Machu Picchu Altitude Sickness – Lares Trek
Bumping Around Peru – Macchu Picchu Altitude Sickness
And I’ve done it. After all manner of stomach problems and narrowly avoiding hypothermia, I survived the Lares Trek to Machu Picchu, altitude sickness over.
Peru had been an experience from the moment we started to ascend up to significant altitude, several days beforehand. It began as Everest Base Camp had last time – stomach aches, trapped wind and constant flatulence. Obviously my scintillating company more than made up for all these rather unfortunate personal habits, as I travelled with my new group. But unlike Everest Base Camp, our group tour began with various bus trips up to crazy altitudes. This occurred in the week preceding the trek, and the resultant altitude changes made me feel far worse than before. The Sacred Valley of the Incas was undoubtedly worth the effort though.
We’d driven straight from Arequipa at 2300m, to a viewpoint at nearly 5000m, then back down to 3600m on a bumpy bus. But it didn’t stop there, we continued driving around at a range of altitudes between 2300m and 5000m over the following couple of days.
To put it in perspective, experts usually advise not to ascend more than 500m per day beyond 3000m.
Altitude Sickness – Stomach Pain, Nausea and Headaches
My stomach was trying to disown me. In addition to pain, I felt sick most of the time, had headaches on and off and hardly any appetite. After a few days of this, I was pleased to learn that we’d be returning to the sensible altitude of Arequipa. From there, we’d take an overnight bus on to Cusco. Unfortunately, the descent was too late for my stomach and I threw up on the bus at 1am at around 4000m – oh the joy. Well, hopefully once we’d arrived and were based at 3300m with no further rapid ascents planned, my stomach would settle. Heh, no such joy.
From One End To The Other – Machu Picchu Altitude Sickness
By the end of the day I had acute diarrhoea to add into the mix. This did at least provide some relief. Since everything I ate was now going straight through me, I was finally free of the pain of trapped wind that I’d been suffering for days. Result! I was grateful for small mercies and the nausea eased too. Additionally, the other girls still seemed to be getting on well sharing rooms, so I could at least enjoy a private bathroom throughout the experience, phew. I decided to let things flow for now.
From Cusco To Ccaccaccollo
We’d have 24 hours in Cusco before heading to Ccaccaccollo. The residents of this beautiful little village speak Quechuan as their mother tongue, and Spanish as a second language. Our group would split up into two’s and three’s so we could stay with different families. After identifying which of us spoke Spanish, we were placed accordingly. I was paired with an 18 year South African guy who didn’t speak a word of it. Over to me then. The afternoon plan was to help out on a potato farm and play football with local kids. I passed on both; lacking in energy from being ill and wanting to be close to a toilet, I stayed back at the house and went to bed.
My Local Experience At A Homestay
Alarmingly, my “home” did not have running water, so the toilet had to be flushed by using a bucket. Ugh. Thankfully my stomach settled down briefly (out of fear?) and I was able to practise my Spanish with the “mama” of the house. It was a true privilege to stay in her home and I enjoyed asking her about herself and her family.
She was sympathetic to my stomach troubles, but told me off for drinking bottled water before/during the meal, saying it was bad for me. She did however encourage me to drink the hot water she had boiled, which she’d have liked me to add a tea-bag to. No thanks! It seems to be standard in Peru to drink all manner of herbal teas, something I’ve never been able to stand. I’m not a typical Brit and avoid the taste of tea at all cost if I can. Bleurgh.
After nearly a day of keeping things down and in, my stomach kicked off again the following morning. We were on our way to the Sacred Valley for a tour, lasting an hour. I nervously made my way around, lacking in energy, and partly just breathless from the altitude. However was I going to manage the three day / two night hike into the wilderness? It started tomorrow and I was struggling with a one hour stroll.
Machu Picchu Altitude Sickness Medication
Time for some drugs then – firstly, some altitude sickness medication for Machu Picchu. I’d taken it previously and it had just given me further annoyances. These took the form of vibrating hands and feet intermittently, which had only added to the excitement of Everest Base Camp the previous year. Now, I was becoming concerned that I wouldn’t be able to trek if I didn’t do something. So I took a low dose of acetazolamide (brand name Diamox), ie 125mg twice a day.
Deciding to cover all bases, I took some antibiotics for my stomach in case the problem was bacterial. They’d saved me in India and I didn’t have time to wait and see if this was going to clear up on its own. Fingers crossed the two drugs wouldn’t interact and give me more problems. I’ll point out here that I’m not a doctor, so please don’t take this as medical advice.
And We’re Off! But What To Carry?
We set off the next morning, just a few hours after my stomach’s latest eruption. Time would tell whether I’d make it through the next few days. At least we had our own chefs who train for three years before cooking at altitude for groups. Hopefully their cooking would work miracles.
