Overcoming Altitude Fatigue

The first day and a half we were in Cusco, we were unbelievably fatigued the entire time we were there. It’s easy to attribute that to the altitude – the city sits at approximately 10,000 feet, a height at which sea-level dwellers are prone to get tired or worse. Certainly the altitude played a part in our exhaustion, but there must have been other factors as well – jet lag, the lack of a normal schedule, difficulty sleeping due to the busyness of the hostel, and the cold I’d had for over a week now.

However, we got a very good night’s sleep on Sunday night – there were very few people coming and going during the night. We got up a little after 8 am and had uneventful showers. We went down to breakfast at 9 am. About halfway through our breakfast a couple came down and greeted us with “Bonjour”. I really wasn’t sure what to do with that; I think we murmured “Buenos dias” or “Hola” and went on with our breakfast. We didn’t really try to engage them in conversation nor vice-versa. It was too perplexing to know whether or not they spoke Spanish or English.

We got ready and went out around 10 am with plans for a full day. We were feeling energetic and ready to experience more of Cusco, and also to accomplish a few errands.

The first place we went was back in the direction of the post office. On the way, we stopped at the artesans’ market across from the Coricancha, to get ideas as to what was being sold (for it was to be the same type of stuff all over Cusco) and ask about pricing. Then we went to the post office and bought postcards and stamps to mail them to the U.S.

Across the street was one of the bookstores that had been recommended to us by the musicians at the church, called Kairos. We went in and asked the guy behind the counter about CDs, and he didn’t have any. He did recommend another bookstore, and I asked him to write down directions. He didn’t write much in the way of directions, but he did write down the name of the bookstore and the street.

Then we crossed to the other corner to go to a tourist bookstore sold books in both English and Spanish. I’d been wanting to buy the Spanish version of Isabel Allende’s latest book, and Dave was open to buying just about anything in English that looked interesting, since he was about to finish the book he brought. There were two girls in the store trying to figure out what books in English would be interesting to read. They didn’t seem to know anything at all about authors or even genres. Dave talked to them a bit more than I did and seemed to think they were from the South in the U.S. He said that one of them commented that the only books she ever reads at home are Christian books.

I ended up buying a different Allende book, and Dave bought a book about some guys who went trekking looking for Inca ruins, and we both came away happy.

Then we headed off looking for this other Christian bookstore. It was called “El Inca”, which I thought was a pretty strange name for a Christian bookstore. We found it more easily than I expected, and when we went in, it was more spacious than any store I had yet seen in Cusco. We spent quite a bit of time there. I explained to the guy what we were looking for, and he pulled out a CD and started playing it. It was a Christian Peruvian folk band called Arpay. We thought that was pretty cool. We also asked him about a couple of the songs we had heard in church the day before, and he showed us a few different CDs. Then, we realized that they actually were selling sheet music (it was high up on a shelf behind the guy’s head) and so we asked to see that, and to hear the CDs they came with. The music was more contemporary than the other CD, but we liked it, and it was great to have both a CD and the sheet music. We ended up spending more money there than expected (we emptied my wallet, splitting the payment between dollars and soles), but the purchase was worth it.

After that we headed toward the Coricancha and took a few photos. Then we walked up some streets we hadn’t seen before. I popped into one store to look at some garments, and we ended up buying pants as well as some hats. The woman was happy to knock a few soles off the total bill because we were buying several items.

As we were walking, we saw a sign outside of one place that was advertising musical instruments. We went inside and there turned out to be several small stores inside that all sold instruments. Dave had started to come up with the idea that he wanted to buy a charango, which is a small guitar-like instrument. We looked at one store for a few minutes and talked to the woman about the charangos. Then we wandered into the next store, and even their lower-end charangos seemed to be higher quality. Dave was particularly interested in a couple of them, which turned out to be 380 soles (over $100). We told the woman that we would definitely think about it, and we headed out.

We didn’t have any place in mind for lunch, and we somehow ended up at a rather seedy billiards bar. There was a group of older men sitting in the place playing some sort of game that seemed to have been going on the entire morning, and there was a couple who may have been there for a tryst. Undeterred, we sat at a table on the patio and ordered lunch. The food was actually quite good and it was very cheap. While we were waiting for the food, I asked Dave to convince me why it was okay to spend over $100 to buy a charango.

