That One Time in Peru: My Altitude Sickness Nightmare

In High School, I traveled to Peru with my Spanish class over Spring Break. Being from the Midwest, we all had very little tolerance for high altitudes, but we seemed to pushed on through fine until we arrived to Cusco (you know, only one of the highest elevated cities in the world). And of course, in typical Kara fashion, I got altitude sickness the worst. If you haven’t experienced it before, it feels like you just ran a marathon, didn’t sleep for 48 hours and you have food poisoning, all at once. But, because I was 16 and traveling with my classmates, I couldn’t just halt my plans for a day and hole up poolside in a hotel to wait out the spins. Instead, my teachers gave me a handful of Coca leaves, a Peruvian natural remedy for altitude sickness, and stuck me on the bus so I could curl up in the fetal position next to the rest of the kids. It lasted three days for me, and on the worst day, my only memories I have are waking up in the bus all alone as it was parked in the middle of the mountains and waiting about 2 hours for my classmates and bus driver to return from whatever fun they just had.

Another terrible evening was we had dinner on the opposite side of the city from our hotel. Since we were visiting during Easter, the whole city on this evening was flooded with every single local celebrating in the streets. You could barely move in the streets, it was like the sleepy town turned into massive Easter rave over the course of a couple of hours. Since this was at the height of my sickness, I felt like I needed to both throw up and pass out at the same time, but our group was having such a hard time navigating the crowds. After about an hour of only moving one block, I said “Screw it” to my group and started elbowing my way through the crowd back towards the hotel with a mad passion. By this point, I was sweaty and running a fever (and to be honest, a little loopy). I remember nicely saying “Excuse me” in Spanish to everyone, but I was actually saying a made-up word that blended the Spanish and English words together, because hey, the fever. I know this because, about 3 blocks from my hotel, a not very nice man wouldn’t let me move past him and started yelling at me for not speaking Spanish, being an entitled America tourist, yada yada yada. So, I threw up on his shoes, by accident of course. And I made it back to my hotel room about 5 minutes later.

Since then, I’ve traveled to other places like the Rocky Mountains and Tahoe where I got much less serious altitude sickness. I’ve learn that drinking mass amounts of water and resting the first few days are key to pushing through it. And having a stash of Coca leaves to chew on can’t hurt either.

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E-mail: christine@cooperatize.com