Altitude Sickness in Machu Picchu

“I never poop.  Princesses don’t do those things,” Nicole told me, making a disgusted face.

Famous last words.

We flew from Chile to Peru days after she told me this.  While in transit, she rapidly spoke Spanish to the man sitting by us on the airplane, and I marveled at how much living in Chile had improved her Spanish.  My Spanish was rusty and so she translated for me.  “He told us not to eat anything the first day we’re in Cusco because we’ll be elevated and it’s a hard adjustment on the stomach.”

In the airport we were offered cocaine leaves to chew on.  They were supposed to prevent altitude sickness.  I looked at the pile of dried leaves, stunned, and then slowly reached into the basket and grabbed a couple.  Though cocaine leaves are legal in Peru, I still felt naughty and animalistic as I chewed them.  Sort of like a drug-seeking koala.


After we checked into a hostel, we walked to the city square.  The alleys were narrow, the ground and buildings were stone, and the entire city smelled faintly of urine, but the city square was alive with celebration.  We watched a parade slowly circle.  Some men wore costumes and danced, others carried decorated statues of the Virgin Mary.

“What is this about?”  I asked Nicole.

She spoke to some spectators, and again translated for me.  “It’s some celebration for the Virgin Mary.  I guess we picked a good weekend to come here.”

Nicole and I wandered away, stopping in travel agencies until we found a good deal for a trip to Machu Picchu.  We’d have to leave early the next morning and ride a train for four hours, but we’d be rewarded with the sight of one of the Wonders of the World.

As the sun set, both of us started to feel hungry.  Despite the warning from our airplane companion, we decided to eat dinner.  We split a bottle of red wine and both ordered vegetable stuffed peppers.  They were amazingly flavorful and perfectly seasoned.  As I tried to control the speed of which I shoved forkfuls in my mouth, I knew I was happy to be eating.

After dinner, we wandered the city some more and met some musicians.

“Americans!”  The best English speaker said after meeting us.  “We have a song for you.”  He started playing his guitar and the familiar strings of ‘Hotel California’ came out.  His friend matched the tune with his pan flute.

I started singing.  “On a dark desert highway!  Cool wind in my hair!  Duh duh duh duh da da da, rising up through the air…”

“You are from America and you don’t know the words,” the disappointed guitarist said.

“I know the chorus!”

We listened to a few Peruvian songs and several Beatles songs.  Then my stomach started to turn.  We were standing in a dark park with no bathrooms in sight, and I could tell I’d need one soon.  I wondered if it was from the stuffed peppers, but Nicole looked completely content and she’d eaten the same thing as me.

“Hey, maybe we should head back soon,” I said to her.  “We have to be up early for the train and I kind of need the bathroom.”

“Yeah me too.  Goodnight guys!  Thanks for the music,” she said.

We walked up stony streets back towards our hostel.  We passed a man pissing in one of the alleys.  “Well that explains the stench,” I said.

When we reached our hostel, the door was locked.  Our key was at the front desk; hostel policy. Nicole and I started knocking.

No one answered.

We knocked louder.  “Anna, I really have to pee,” she said.

“Yeah, I have to ‘pee’ too.”

As my stomach grumbled, I started kicking the door.  Bits of wood splintered off.  Finally a worker opened the door, gave us our key, and stepped aside as we raced past him to our room.

“You can go first,” Nicole said.  I think she didn’t want me to smell what princesses don’t do.

I ran in the bathroom and sat.  Nothing happened.  After a bit of uncomfortable turmoil, I gave up and let Nicole have a turn.

Nicole turned on the faucet, hoping that I wouldn’t hear what princesses don’t do over the running water.  I knelt on the bed, holding my stomach and rocking.  My intestines battled each other.  I sighed and rolled down into the fetal position.  As I folded, it sounded like applause was coming out of my ass.  The relief was unbelievable.

Nicole left the bathroom and went to her bed.  I went in for my second attempt on the porcelain throne.  I smelled what princesses aren’t supposed to do as I walked in.  But I didn’t care because I was successful in my endeavors.

I climbed into my bed soon after.  Nicole and I had been sharing her tiny twin bed the whole time we were in Chile, and this was our first night apart.  I had never had food poisoning before, and wasn’t sure if Nicole had either, or if we were just experiencing altitude sickness.  We rubbed our bellies and moaned from opposite sides of the room until we fell asleep.

Another fun part of being in an elevated place was that what had been lovely warm weather by day turned into freezing cold at night.  I woke up shivering and could tell from the sounds of Nicole’s clattering teeth that she was awake too.

“Anna?  Can I sleep with you?”

“As long as you grab my sweatshirt from the floor and give it to me.”

She handed me my hoodie and slipped under the covers.  We were already used to sharing a bed, but this was the first time we’d had to spoon.  We pressed our bodies together until we both stopped shaking and finally fell asleep.

The next day we woke up laughing at the pain of our yesterday.  Yet as we boarded the train that would take us from Cusco to Machu Picchu, Nicole grabbed my sleeve.  “My butt is still rumbling,” she whispered.

I watched Cusco fly by outside the train window.  It felt as though I hadn’t just crossed to another culture, but more like I’d actually jumped back in time.  Old people carried water over their shoulders and herded their donkeys across the mountainous landscape.  They did it with ease.  They’d been working hard their whole lives.  Mothers wrapped bright cloth around their backs with their babies wrapped safely inside.

The sun rose higher as we continued into the Andes.  And soon we were at the base of Machu Picchu.

We joined up with the English tour guide and the crew of whities as we left the train.  Everyone in the group was wearing fanny packs and hats.  Some of them even had a new travel shirt, saying ‘Viva Peru!” or, “Coca: Not a Drug.”   We filed behind the other tourists up a trail until we reached a peak that overlooked Machu Picchu.  It was magnificent.


The English guide knew some English, but not much for a sufficient tour.  We followed along for a bit, listening to the guide repeat “irrigation” and “Hiram Bingham” several times.  Then Nicole said, “Let’s leave these gringos and just walk around.”

So we walked away.  We spent our afternoon wandering through the stone houses, peered through the stone windows, and occasionally dodging llamas.

It was a divine day.

Afterwards, we went to the village 20 minutes downhill from Machu Picchu.  There it was barter city.  “Miss!  Miss!  Touch this sweater!  Baby alpaca!”  The vendors called out.

Nicole and I shopped and bartered, bought some gifts for our friends and some things for ourselves, and then we boarded the train to go back.

It was dark when we arrived back in Cusco.  We were both hungry too.

“Want to go get dinner?”  Nicole asked.

“Um… yes?  I think so.”

We found a restaurant and studied the menu carefully before ordering.  Everything turned out fine.  We wrapped up in sweaters and hats before curling up in one bed that night.  And we didn’t have to fight over the toilet either.

(written in 2011)



Filed under Peru, South America

4 responses to “Altitude Sickness in Machu Picchu

  1. nicole

    I laughed out loud Anna. You capture the moments perfectly. Except for the bathroom part, that never really happened.

  2. Loved this post! My trip there was even worse, besides the upset stomach I carried from Lima, I also got altitude sickness and couldn’t make it to the top of the ruins on day 1. Still It was the most rewarding and wonderful experience ever, I am so glad you enjoyed it!

  3. sgmn

    Thanks for the memories… I went nine ago on a tour of Peru with my daughter, who was then 11. I was so nervous about altitude sickness, food poisoning, sun-stroke and all the other things I’d been warned about, I was hoping we’d miss the flight! But we didn’t and it was great…
    Love your photos, the train leaving Cusco goes up a switchback, did you know that?

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