A Lesson on Overestimating Oneself

Cuzco and Machu Picchu (20 – 22 November 2013)

After such an amazing time at Nazca I really wondered if anything I was going to see in Peru after that could top that.

The trip to Cuzco started peacefully enough. I took a taxi arranged for me by the hotel and reached the Lima airport in good time. Before I could check in however I had to go through a bag check. This raised quite an alarm for me. I had read about people losing money during one of these checks at Cuzco Airport. Although I was in Lima Airport I could not have known if the theft problem was confined to Cuzco. But quite surprisingly to me the checker did not even bother to touch my carry on bag which was where all my money was kept.

The flight took just over an hour and I reached Cuzco smoothly. I got out of the airport and realised that no one had come to pick me up. I had booked a third G Adventures tour to see Machu Picchu.

As I waited outside the airport to be picked up I also waited to see if I would be affected by altitude sickness. I was more than 3 kilometres above sea level by then and many people get sick at that level. In fact the travel clinic I had visited before this trip had advised me about it. But I was fine and so was feeling rather proud of myself.

While waiting a lady working for the taxi company at the airport started chatting to me. I taught her how to greet someone in Mandarin and Malay and that was fun.

My first headache happened after more than half an hour of waiting. No one had come to pick me up still. Feeling desperate I decided to call G Adventures. That was when I realised that I had screwed up my booking. I had booked a tour in December instead. Since my flight to Cuzco was booked through the same agent at G Adventures, I wished she could have alerted me to my stupidity and not asked me to confirm the dates instead. It was almost like I had become dyslexic too since I did not even realise my mistake when the date was repeated to me in the agent’s email.

I was quite stressed out and at the same time I was kicking myself. Fortunately G Adventures was able to book a tour for me at the last minute. Not only did I need a place to sleep in, I needed return train tickets to Machu Picchu. I was really lucky to get everything confirmed by late afternoon although I had to waste some time fixing my stupidity. Fortunately I was able to see a bit of the city that day.

It was hardly noticeable with little left of the Incan structures but Cuzco was the capital of the Incan empire. As I strolled on the main square, it felt a little sad that the centre of a once great empire should be destroyed and built over just like that.

Plaza de Armas with statue of Pachacutec Inca

Plaza de Armas

Church of the Society of Jesus

However I had little time to feel sympathy for the Incans for too long. My next headache had been working itself up gradually. Very slowly but surely. It was a real headache and it started just two to three hours after I had arrived in Cuzco as a minor discomfort which I attributed to insufficient sleep or stress. Then the intensity increased by the minute and by dinnertime I was feeling quite unwell. So I am susceptible to altitude sickness after all. I had to force myself to eat dinner. I ordered an alpaca steak and was given a free shot of pisco sour. I hated alcohol but felt that I had to drink the pisco. That drink probably worsened my headache since I felt like I was going to collapse at any minute not long after I had finished dinner. I tried taking a walk in the cold night air but it did not make me feel even a little better.

Plaza de Armas at night

I managed to drag myself back to my hotel and made myself a cup of coca tea at the reception. It did not work. My headache in fact even got worse. It felt like someone was chiseling away at my head trying to split it apart. I went back to my room and took a hot shower. It felt really good and my headache even became quite manageable. However since I could not stand under the shower forever the chiseling reappeared once I walked out of the bathroom.

I had read from the internet that ibuprofen was helpful with altitude sickness. I happened to have had a few pills at home and I brought them along on this trip just in case. I followed the advice found on the internet and took 3 pills. It would have been an overdose under normal circumstances, and I really should have taken them before I arrived, but I was desperate to feel better. I did not feel better. In fact I started feeling nauseous and in no time out came my alpaca dinner into the toilet bowl. It was either the ibuprofen and/or the pisco sour. I am more inclined to believe that it was the damn pisco sour since I could never handle alcohol. The alpaca that I had for dinner had died for nothing.

It was a miracle that I even managed to get any sleep that night. But I did. It was also a challenge getting myself out of bed but I really wanted to see Cuzco. Although I was no longer nauseous, the damn headache was still there but at least I no longer felt the chiseling. It was amazing that I was able to force feed myself some yoghurt drink and bread for breakfast.

It was quite chilly in Cuzco being so high up in the mountains. But in my state it was better cold than hot as far as I was concerned. I felt tired too and it was as if I had caught the flu.

Since I could not really think properly, I headed for the most obvious tourist attraction in the city first. The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin was modestly beautiful. It was built by the Spanish Conquistadors over an Incan temple when they took over the city.

Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin

Not far away is the Qurikancha. Or what remains of it. The Convent of Santo Domingo was built on its foundations after it was destroyed by the Spanish. Today only parts of the inner temple and a small section of the outer wall survive. The Qurikancha was once the most important temple of the Incan sun god Inti. The god was represented in the temple by a large disc of solid gold. The temple was of course plundered by the Spanish before its destruction.

Convent of Santo Domingo with remains of Qurikancha outer wall

Remains of Qurikancha inner temple

I thought that the stonework of the Incans were really amazing. The stones were just so perfectly cut and stacked. I understand that they did not even use any sort of glue to make sure that the stones stayed together. It was a pity that so much was destroyed by the barbaric invaders. Most times when I read history I find myself wondering who the real barbarians were. It always looks as if the ones most fond of calling other people barbarians were most barbaric themselves.

