Beating Soroche

I made it to Puno several days ago for what was to be the high point of my trip. Of course, I am referring to the altitude of 12,500 feet. Tomorrow I venture out on Lake Titicaca to see the Uros Islands (floating agglomerations of reeds anchored to the lake on which people live) and Isla Taquile. Since today was rainy, I expect the water to be rough, so I purchased some dramamine at the local InkaPharma just to be on the safe side.

If you have been following my posts about Peru, you know that I was fearing the ill effects of soroche, acute mountain sickness. Although I am still occasionally short of breath and have to wake up two or three times during the night, these are considered normal reactions. I took a two-pronged approach:

  1. I had my doctor prescribe Diamox (generic: acetazolamide). I take one tablet a day, and that does tend to account for several of my night trips to the bathroom.
  2. I take coca leaves in two forms, both of tea and, when the symptons worsen, I chew the leves directly. It helps to have a high carb diet to go with this.

It’s nice to be able to plan for this sort of thing. In the lobby of Puno’s Casa Andina Classico Tikinari Hotel, I get a big kick out of the whey-faced travelers staggering in with their giant rolling suitcases only to hear they will be picked up at 7 am tomorrow for several tours for which they are totally unprepared and likely to beg off from because their head aches, they are dizzy and nauseous, and in general remorseful for ever having signed up for their trip.

On Saturday, I board the Andean Explorer, a famous train that crosses the altiplano from Puno to Cuzco. That’s where you’ll hear from me next.

Under Three Volcanoes

I have made it to Arequipa, which is surrounded by three volcanoes, El Misti, Chachani, and Pichu Pichu. We are at approximately six or seven thousand feet. During the days, the weather is sunny and warm with cool evenings.

Yesterday I visited one of the greatest tourist sites I can remember: the gigantic Convento de Santa Catalina. It is so large as to be almost a city within itself. Here several hundred Dominican nuns lived and died, never leaving the convent grounds. A locuturio was provided to communicate with members of their families, consisting of a series of benches in front of grills. For most of the nuns, they had to have a chaperon to make sure that nothing inappropriate was being communicated (this did not, however, apply to senior nuns).

The grounds had several cloisters and “apartments” for the nuns and their servants, consisting of a spartan bedroom with pryer alcove, servant’s quarters, and a kitchen.

In Arequipa, it was expected that the eldest daughter would marry, and that the second (and subsequent?) daughters become nuns. Consequently, many of the nuns were from good families. Indigent nuns, of which there were several, themselves became servants to other nuns.

Tomorrow I hit high altitude for the first time. I will cross the Pass at Patapampa (15,000 feet) and sleep in Coporaque by Cañon de Colca (10,000 feet). The day after, I travel by bus to Puno (12,500 feet). I have already begin taking Diamox—and I have been mainlining mate de coca to allow my system to tolerate the onset of soroche.

Puno Gets No Respect

Bicycle Repair Shop in Puno

Bicycle Repair Shop in Puno

As one who lived the first seventeen years of his life in Cleveland, Ohio, I am well aware that some places come as a major disappointment to travelers. Cleveland was usually referred to as “The Mistake on the Lake” and, parodying the Chamber of Commerce motto of “The Best Location in the Nation,” “The Worst Location in the Nation.” And on the old Dobie Gillis TV show, wasn’t that hippie Maynard G. Krebs always going to see a movie called The Monster That Devoured Cleveland.

Well, Puno is one of those cities that gets no respect. A major entrepot for goods being trucked from Peru to Bolivia and vice versa. It is also one of Peru’s major centers of indigenous population, including both Quechuas and Aymaras.

If you take a look at the books written by travelers, you get a pretty dim view of the place. Paul Theroux (The Old Patagonian Express) and Christopher Isherwood (The Condor and the Cows) didn’t even give the place a chance: They arrived at night and left that same night on a boat bound across lake Titicaca for Copacabana, Bolivia. Since there are now no boat crossings to Bolivia—unless one is on an expensive catamaran tour—that option no longer exists.

When Patrick Leigh Fermor visited in the early 1970s (Three Letters from the Andes), he didn’t have much good to say about the place:

There was little for the eye to feast on outside. Puno is an assembly of corrugated iron roofs, sidings and goods yards sprawling round a church like a Gothic mud pie. We picked our way through the debris and squatting Aymara Indians—treading softly lest we tread on their dreams—to a ramshackle lacustrine port where an old steamer lay at anchor, brought piecemeal overland long before the railway, so that each plate was cut down to the weight a mule can carry, and sometimes a llama, then welded and riveted together again on the lake shore.

Fermor describes being met at the train station by a gaggle of unruly Aymara porters “seizing our luggage and bickering and punching each other all the way across the tracks to the repellent Ferrocarril hotel,” which had mislaid all the partys reservations.

Some years later, Michael Jacobs (The Andes), had this to say about Puno: “Neither of us was keen to stay any longer than necessary in Puno, which looked, under bright sunlight, even uglier than I had remembered it. The sun accentuated its resemblance to a waste tip of dirty brown boxes washed up by the lake.”

In Cut Stones and Crossroads, Ronald Wright damns the city with faint praise: “Puno has improved: I’ve found a hotel with hot water and a restaurant with hot food.” In The White Rock, Hugh Thomson considers Puno a “‘one-nighter,’ if that.”

Given all that bad publicity, I am sure that I will enjoy Puno. There isn’t much to see in the city proper (or should I say improper?), but there are the burial towers at Sillustani and the Islands of Taquile and Amantani in the middle of the lake. Plus, I will be trying to outlast the soroche I am sure will overtake me there at the elevation of 12,500 feet. Hey, nothing can surprise me: I’m from Cleveland.



