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Altitude Sickness in the Sacred Valley

Apu Pitsuray, The Sacred Valley, Peru © 2017 Wayfaring Scribe

I turned 36 on the 30th of December and spent the 31st in transit to Peru for a ten-day ayahuasca retreat in the Sacred Valley. It was a three-part flight, with 8.5 hours in the air and 7.5 hours of layovers in between segments, six of those hours in Lima. We arriving passengers collectively shouted our own impromptu countdown en español when midnight struck in the customs area.The capital was a balmy 68 degrees fahrenheit, with a sky laden thick with fireworks when I walked outside at 12:02am. I smiled, reminded of the fireworks that had unexpectedly filled the sky above my head at Southbank, in the fleetingly apprehensive ‘holy-shit-I-actually-did-it’ moments that followed my initial booking of this trip from the National Theatre balcony in London during Thamesfest.

I went back inside LIM and worked from the land-side in-terminal Starbucks over a decaf soy latte while the very disorganised, very South American-style line of people waiting to recheck their luggage slowly diminished from its Herculean proportions that originally stretched from the Avianca desk across the whole of the departures hall and halfway to Timbuktu. Once the queue was no more, I rechecked my suitcase and finished my last few hours of work for ten days from an airside VIP lounge with decent wifi, fruit and sparkling water.

Upon arrival in Cusco at 7am New Year’s Day, the altitude sickness hit me almost instantly. Landing had reminded me of the descent into Guilin, China, in that the route was a narrow, bumpy gamut winding perilously between layers of close-knit mountains. I bumped along grinning deliriously and listening to Daniel Katsük sing Love that Never Leaves Without, feeling nothing of the sky sickness then. But just staggering from baggage claim to parking lot left me breathless, heart racing madly as I thanked myself profusely for getting off of cigarettes just over three weeks ago.

The proprietor of Munay Medicine, an Englishman by the name of David Walton, greeted me with a warm hug and a piercing blue-eyed smile full of simultaneous relaxation and wicked humour. There were more guests coming in on later flights, so we drove to San Blas and parked before walking downhill toward the Plaza de Armas for breakfast at Jack’s Cafe. After eating, the full weight of the journey and the altitude hit me, and by the time we’d trudged back up to San Blas, my head was pounding fiercely. We collected Christopher, a Pittsburgh-born New Yorker, from the airport, then Victoria and Oliver from a hotel near the main square. She hails from the Arizona desert, I believe, or else Big Bear, California—has ancestors in both—and he from Manchester, but they live together now in California.

We wound up and out of the Cusco Valley into the Andes in Munay’s silver Kia Sportage, reaching 14,000 feet—the height of Mount Rainier—within half an hour. The dizziness and nausea were so full-on at this point that I could barely get myself out of the car to take pictures of the view from the pass. For the remaining hour’s journey to Huaran, I managed to narrowly escape being sick by focusing all my energy on the slowest, deepest breathing I could manage. I opened my eyes very little, a few times to find the horizon and counter the dizziness, and once to see the multitude of hawkers in Pisaq selling barbecued cuy on a stick. This is a local dish of whole roasted guinea pig served streetside—teeth, claws, and all.

Guinea pigs, altitude, and rough winding road altogether, arriving at Tambo del Caminante without having spewed felt like quite an accomplishment, although I shall most likely spew many times during my ten-day visit. :P The complex is a beautiful clay and timber structure just under the peak of Apu Pitsuray, 9,000 feet up in the Sacred Valley. After round one of coca tea to fight the altitude, I unpacked and bathed in my gorgeous beige sandstone and cocoa-coloured granite shower before settling into a pillowy white cocoon of a bed so comfortable I actually spoke to it, prayerful with gratitude, as I sunk into sleep for a 3-hour nap.

Dinner was a delicious pumpkin-quinoa soup and bread, served at a long communal table in the main lodge as army after multitude of brilliant starscapes came to life in the sky outside the tambo. Tracy the Australian cook and Ken the Costa Rican medicine man round out the staff and I am one of eight guests, so we are eleven total, or were on day one, before Marina the Russian-Israeli volunteer arrived the next afternoon.

I slept for nearly twelve hours, from about 9:30-9 and elected not to join the others in drinking huachuma, a hallucinogenic tea made from the San Pedro cactus, at 8am this morning. It induces a twelve-hour trip, during which it’s better to fast except for watermelon at lunch time, and after which it can be difficult to sleep. I wanted to rest for a day after my journey, fully acclimate to the altitude, eat well, and sleep well before my first encounter with Mama Ayahuasca tomorrow night. It was a beautiful day spent in meditation, reading, and conversing with my fellow travellers. Some of us began to share our reasons for coming and the issues we are here to face. Rebecca, Stacey, Katica, and Amanda all met in a shamanic study course in Vancouver and now enjoy travelling together. In 2016, Christopher lost his mother to a car accident, buried his sister who committed suicide, parted ways with his best friend and separated from his partner of four years. He is questioning everything, including what he loves, and I spent many tears with him today.

After lots of sleep, much wholesome, clean food, and a significant day of emotional bonding, I feel strengthened and rested, ready to meet Mama Aya tomorrow evening.


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