrived to the campsite right as the sun had set. Everyone went into the food tent for “happy hour” and I decided to take a little nap before dinner. I unfortunately had a new symptom…good ol’ diarrhea. Let me tell you…diarrhea in the mountains is not ideal. I will spare you the details but I’m sure you can imagine. The only toilets that were available throughout the trek were at the campsites and they were squatter toilets. For those of you who don’t know what squatter toilets are…they are holes in the ground with no flush. These holes have accumulated waste on top of waste from each person brave enough to use them…and probably haven’t been cleaned in years. Fighting the gagging reflex the moment I stepped into this stall…I used it for the first and last time of my life. I choose the woods.
Dinner was served and Giff and the rest of the group ate dinner. I joined for a bit trying to force food down my throat but could only get myself to sip soup. Another girl in the group was feeling exactly like me…so she barely ate as well. Everyone seemed to be eating fast in order to get to bed…we were exhausted. We all took medication to try to ease the altitude sickness and hopefully get some sleep. The guides informed us we would be getting up at about 5:30AM in the morning for day 3 of our trek.
After taking a Tylenol type medicine, Giff and I fell fast asleep. I unfortunately had to get up in the middle of the night as my stomach was not able to digest the minimal soup I had eaten. As I was in the bushes and it was pitch dark and cold…I saw what looked like two weird yellow lights pointed at me through the tall grasses. As I was trying to hurry up with my “business” the two yellow lights blinked and I quickly realized the yellow lights were eyes and this was a wild animal that had been staring at me. I was not finished but the thought of a wild animal staring at me in the pitch dark, probably sizing up whether or not to eat me…was all I needed to finish short and run for the tent. My heart was pounding. I tried to make big movements to scare it off but it was standing still looking directly at me. Finally it trotted away as I continued to make noise and I ran back to the tent scared and out of breath.
Was that a puma..or was it a fox? Both live in this part of Peru. If it was a fox it was a scary big one…