Let me see if I can paint it.
Baguio City is 4,600 feet above sea level. Mount Pulag, which is the highest peak in the Philippines is 9,599 feet high. Now try going some 2,000 feet higher and there you’ll see Cusco, a dream of a city; but great goodness, it does a number on your lungs that makes you want to cry all the way back down to the lowlands.
“That’s only at the start and then you get acclimatized, right?”
My travel buddy, Malu Reyes, and I are both pretty fit, spending most days in sports or the gym. We booked an 11-day tour of Peru without hesitation, thinking, okay, so most people have trouble with altitudes. Not us. Ha!
From San Francisco we took a connecting flight through Panama to land in Lima, the capital city. We were met by a guide appointed by our agency, Peru for Less, and among the things he said that stuck were that half of Peru’s 22 million people reside in Lima and that the average income is around US$350 a month. Filipinos, I googled, earn a bit more at roughly US$427 a month. Why then didn’t we see shanties and people sleeping in the streets? That’s for another story.
Lima was fine although it was just another big city. We spent two nights in a nice hotel a block from Larcomar, which is a beautiful ocean-side park and entertainment center. I don’t remember all of what I ate there, but I loved pisco sour, which to me was like margarita except that pisco is a grape brandy and tequila is made from blue agave plant.
We joined a city tour that took us to a church with lots of skeletons in the cellar and to a museum with the most gorgeous bougainvilleas and cacti in full bloom.
On the third day we flew to Cusco but not without incident. The airline agent said our flight was canceled and unapologetically stated we would be on the next flight four hours later.
“But we might miss our chocolate workshop!” Malu cried. Yes, we had enrolled in a chocolate- making class in Cusco and that was critically important.
We made it on time anyway. The class was hilarious, made fun by our instructor who had the makings of a stand-up comedian. We made 65-percent dark chocolate bars from Peruvian cacao, now one of the most sought after in the world.
It was dark when we walked out of the workshop, and as we walked through Plaza Regocijo and the historical Plaza de Armas, we felt a need to slow down and talk in whispers. The night was chilly and quiet. Winter was coming up fast. There were people everywhere, but the atmosphere was serene. Local folks in traditional wear peddled blankets and caps. The stores, they were beautiful, full of alpaca sweaters and shawls, pottery and trinkets. I felt I was in Sevilla again, the Spanish town I was in just two weeks ago.
It was taxing to climb up to our second floor hotel room. Cusco was high enough; every added step higher was almost murderous. On our first night I could not sleep; I felt like a vise was gripping my head tighter and tighter. I got up and popped an Aleve. It made it slightly better but in the morning I drank copious cups of coca tea and later I bought ten tablets of Diamox to alleviate altitude sickness.
Coca is a plant that grows in western South America. It is widely available everywhere in Peru to relieve hunger and fatigue and is said to reduce nausea, light headedness and diarrhea, among other maladies. It is also used to make cocaine and is therefore illegal anywhere outside South America. If you want to push it, however, I read you can carry up to ½ gram into the US. In another, it says US Customs tends to turn a blind eye on coca.
On our second day in Cusco we joined a tour that took us to Santo Domingo Church, a Catholic church built over an Inca temple. It was like adding salt to injury; the Spaniards had won but had to diminish the Incas with crosses over their graves. We also hiked up an Incan mountain community with a spectacular view of the city.
I can’t remember what else we did on which day, but once we explored another mountain and I could only go so far up, I quit. Malu was still in a fighting mood and climbed to the peak. As I sat and waited our guide told me that not long ago a heavyset guy thought he could make it; he did not. He died.
After Cusco, Machu Picchu’s altitude was a breeze. At less than 8,000 feet, it was easier to breathe. I say easier, not easy. It was still challenging to climb its steep peaks to get up to the highest boulder where we took turns to have our pictures taken.
I’m not going to tell you about Machu Picchu; that’s one you have to read up on yourself. Or you could get a bright guy to guide you like we did. Manuel was born not far from there and he knew every stone and structure in the “lost city.” He knew why the Incas came and why they disappeared. Did they abandon this citadel or where they wiped out?
Unlike other places I had visited in the past, Machu Picchu lived up to hype.
It felt funny having reached nirvana. What else was there to see and do after that?
We walked back to the gate and had our passports stamped with the official seal of the city. Been there, done that. We then took the shuttle bus back to Aguas Caliente and then a 3 ½-hour train ride back to Cusco.
We were on an early morning bus to Puno the next day. It would take almost 12 hours to get there, cruising through hills and plains rife with charm and alpacas. They are animals so cute it’s unfathomable that people eat them like I did. It couldn’t be helped. I saw it on our menu – alpaca kebabs with roasted vegetables. Yee haw, it was great! Lean and tender, it tasted like venison but not as gamey. Another alpaca dish I had another time, a stew type, was not as good.
I was told to try guinea pig at least once. I did not.
Still on the way to Puno I saw a most beautiful church in a small unassuming rural community named Andahuaylillas. The San Pedro de Apostol was built by Jesuits in the 16th century. It is dubbed the “Sistine Chapel of the Andes.” This Baroque church is heavily gilded with gold leaf and I’ve seen a lot of those in Europe, but what sets this apart for me is its use of an equally ornate Islamic design on its ceiling. I understand this welding of Moorish and European styles during the Spanish Reconquista is called the Mudejar.
Finally, we reached Puno at 12,555 feet. My breathing had become shallow; I prayed we would not go higher. But after visiting a floating island in Lake Titicaca, we docked at a big island and un-forewarned, we were told to climb a long steep hill to get to a restaurant for our free lunch. That was the only part of the tour I was unhappy with, feeling not only worried for myself but also for the rest of those in our group who were older and less fit.
Uros is a group of man-made islands in the middle of Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world. The islands are made of totora weeds that grow plentifully in the lake. Reeds are piled several feet and anchored to roots of the totora; however, they get wet and sink so more reeds need to be piled atop the islands every six months or so. The boats, houses and furniture are also made of totora.
We were back in Lima on the tenth day but had only eight hours until heading back to the airport for our flight to Panama. As if our adventures hadn’t been enough, COPA Airlines bumped us and eight other passengers off our flight to San Francisco and put us on their next flight 11 hours later. When we reached San Francisco, Malu’s bag was missing. COPA said it had to be inspected in Panama and that they would ship it off to the Philippines where we were headed the next day. We were mad as hell.
This was an adventure that could take a whole book to write as there were myriad experiences had, knowledge gained and beauty seen. I would even say I was overwhelmed. I would recommend a trip to the Peruvian Andes for any perfectly healthy human; anyone less than 100 percent well might want to stay put in Lima but what’s the fun in that? The colorful costumes, alpacas and llamas, Incan communities and Catholic Churches – they are all found on the mountains away from the bright lights of Lima.
Someday I may go back if my lungs hold up.
Bella Bonner is a journalism graduate of the UP Institute of Mass Communications. Among others, she worked as a grant writer and hotelier in Texas where she lived for 30 years. She has retired, returned to Manila and spends her days in sports, traveling and writing a personal blog, "Chicharon Diaries."
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