The Gringo Trail

The Volcano El Misti Rises Above the Cathedral of Arequipa

The Volcano El Misti Rises Above the Cathedral of Arequipa

Most tourists visiting South America tend to follow a well-beaten path to such destinations as Iguazu Falls and Machu Picchu. This is so pronounced in Peru that there is a roughly U-Shaped itinerary known as the Gringo Trail. It stretches from Lima south to Arequipa, occasionally taking in such stopovers as Paracas, Nazca, and the Oasis of Huacachina. Then, around Arequipa, there is Colca Canyon (twice as deep as our Grand Canyon), and the even more remote and even deeper canyon at Cotahuasi. From there, the tourist usually heads of Cusco, Machu Picchu, and Lake Titicaca. Backpackers frequently continue on to Copacabana and La Paz in Bolivia and on south.

In September, I myself will be hitting the Gringo Trail. The difference is that I will be avoiding two groups of people that constitute most of the tourists: backpackers and charter bus tour groups. I will probably encounter some of the same people several times, but I will likely not be traveling with them; and I won’t be staying in neither youth hostels nor five star hotels. I don’t mind the backpackers that much, but I dislike getting stuck in a party hostel in which the drinking and loud talk continue far into the wee hours of the morning. It will actually b quite a challenge to be taking the Gringo Trail while avoiding other travelers.

There are other sights in Peru beyond the Gringo Trail, but first I have to see to what extent I am affected by soroche, acut mountain sickness. It would be nice some day to visit Ancash, Huancayo, and Huancavelica. As for the Amazon areas, no thanks: I loathe mosquitoes.

The High Point of My Trip


Puno on the Shore of Lake Titicaca

Puno on the Shores of Lake Titicaca

If my upcoming Peru vacation is a success, it will be because I was able to withstand life at 12,000 feet (3,650 meters) altitude. The high point (both literally and figuratively) of my trip will be at Puno, a somewhat ungainly city on the shores of Lake Titicaca. There will be short times during which I will be at 15,000 feet (4,570 meters) or more as I go over mountain passes between Arequipa and Chivay, between Arequipa and Puno, and between Puno and Cusco.

The hotel at which I will be staying—the Casa Andina Classic Tikarani on Jirón Independencia—provides oxygen for its guests as well as mate de coca if I am beginning to feel the onset of acute mountain sickness, or soroche, as the natives call it.

In the end, it is possible I am making too much of all this, but I will be traveling by myself. I have to be prepared to take immediate action in case I am one of the 1-2% of travelers in danger of High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) or High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). If that happens, I will immediately return to Arequipa and figure out a Plan B that involves visits to Tacna, Peru and Arica, Chile, cities that figured in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), in which Bolivia lost its seacoast. (Even so, they still have admirals.)

If I find I can take the altitude, I’ll spend a night on Isla Taquile, which involves a 400 foot climb up a trail to reach the center of town. There, I will spend a night with one of the local families before returning to Puno by launch the next day.

After Puno, I head downhill to Cusco, and later still further downhill to Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu.



Dreams at High Altitude

A City Surrounded by Mountains

A City Surrounded by Mountains

The other night I dreamed of Bolivia. I was in La Paz, one of the country’s two capitals—the other is Sucré in the South. I was trying to navigate between two locations within the city, but all I had was a two-dimensional street map that didn’t give me any idea whether I had to go uphill or downhill. The Lonely Planet guide to Bolivia lists the altitude of La Paz at 12,007 feet (3,660 meters), but isn’t that just an average? Even higher than La Paz is the erstwhile suburb of El Alto, which is, at 13, 620 feet, not only the highest major metropolis in the world with a million people, most of them Aymara, but also is home to the La Paz’s international airport,the world’s highest.

I am obsessing about La Paz: It is a city that pops up in my dreams because it is set in a huge bowl under several conical volcanoes, the most spectacular of which is Illimani at 16,350 feet. I keep thinking of traveling up and down the city by taxi and on foot, gasping all the while because of the high altitude.

Currently, I am thinking of starting my vacation in Lima and traveling through southern Peru to Lake Titicaca and then on to La Paz. From there, I plan to fly “open jaws” back to Los Angeles. That saves me time and money from having to deadhead back to Lima.

The big question is my susceptibility to Soroche, or altitude sickness. If, upon arriving in Cusco, I appear to have the beginnings of either HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) or HACE (high altitude cerebral edema), I will turn around and return to Arequipa, going on to Tacna (in Peru) and Arica (in Chile), possibly as far as Antofagasta. In that case, I would deadhead back to Lima and fly home from there.

So if that alternate scenario takes place, I would have to have a flight from La Paz to Los Angeles that I can cancel if necessary. Is that possible? It remains to be seen.

Addendum: These two quotes from Christopher Isherwood’s South American diary, The Condor and the Cows, add an eyewitness’s observations to the city :

Sixty miles from the lake [Titicaca] the plain suddenly ends. You look over its edge into a deep horse-shoe valley and there is La Paz, fourteen hundred feet below. The view makes you gasp, for it is backed by the enormous snow-peak of Illimani, which fills the sky to the south. Illimani is rather higher than Mount Pelion would be if it were piled not on Ossa but upon Mont Blanc.

Believe it or not, I actually had the following scene in my dream:

Many of the side streets are so steep that you could scarcely hold your footing on the worn pavement. The Paceños have learned to slither down it in long strides, like skaters. What with the altitude, the gradients, the scarcity of elevators and the shortage of taxis, you spend most of the day painfully out of breath, and envy the Indians, whose enormous lungs enable them to trot uphill without the least sign of strain.