Sunday, 30 March 2014

Cusco, the City in the Clouds

I arrived in Cusco (Cuzco in Spanish) on Thursday morning. I'm here for two weeks of volunteering, which starts tomorrow, and for sightseeing. Cusco is the closest big city to Machu Picchu, so has quite a large tourist population.

The thing about Cusco is that it's in the mountains. And I mean, high in the mountains. At an ear-popping 3,400 metres above sea level, it's easily the highest I've been in my life. It also means that altitude sickness can be an issue for many visitors to this fine city (which is so much nicer than Lima by the way). 

First off, altitude sickness can be fatal, so it's a fun bugger. There are some horrible possible symptoms, including fainting, vomiting, diarrhoea, headaches, insomnia, death... You know. 

So it's recommended not to fly here from sea level, but to gradually acclimatise as you ascend. This didn't work with my schedule, so unfortunately I had to fly. And I have to say, I have been fine so far. I did take precautions though. I bought some Sorojchi altitude sickness pills in Lima and took my first one on the plane. A box of 20 pills cost 40 soles. I also drank two cups of coca tea (mate de coca) at Lima airport. They sell it for 3.50 soles. The locals drink it to stave off the effects of altitude. I also drank a lot of water, because the headache associated with el mal de altura can be caused in large part by dehydration. 

When the plane opened its doors and I made my way out I had the oddest sensation. I felt like I, and everyone around me, was moving in slow motion. My legs were heavy, as if I were wading through treacle. And I was a bit lightheaded. The air was noticeably different. 

But within a few hours I felt relatively normal, but very tired. I slept very well on Thursday night. 

I think I've pretty much acclimatised to the thin air now, without too much heartache. But walking is hard work, especially uphill. I get out of breath very quickly. 

But I tell you what, it's worth it for the views. Cusco was built when its founder decided he had found 'the naval of the world'. It's nestled in an Andean valley surrounded on all sides by rolling mountains, and snow-capped peaks stand sentinel at one end of the city. You can see the mountains wherever you can see the sky in Cusco, which is lovely. 

The climate is really nice here too (at least it is at the moment, as the last clutches of rainy season lose their grip). The days are warm, but the sun is really intense so it feels much hotter than it is. And the nights are quite cool, if not cold. It's the best of both worlds, because you get the pleasant weather without the uncomfortable sweaty nights. 

This morning my housemate Sarah (I'm doing a homestay for the next two weeks, with an incredibly sweet retired couple) and I took a minibus to Pisac. Pisac is a small village about a 45 minute drive from Cusco. We went to the huge market they have there on Sundays and spent the morning wandering through the alleyways perusing the souvenirs, jewellery, alpaca hats, dolls and food. I ticked two Peru essentials off my list - I bought a bracelet and an alpaca hat. My excuse for the hat is that I'm going to autumnal New Zealand soon, and I'm going to need a warm hat. And for 10 soles, who can argue with the Peruvian price? 

And now I'm going to go to sleep (lack of oxygen, you know...) and get up early to try and book train tickets for Milena and I to go to Machu Picchu next weekend. (Milena is currently in Bolivia after we went our separate ways in Argentina but her flight to the US leaves Cusco next week so we're going to the big MP together before she leaves). 

Then I've got my first morning volunteering at the animal conservation centre, so fingers crossed everything goes smoothly! 

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