I managed to walk around the city a little bit but was mostly too sick to pay as much attention to the city as I would have liked. It was an appalling visit and I kept kicking myself for not getting the right medication for the trip.

Street in Cuzco with the original Incan stonework still remaining

Street in Cuzco

Street in Cuzco

Near my hotel was a nice soup restaurant where I had both lunch and dinner that day since I felt like the only thing that I could stomach that day was soup. I spent the afternoon in bed. I just needed to lie down.

On the third day, I was picked up at my hotel early in the morning and brought to Ollantaytambo. My headache was largely gone thankfully but I still felt like I had the flu. I was going to see Machu Picchu but the thought of it only raised my spirits a little. I felt that unwell.

I had to go to Ollantaytambo to catch my PeruRail train to Machu Picchu. The train station was not far away from Cuzco and it gave me a glimpse of life beyond the tourist route. It was not always a pretty sight but since I had to travel on mountain slopes I got some good views of Cuzco and the surrounding areas along the way.

The train ride was a nice one. It went through the Sacred Valley and I passed by fields of potatoes, corn and quinoa. Later the valley narrowed and the mountains were right next to me as the train trundled on. I was on average more than 2,500 metres above sea level throughout the journey but everything was so green all the way up to the tip of the mountains.

I got off at the train station at the town of Machupicchu aka Aguas Calientes. This was at a lower altitude than Cuzco and I was already feeling better. A lady met me at the train station and she brought me to the bus stop to catch a shuttle to the archaeological site. The bus had to travel on a narrow road up this mountain for about 20 minutes and although I did not feel much anxiety then I do now shudder a little when I think back on the ride up and especially the ride down.

Statue of Pachacutec in the town of Machupicchu

Town of Machupicchu

I did enjoy Machu Picchu although I have to say that it did not make my jaw drop. It was as enjoyable as the other archaeological sites that I had visited before but it was not quite Angkor which I considered to be most spectacular. I was thankful that the Spanish Conquistadors did not discover Machu Picchu or otherwise it would have gone the same fate as Cuzco. They would have built their own buildings all over the Incan ones. The view from Machu Picchu was wonderful too and I thought that it would have made a wonderful site for a summer villa. The only problem is that it rains all too frequently there. It drizzled for a while during my visit when a cloud drifted in.

Machu Picchu

I was surprised to learn that people of Machu Picchu did not use doors. Apparently they respected each other’s privacy. In any case the open doorway allowed good ventilation and therefore fires could be lit indoors without the need for chimneys. Smoke escaped through the thatched roofs and was a natural insect repellent as well.

Inside an Incan house

My guide at the site told me that only 30% of each building was visible. The other 70% was underground. Each building however sits on a layer of loose stones. Although it makes the buildings sound quite flimsy, on the contrary that layer of loose stones actually allows them to withstand earthquakes.

Agriculture takes place on terraces, and these terraces can still be found all over the mountain slopes surrounding the city.

Terraces going down to the deep valley below

Besides being master builders, the Incans were also great astronomers. They had to be, since theirs was an agrarian society. They needed to know when precisely to sow and to harvest.

The tower of the Temple of the Sun was built such that when the sun of the winter solstice entered the central window the light would fall squarely on the ceremonial stone. Such precision was only achieved using the knowledge of how the sun moved gained from generations of observations. As I had come to fully appreciate on this trip, Peru is an ancient land and the Incans were merely the last of the pre-colonial civilisations. The Incans therefore inherited the knowledge learnt by their predecessors besides discovering their own. That is why the Incan civilisation is such an amazing one.

Temple of the Sun

Inti Watana

Conducting a religious ceremony?

It was a pity that the Incans did not leave behind any written records. Otherwise we could have known them better. But they did leave many remains behind for people to discover and marvel at their wisdom and creativity.

Machu Picchu was also full of llamas. Well, at least there were quite a few of them up there during my visit. They did not look wild however. They had tags on their ears so they most likely belonged to people. It did not occur to me that the llamas would kick or bite me but I was definitely a little worried that they would spit at me. Fortunately they were very tame animals and no tourist was pissing them off.


PeruRail train back to Cuzco

I got back to Cuzco when it was already dark. Machu Picchu was at a lower altitude than Cuzco and I actually felt well enough to do some proper sightseeing. Returning to the higher Cuzco however made me unwell all over again. Unwell enough to almost get myself into a fatal car accident. I was in quite a daze and I crossed the road in that state in front of the bus that had picked me up from the Ollantaytambo train station. That meant that approaching cars could not see me. Just as I was going to take my first step on the road after the full breadth of the bus, a car came speeding by and missed me by just a few millimetres. That actually woke me up from my stupor for a few minutes.

I woke up the next morning feeling quite fresh. Why could this not have happened earlier? Then again I only have myself to blame. I did not get to properly enjoy this part of my journey because I had thought that I would be alright at high altitudes. I really believed that I would make it in Cuzco without too much problem and of course I know now that I could not have been more wrong. But no matter, it was a learning experience. And besides I will be back. I still want to walk the Inca Trail some day.

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