Peru is a land of legends, Llamas, Pisco sours, exotic food and humble folks who thrive in the shadows of the Andes. Most flights to Peru land in the hustling and bustling capital city of Lima. We got to Lima around midnight, and a refreshing cool breeze hit our tired bodies as we walked out of the airport after a long flight from Austin. My very first look outside the sliding glass doors reminded me of something very familiar…Yes, India! Perhaps Delhi, foggy and dusty but quieter. We just had a night in Lima and would be on our way to Lake Titicaca (how bizarre is this name) the next morning. The night in Lima was rather dull, we crashed in our hotel room and fell asleep listening to Spanish music blasting from across the street. It almost felt like I’m back home in India and there is a wedding celebration going on, Bollywood beats replaced by Spanish salsa. A weird image of Indian uncles in salsa costumes and aunties in flamenco dresses showing off their sassy Bollywood moves popped into my head. Oh yes, everyone in India is our uncle and aunt, what! you don’t do that? Weird. I shook that crazy image out of my head, put my ear plugs on and tried to fall asleep thinking about our first south American adventure. We are in Peru, this is gonna be awesome!
Next morning at breakfast was our very first experience with coca tea. Coca, not the chocolate cocoa but the good green stuff cocaine is made from. The receptionist insisted that we drink some coca tea before we get to Puno, our first official destination which is 12,500 feet above sea level. Andeans have chewed coca leaves for centuries and swear by it, the leaves release alkaloids which help with altitude sickness. That’s when I realized that Peruvians are smart, they found a pretty good excuse to ingest – said cocaine, but jokes apart, the tea is harmless and it tastes a lot like green tea. Did it help? I’m not sure. I’ve never experienced altitude sickness before and I have hiked on the top of Europe (bragging rights) so I thought to myself how bad could Peru really be. Well, it was bad but more on that later.
We were on our way back to the airport and were excited to reunite with our friends who were joining us on our big Peruvian adventure. Big hugs, kisses and time to catch up on a years worth of stories. On that note, have you noticed people on airports? It’s one of those few places where you don’t need to know the language to understand what’s going on around you; human emotions are a universal language. Grandparents saying goodbye to their grand-children, lovers kissing and making promises to meet soon, friends reminiscing the same jokes over and over again…It’s wonderful.
The landscape looked dry and arid as we soared over canyons, deserts and mountains. I always thought Peru would be greener based on the Machu Picchu postcards you see everywhere, but Puno is at a higher altitude and the conditions are harsh. We landed in Juliaca, the closest airport to Puno. The first look at the city was let’s just say, brown. A sea of brown stretched as far as my eyes could see, but still there was something unique about the way this city looked. Brown is a pretty color, hey! I’m brown.
We collected our bags and got swarmed by taxi drivers as we tried to walk out of the airport. We took the bus to Puno which cost about S/15 (Soles) or $5/person for a one hour ride, not bad at all. In fact, I believe we got it down to about $4/person, we Desis (Indians) never leave an opportunity to bargain.
Tip #1: Go shopping with your Indian friend he/she will definitely help save you some money in the long run, unless that friend is someone like me, then your doomed!
We got to Puno fairly quickly, checked into our hotel, slapped on some sunscreen and rushed out to explore the streets of Puno. Finally, I see a pop of color in the square. A yellow building with blue windows stood out like a rebel in the ancient looking Plaza de Armas. We walked around the plaza, the Cathedral and went on to explore Lima street, home to all the shops and restaurants. The local women had their finest knits displayed in one of the alleyways. A burst of colors, prints, and soft textures filled the streets, from soft woolen Alpaca scarves, to cute knitted hats, gloves and embroidered pillow cases. It’s all about the knitting in this town, resisting to shop on the start of our trip was definitely a challenge.
All the colorful handicrafts were distracting me from my throbbing headache which I chose to ignore, this was a bad idea as a headache is the first sign of altitude sickness. We were about 12,500 feet above sea level and of course I assumed that all I needed was some yummy local food to binge on to cure myself. We found a nice local restaurant overlooking the plaza and got a cozy table for our first Peruvian feast. We ordered the lot – Alpaca steak with quinoa risotto, stuffed peppers with minced meat, hearty quinoa soup, beef tenderloin and lots of coca tea. We were clearly starving but unfortunately I couldn’t eat a thing, just looking at all that food made me sick. The altitude sickness had really started kicking in and it felt like I had the worst hangover ever! My head slowly started falling on the dinner table as fellow travelers glanced over at us and questioned my manners and dining etiquette. We now had all that yummy food and a passed out Arwa on the table…great! We called it an early night and Musu got me some altitude sickness pills from the pharmacy close by. I took them and went to bed hoping I would be my cheerful self again next morning. Altitude sickness sucks!
Tip#2: Don’t be a hero. Take it easy on the first day you get to Puno and rest up in your hotel room. I know it’s tough for folks like me who don’t understand what relaxing in the hotel room means. Take altitude sickness pills if you feel the slightest bit off. They were extremely helpful and I was fit and fine the next day. I took the pills for 4 days just as a precaution, didn’t want to take a chance feeling queasy and miserable on the hike to Machu Picchu scheduled later on the trip. Also, skip the alcohol (trust me) and load up on coca tea, most hotels serve free coca tea at the reception and the locals swear by it.
I woke up next morning excited and hungry!
Have you ever experienced altitude sickness before? Feel free to share your tips and stories in the comments below.