I’ve been following a number of blogs of overland travellers, making their way across South America. I’m curious about why there hasn’t been much written about people’s experiences with altitude sickness, because for Paul and I this has been a real challenge. I have researched so much about this affliction to try and deal with it better, hence some days are good and others are…well, just really awful!
At 7,000km long, the Andes is the longest mountain range in the world. It runs through 7 countries namely Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. We would ride across the Andes in all countries, except Venezuela. The plateau of the Andes is the second highest in the world, after the Tibetan plateau. We would visit cities such as Bogota, Medellin (Colombia), Quito (Ecuador), Arequipa (Peru) and La Paz (Bolivia) which are located on the Andean plateau. We would ride to the world’s highest volcanoes, which are in the Andes, as well as the world’s highest mountains outside of Asia. At 6,263m Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador is the closest place to the sun, due to the earth’s bulge at the equator. We were staying at an altitude of 4,200m and woke countless times in the night, gasping for air and battling headache and nausea. Our plans of a hike were scuppered when we could hardly walk to our lodge!
Riding across the Andes has been one of the most incredibly breath taking experiences. The scenery along the twisty mountain passes has been incredibly spectacular, but that is not the only element which has literally taken our breath away! Altitude sickness has plagued us on and off since Colombia. It is an illness caused by ascending to high altitude and not having enough oxygen. The higher the altitude, the less oxygen and the lower the air pressure, so you feel like your brain wants to pop out through your eyes! At sea level you have 100% of oxygen available and the standard barometric pressure is 101kPA. As an example, at 5,000m there is only 55% of the oxygen available at sea level and the barometric pressure is only 56kPA.
We first experienced altitude sickness in Ipialis. This Colombian city is close to the Ecuadorian border, at an elevation of 2,898m. We checked into our hotel and were issued a room on the first floor. This was very noisy, so we asked to be moved to a quieter location. The hotel concierge ‘warned’ that the only other room available was on the third floor at the back of the hotel and that they had no lift. We did not think anything of this until the realisation hit home of the effects of altitude sickness! Walking up one flight of stairs was tough enough, but three proved insane! Our bikes were parked in the underground parking and yes, you guessed it, there was no lift! I will never forget a particular incident where I caught the hotel concierge laughing at my expense: I was taking one step, resting, taking a breath, taking another step and repeating the process both up and down the three flights of stairs. He was embarrassed that I caught him laughing, so he merely said: “Cansado!” (Tired)…and I was too tired and out of breath to reply “yes”, so I just nodded my head in acknowledgement.
Initially our main symptoms of altitude sickness were shortness of breath, headache and fatigue. I also had a bleeding nose and tingling fingers. Once we got to Quito in Ecuador (2,850m) we investigated what locals recommend to treat the symptoms and this is where we learned about coca tea or what is commonly referred to as ‘mate de coca.’
Coca is grown in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina and is readily available as a tea or dry leaves. Its use in religious rituals, for medicinal and nutritional purposes date back to Inca times and it is very much a natural part of the daily South American culture, either as tea or chewed. I find it fascinating to read that cocaine is “easily extracted” from coca leaves, which is the reason for its International Prohibition by the United Nations since 1961. Peru and Bolivia were successful in obtaining legal recognition for the traditional use of coca in their countries, however it remains a political controversy as the production of coca appears to exceed the demand for legitimate use. Initially I was alarmed to read that we would test positive for cocaine after consuming just one cup of coca tea. It has now become a natural part of our daily lives to drink coca tea and is such a cultural norm that as an example, on checking in to our hotel in Cusco (3,399m) we were offered a ‘welcome cup of coca’.
Having read extensively about altitude sickness we’re familiar with the various remedies or medications and realise that the best ‘treatment’ is acclimatisation. Our greatest challenge however has been that we never spend sufficient time in one place to really acclimatise. As we travel from one place to another we might ride up to elevations of 4,500m and down to 2,000m quite a few times in the day, just getting to our destination along the many magnificent mountain passes. We have now become quite accustomed to symptoms such as feeling like we have ‘a tight band around our head’, that our eyes feel like they want to pop out and battling shortness of breath and fatigue. Mostly we’ve managed to deal with the symptoms patiently.
There have been occasions where we’ve really not coped, such as on the hike to Pastoruri Glacier at Huascaran National Park in Peru. We took our tracker on this hike and recorded an elevation of 5,002m at the base of the glacier, which is close to the elevation of Everest Base camp (5,380m). On this hike Paul had severe headache, started vomiting, saw double and became quite confused and dizzy. In hindsight we now realise that these were quite severe symptoms and we should have immediately gone down to a lower altitude. I was quite concerned about Paul’s condition and ability to ride back to Huaraz (3,052m). Paul’s headache did not abate for many days and paracetamol did nothing to relieve the pain. We’ve since read that the symptoms are indicative of cerebral oedema and we will take much greater care if this were to happen again.
I was fine on that day, apart from being short of breath and it’s a fascinating observation to realise that altitude sickness is so unpredictable. The past few days we’ve been riding up to elevations of 4,500m and down again, many times, finally reaching Cusco at 3,399m. Paul has been feeling fine, but I have been very unwell and struggling with mood swings and extreme irritability. At night my muscles cramp, keeping me awake and nausea and exhaustion plague me daily. We’ve decided to rest at Cusco for at least a week and have resigned ourselves to the fact that we may not attempt further high altitude hikes, such as Rainbow Mountain (5,200m). We’re due to visit Machu Picchu tomorrow and it’s a relief to know it’s “only 2,430m!”
Aside from the ongoing struggle with altitude, crossing the Andes on motorcycles has been simply remarkable! The roads across these incredible mountain ranges are engineering marvels. In some instances the roads have been ancient Inca trails, such as the route we traveled in Ecuador. The Inca road system exceeds 40,000km across South America and this advanced and extensive road system became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2014. When you look at google map routes through the Andes they resemble a child’s squiggly drawings. Roads snake their way up, down, across, through and over the most remarkable inclines. Switchbacks and hairpin bends abound. At times you’ve hardly completed a hairpin bend then face the next one, in the opposite direction. Taking photographs of these incredible passes has been mostly impossible, due to the narrow roads with no safe place to stop for photos. I’ve been able to get some GoPro footage of the incredible passes snaking down into the valleys. It’s awesome seeing the road snake ahead for many miles across a vast expanse of mountain pass. We’ve become quite accustomed to the many signs designating “curva peligrosa” (dangerous curves) ahead. Not all roads have been paved, yet the dirt tracks have been incredibly well maintained despite severe weather conditions. I believe this is due mostly to the great engineering as water runs off without eroding the roads and land slides are quickly cleared away.
Paul and I were chatting over dinner last night about just how remarkable it has been traveling across the Andes on our motorcycles. We chuckled at ourselves, at how we’ve ‘just got on with the job’ of getting across some incredible passes, without a thought for just how remarkable an experience it really is. What an incredible feat and achievement. It makes me reflect on the countless blogs I referred to earlier… how overland travellers often don’t realise how incredible their travel really is, discounting the many challenges faced and simply ‘getting on with it’ to reach their ultimate destination…