Machu Picchu’s moneyshot

As I enter my third week of living in Peru, I can easily say I’ve been blown away by the beauty of its people, landscape and incredible food.  Like Mexico City, Lima was never a place on my list to visit, yet it has turned into a city I would love to live in someday.  I just returned to my home in Lima after a week of trekking through the Andes on the Inca Trail with my best friend from college.  We experienced 4 days of hiking and camping on the Inca Trail, explored Machu Picchu, had 4 days in Cusco, enjoyed lunch in Aguas Calientes, and huffed and puffed on a day’s hike to Rainbow Mountain.  It was the trip of a lifetime and it’s hard to put into words everything we experienced in just 8 days.  That being said, I found myself chuckling at the few ‘dangers’ of traveling Peru and thought it would be appropriate to pass along for future travelers.

The most dangerous thing about Lima (that I’ve noticed so far) is crossing the street.  Drivers rarely slow down for pedestrians and walk signals are few and far between.  Cross walks exist, but it’s almost as though drivers hit the gas when they approach them.  You really need to be on your game when you step off the curb and be ready, at any time, to break into a sprint.  Cusco, on the other hand, has a mixture of dangers: again with the traffic (though they do seem to slow down at cross walks), steps (out of nowhere), and altitude. 

Since we’ve already discussed Lima and traffic, let’s discuss Cusco’s stair surprise.  As you walk through the city, make sure to look down before you take a step.  It’s not as easy as it sounds.  Beauty surrounds you in both the hills on one side of the city and the charm of its old buildings throughout.  Flat sidewalks abruptly go vertical, and often a step or two is thrown in without warning.

On to the altitude.  Having been sans alcohol for over a year and a half, stepping off the airplane in Cusco was a trip back in time to drunksville.  11,000ft can really affect a person coming from sea level, and I was no exception arriving from Lima.  Having lived at 8,500ft in Bogota 2 months prior seemed to be little help as I broke into giggles and tried my best to walk straight.  Wait- is this really what altitude sickness feels like?  This is fun!

The locals swear by coca leaves (for chewing, kind of like tobacco), coca candy and coca tea, for altitude sickness.  That’s right, the stuff that cocaine is made from is practically forced into your mouth when you step off the plane in Cusco.  But locals claim that coca, in it’s pure form (meaning instead of mixing it with diesel, lime, and Clorox to create cocaine), can cure anything from altitude sickness to cholesterol and cancer.  At altitude in Peru, they consume it with religious vigor.  “Used in its whole form, coca leaf is a fundamentally benign herbal material which provides vitamin A, riboflavin, iron and calcium, and may also help to regulate blood glucose, thus enhancing metabolism and helping to reduce the tendency toward adult onset diabetes and obesity. Coca leaf is also rich in beneficial antioxidants, including ones that help to protect the integrity of blood vessels.” – Medicine Hunter

We carried coca toffees with us during our week in the Andes and drank coca tea by the gallon. I didn’t notice any effects, however, until I stuffed a wad of leaves (stems and all) into my mouth on Rainbow Mountain, gasping at 17,000ft, and my tongue went numb.  Even with this obvious reaction in my mouth, altitude effects such as a headache, slight loss of balance, and exhaustion overwhelmed me.  I’ll never know if I would have felt worse without it, but I didn’t feel anything substantial with it.

With all joking aside, altitude sickness is a passing phase, steps can be seen if you pay attention, and traffic lights can be followed.  Peru is an amazing place to visit, with nearly everything to offer: coastline, beautiful cities, culinary delights, incredible mountain treks with peaks over 22,000ft and visually stunning landscapes.  In addition, the Inca’s past and the much more recent Spanish conquest have left an intriguing history to explore.  There is no shortage of stimulation here in the Andes (no pun intended).  The only thing truly perilous about Peru is that, like me, you may never want to leave.