After lunch we wanted to sit quietly in a plaza and write our postcards, to get them in the mail before we started the trek. Our first obstacle was the fact that I hadn’t brought a pen to Peru, so we had to stop by a little stationery store and buy a pen. That accomplished, we tried to find a nice quiet park bench where we could sit and write. We ended up in the plaza Regocijo and sat on a bench that faced the street. The next obstacle was that there were were street vendors aplenty, trying to sell us more postcards, watercolor paintings, and I don’t know what else. There were also a number of boys and young men offering to shine my shoes. I won’t argue that the shoes needed it, but I got tired of people fighting to resolve the problem. At some point we had to move to a different bench, because they started watering the planters behind us and we were getting a bit wet.

We managed to withstand all the vendors long enough to finish our postcards, and we continued our shopping. We bought a few more things, then decided we wanted find a cafe to sit and chill for a while. We passed a place with a sign that said they were selling croissants with Nutella, and were also showing World Cup matches. That sounded great, so we went up the stairs to check the place out. It was called the Movie Lounge, and it was less a cafe and more a makeshift movie theatre. The place was already full when we got there, and seemed more a dredlocked European crowd anyway.

Instead we ended up at a cafe that overlooked the Plaza de Armas. Called Cafe Cappucino, it was on the second floor of a row of buildings that faced the Plaza de Armas, and we sat in the balcony and watched the comings and goings of the tourists, vendors, taxis, and regular Cusco residents below. It was the perfect place to chill and watch the action. Plus the World Cup match was on in the other room, so we could keep an eye on that as well.

We ordered mate de coca plus a croissant to share. The croissant was nice and big, and was just the right size for a shared snack at that point. The mate de coca was served in a way we hadn’t yet seen. At our hostel, they just gave us tea bags that contained coca instead of other types of tea leaves. In Argentina, I had been accustomed to mate de yerba, which was served as loose chopped leaves in a silver or wooden cup with a silver straw. I never saw anyone in Peru drink mate de coca they way Argentines drink their mate. Here at Cafe Cappucino, they had a strainer cup inside a regular cup, which was filled with coca leaves. When the coca had steeped to the drinker’s liking, we could lift the strainer (containing the leaves) out of the cup, leaving only the tea itself. I thought it was quite clever.

We sat there for quite some time, since it was such a nice spot and we were very relaxed. We finally left the cafe around 4:30 pm. We did a bit more shopping, then walked back to the place selling charangos just to make sure we knew how to find it. Then we went back to Gatos Market to buy me some kleenex. We got back to the hostel around 5:30 pm.

We got ourselves organized and settled accounts with the hostel, since we would be leaving awfully early the next morning. Dave went to the internet kiosk next door to download photos from the camera and burn them to CD (the hostel had a computer with internet, but no CD burner).

Then we went out again at 6:30 pm. We stopped at a currency exchange kiosk to change the rest of our traveler’s checks, and then we headed for the SAS office.

Our group congregated at the main office, and once we were together, we all walked about 4 blocks over to the other office space owned by SAS. Upstairs was an informal space with refreshments waiting. Our guide, Leo, introduced himself as well as our assistant guide Jose, and encouraged us to help ourselves to some tea or mate de coca. We didn’t really do introductions among the whole group, so it was hard to know where people were from. There were two couples that seemed to be from the British Isles, one couple from continental Europe, a couple of guys from the U.S., and a single woman who also seemed to be from the U.S.

Leo’s English was quite good, and he had a lot of energy. He kept addressing the group as “my friends”. He told us he had been on about 300 treks – I felt pretty good about that. He explained the trail and the schedule, and answered a few questions. Overall the group was not very talkative and didn’t have too many questions. He reminded us humorously that questions are included in the price of the trek.

The meeting was easily less than an hour long, and he turned us loose. We would be seeing each other very early the next morning.

Afterward, Dave and I went to dinner at a place that we had shrugged at when we were looking for lunch earlier in the day. We discovered that we shouldn’t have. The place was called Coco Loco and it was right off the plaza Regocijo. It was good and cheap, and was a lot of food. (And not to mention much less sketchy than the billiards bar restaurant.) It looked like the lunch menu was even cheaper. We briefly considered ordering an appetizer before our entree that consisted of french fries & chorizo. We later saw the server bring it out for someone else and were glad we didn’t get it – it could have been a meal unto itself.

Before heading home, we stopped by the ATM to get some more cash, just in case we needed it on the trail. (Leo recommended carrying a minimum amount of cash in case of an emergency – if someone gets hurt, they get put on a horse going back toward the beginning of the trail… and that doesn’t come included in the trek fee.) Then we headed back to the hostel and were in bed before 9:30 pm.

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