From Our Archives: Inca
|On the Inca Trail: Breathing hard
sickness feels a lot like the morning after a wild college drinking party
water. Coca tea. Flat soda. None of these recommended things were
subsiding my coming altitude sickness as I hiked my first day of
a four-day group trek high in the Peruvian Andes on the ancient
Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
In case you dont know what altitude sickness feels like, it isnt
pretty. Imagine Mike Tyson pounding a massive migraine in your skull,
your breathing getting really hard and short as if youve just attempted
to complete the New York City marathon (and youre not a Kenyan),
and your esophagus filling with vomit that never comes up or down, it
just settles in limbo for your own internal hell. In ways, altitude sickness
feels a lot like the morning after a wild college drinking party where
you wake up next to the schools team mascot sheep, except without
the alcohol (but quite possibly the sheep). The only real cure for altitude
sickness is acclimatization, which entails spending a full day or two
in your hotel in the nearby city of Cuzco while your body adjusts to the
high elevation, or not hiking the Inca Trail at all.
I did decide to brave the Inca Trail anyway, after only a day in Cuzco.
At the time I thought altitude sickness was just an urban myth created
to keep city folk away from the lost city of Machu Picchu, but it was
apparent after fifty feet of walking that it was no lie. It wasnt
so bad though; we were only at about 9,000 feet and it wasnt even
the highest elevation wed be during the trek. I drank all the recommended
preventivesan exorbitant amount of purified water, coca tea at every
pit stop, and some flat soda I bought from a woman along the inhabited
part of the trail, which I had to flatten myselfand all of them
worked as a temporary fix along my way. But by the end of the first day,
my head was really starting to pound away like a Caribbean steel drummer
as the night sky blanketed over our camp.
The night sky in the Andes is absolutely incredible. Whoever at NASA that
decided to spend so much money on an observatory probably never set foot
in the Andes, because if he did, hed see that an observatory would
not be necessary. Away from city lights, high up in the mountains, you
can see the grandeur of outer space with the naked eye in the Andes. It
was absolutely incredible to see the stars glowing out of a pitch black
intangible ceiling. But as awe-inspiring as it was, it didnt take
my mind away from the fact that altitude sickness was grabbing hold of
Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw something I had never seen before
outside of a movie: a shooting star. An actual shooting star. It was surreal.
I mean, I had always heard about shooting stars in fairy tales or in movies,
but I always thought they were fictional devices thought up by the Brothers
Grimm, brought to life by the animators at Industrial Light and Magic.
My guide Juan saw me staring into the heavens and joined me.
"Juan! I saw a shooting star!" I enthusiastically exclaimed
like a kid who just saw Mickey Mouse for the first time at Disney World.
"Oh, thats great," he said without much shared enthusiasm.
He had been hiking the Inca Trail for years and shooting stars to him
were like fire hydrants are to us, even though stars in the ancient Incan
culture were believed to be celestial deities.
"Ive never seen one before."
"Make a wish," he told me. It only occurred to me then that
I was having Gepettos magical moment in a Peruvian Pinocchio. I
closed my eyes and made a wish for the only thing on my pulsing (and I
mean pulsing) mind: to be gone with the altitude sickness.
I hit the sack after that and awoke the next morning, a new man. It actually
worked! Wow, when you wish upon a star, youre dreams really can
come true! Sure it could have just been the good nights rest, but
if you wont tell the Incan gods, I wont.
© Erik R Trinidad July 2002
Tread On Me, Argentina
'I didnt know exactly what people were yelling to the woman, but
I assumed it was pretty nasty'.
Journeys in Hacktreks