Off we went, in my case with numerous toilet rolls stashed in different bags and pockets. Our leader had given us a duffel bag, which we could put up to 7kg of stuff in for the porters to carry. That didn’t sound too bad until I realised it had to include our sleeping bag and air mattresses! I’d hired both from the company in a bid to give myself the best chance of being as warm as possible. Naturally this was in addition to packing layers, and lots of them. I do not do cold. As well as this 7kg, we’d carry our own daypack. I sensed I might be carrying more than the porters!
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Day 1: A Scenic Drive and Trekking Begins!
We drove for a couple of hours by bus to the start of the trek, through stunning scenery and beautiful blue skies.
We trekked through little villages and gave the children the bread we’d brought with us for this purpose. It was lovely to trek amongst horses, llamas and alpacas in the remote countryside.
We stopped for lunch, and as we did so, were alarmed to see rain pouring down and hear thunder. Noooo!
Half the group had put their waterproofs in their duffel bags, which were being carried by porters much further ahead, oops. The rest of us put ours on. No-one was expecting rain as we hadn’t had any yet in the week prior. Lunch was a fairly long affair (and welcomingly so given the weather) due to our chefs cooking us three course meals. These consisted of soup, a main course and a small dessert at lunchtime, followed by hot water, with or without a teabag. I managed to scrounge some coffee off another group since our chefs were a strange breed of the belief that coffee is only for breakfast. Doh.
Camping “Facilities” at Machu Picchu Lares Trek
The rain had nearly stopped by the time we resumed trekking, thankfully and we completed our 500m ascent to our campsite. We found two toilets and two toilets between about sixty people. The showers were visited only by people thinking they were toilets. No-one in their right mind would take a shower here, it was already below 10 degrees at 430pm and there was no hot water.
We were prepared; I’d come equipped with wet wipes, not that washing was particularly essential as it hadn’t been warm enough to sweat. We were called over to claim our sleeping bags and mattresses. The sleeping bag I grabbed was wet, presumably from being caught in the rain earlier. I took another (though slightly smaller) and hoped it would suffice. It claimed to have a comfort temperature of -2 to -8 and we were not expecting it to go below freezing. Good, I had plenty of layers with me too. I huddled in my tent until dinner trying to keep warm and then went to eat.
Grub’s Up! Well, For Those who Can Stomach It…
They gave us soup again, hot drinks and another healthy, tasty meal – delicious. Someone in the other group had thrown up and a few others in my group were suffering with stomach problems now. We were all cold and retired to bed early in the hope of getting warm and getting sleep.
It wasn’t to be. My “mummy” sleeping bag was not as snug as it should have been. It seemed to have more space (and therefore air) in it than my one at Everest Base Camp, thus much colder. Unfazed, I added in my sleeping bag liner, which claimed to add up to 8 degrees of heat. I was also wearing 100% merino wool thermal leggings and a similar top, with a second merino wool polo neck I’d picked up with this trek in mind. Nope, still not exactly feeling warm.
On top of that I put on another “technical” (expensive!) fleece – all the things recommended by experts to keep warm when trekking in the cold. I wrapped my scarf around my neck, huddled into my sleeping bag, put on both my woolly hats and was still freezing. Now what? I was wearing nearly everything I owned apart from my jacket!
A Chilly Night
I needed a change of strategy – layers were not working, technical or otherwise. Time for some exercise. I started doing a plank, but due to reduced oxygen, especially in the confines of a tent, I only managed about thirty seconds before collapsing in a heap from being out of breath. Once I’d caught my breath again, I repeated the process. It helped me warm up a little bit, but not much. I tried to sleep but kept needing to pee. Why? I hadn’t even drank that much. Turns out the altitude sickness medication makes you pee. Nooo!
This meant I had to drag myself out of my very cold tent, into even colder outdoor temperatures – urgh! As if that wasn’t punishing enough, I then had to walk through bogs and the like – three times – in the middle of the night. The temperature had dropped to around two degrees. Each time, in order to be able to face exiting my sleeping bag and tent, I’d first do sets of sit-ups to attempt to warm up a little. Then I’d leave the tent and negotiate the bog. After returning from the bathroom, I’d do more sit-ups and planks to warm up again, not that I ever did get warm. I barely slept and kept awakening from the cold. Even pulling the drawstring tight around my head did nothing to help.
Hygiene On Hold!
Luckily I’d had the sense not to bother changing clothes before sleeping – no need to remove any in the morning! I spent over 48 hours in the same clothes day and night, changing only my underwear. I performed wet wipe washes where necessary and carried a change of clothes in the event of things getting wet. This turned out to be a wise move.
A Blessing in Disguise
When initially booking my trip to Peru, I’d attempted to acquire an Inca Trail trekking permit. These are limited to 500 per day and I’d narrowly missed out as they sell out in advance. The Inca trail involves an extra day of trekking and an extra night camping.
Lying here now, freezing in my tent, I thanked my lucky stars I had booked too late to get an Inca Trail permit. That would have involved 3 nights camping instead of 2! The next day was due to be our most strenuous hiking day; we’d be ascending 1000m overall, up to 4800m. We were due to “wake up” at 530 (assuming anyone had slept) and set off at 7am after breakfast.
Day Two of Hiking Machu Picchu Lares Trek
Despite the lack of sleep, I felt ok – my stomach had settled which I was hugely relieved about. Machu Picchu altitude sickness aside, I once again had energy and was keen to get moving. I very much enjoyed the trek again, although it was getting increasingly cold as we climbed. At least I was faring better than the previous two days, and instead of being at the back of the group, I found myself to be one of the first to reach the 4800m mark! Better still, I experienced no significant effect from the higher altitude. My energy was back. The drugs were working then, phew. Certainly the final 100m ascent seemed to be a bit of a struggle though, with oxygen levels declining even further. But we’d made it!
A Welcome Descent
After a significant descent and some lunch in a large tent, our luck with sunshine and blue skies changed again. It began to pour with a mixture of rain and hail. Heavy, unrelenting rain ensued and conversations ceased. We walked in these conditions for two hours, no-one wanting to stop to drink water or even have a pee, as it was so unpleasant. Finally, we arrived at our campsite, soggy and cold.
Wet and Warm!
After voicing my concerns about my cold ineffective sleeping bag the previous night, the guide kindly organized a warmer one for me. It turned out I had taken the wrong one the previous night, due to the designated one being wet. Determined to be warm and sleep better, I decided in addition to my thermals, I would wear my hiking trousers too, and wore my jacket instead of my fleece top. I still struggled to get warm, but felt marginally better than before and at around 3am was actually approaching a comfortable temperature – I’d awoken on this occasion to the sound of yet more rain on my tent, yippee.
Day 3: Machu Picchu Lares Trek
Thankfully the rain was short-lived and we were able to complete our trek down to the bus the following morning in dry conditions, before having an even more extravagant lunch cooked for us. Our group leader and group member who wasn’t trekking came to meet us and ate with us. We asked how the three group members who were doing the Inca Trail were getting on, and were told there was no news – meaning good news. We’d meet them the following morning at Machu Picchu. Their trek completed there, whilst we would enjoy being reunited with a shower and a warm restaurant and sleeping in a hotel before taking the bus up the following day. This sounded just blissful to me.
Days of illness had been replaced by days of cold and wet and I was more than ready to reunite with civilization, if not a relaxing lie-in…
Machu Picchu Lares Trek Finale!
We had to get up at 430am the following morning, ready for a 5am breakfast and short bus journey up the mountain. What we hadn’t realised was that we’d be spending yet another morning having a full-on trek. The area around Macchu Picchu is absolutely huge! After our guided tour, our group leader advised us to trek 45 minutes to the Sun Gate – each way. That was just for starters. He then suggested we go a further twenty minutes to the Inca Bridge (also each way) before taking the bus back to Aguas Calientes for lunch. How considerate, are you sure we shouldn’t walk back there too? 😉
Public Transport from Aguas Calientes to Cusco
After that we took a train back to Ollantaytambo and then another bus to Cusco. Then it was out for our final night together as a group – and my birthday celebration. Sleep did not feature and hadn’t for nearly a week by now. We were past minding.
All in all, Machu Picchu was absolutely stunning and well worth going to. As for the trek – I can only say if you are naturally a cold person, do not go camping in temperatures approaching freezing. No amount of money, layers, merino wool, four season sleeping bags, woolly hats and scarves are going to keep you warm. Stay at sea level, preferably in a hot country, or one with central heating and a fire until you can escape to tropical heat.
Summary Lares Trek – Machu Picchu Altitude Sickness
I’m happy I had the experience, but now, with that achievement under my belt, I’ve decided it’s time to call it a day with camping in the cold. Machu Picchu altitude sickness at the outset made it especially challenging.
Camping is never going to be my thing (even if the tents were set up for us on this occasion), and lying in the pitch black shivering all night long in five layers is not an experience I care to repeat. Could I do it again? Yes. But I can’t imagine a situation where I’d ever want to. With Everest Base Camp, Machu Picchu and Mount Kinabalu under my belt, I’m happy with my achievements of surviving high altitude trekking. Add that to the challenging sleeping conditions and I’m happy to call it a day now. If or when they start building heated accommodation at 4000m, with oxygen on tap, I may well revisit it. Until then, I am officially done with sleeping on freezing cold mountains!
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