5 Things I Didn’t Know About High-Altitude Living

A little over two months into Cusco, I can say with certainty that life at 11,200 feet comes with its own set of peculiarities. This isn’t the highest up we’ve ever been – Jorge and I had the pleasure of visiting Potosi, Bolivia once, the highest inhabited city in the world at 13,400 feet. But that was just for a couple days, and we were happy to get out of there and to lower climes. Here are some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned at 11,000 feet:

1.) Cooking is a different experience. Have you guys ever noticed the separate cooking instructions for high-altitude locations on every box of pasta in history? I used to, and never thought much of it. I remember inquiring about this – why would the instructions differ at a higher elevation? – and was provided with the accurate scientific response that I have long since forgotten. (Doesn’t it all just boil down to ATOMS?) I conveniently forgot about this as Jorge and I settled into Cusco. The first several occasions we cooked pasta or rice, we spent an inordinate amount of time checking and re-checking the food. Why was it still so HARD? Hasn’t it been 7-9 minutes? Really it’s been almost 15 minutes…How can it not be ready yet? Oh yeah. HIGH-ALTITUDE.

See that arrow? It means something. 

2.) Hangovers reach a new level of raunchy. There must be some scientific explanation for this – dehydration occurs faster where there’s less oxygen because red blood cells need 1.5% of something and up here there’s only 0.1% and then oh yeah, MAGIC. Whatever the reason, I’m ashamed to admit that I once had a hangover once until 4PM after 3 (THREE) glasses of wine throughout the course of a very laid back—and LENGTHY–evening with friends. And it’s not because I’m almost thirty (even if it was strictly due to my age, it would still be an EMBARASSMENT). Be careful folks. Alcohol up here takes a different toll on the body. And you know why? It’s because of HIGH ALTITUDE.

3.) Moving around is more difficult. If your body is one of those randomly selected organisms that will be sensitive to high-altitude issues, surprise! Most things will suck. Unfortunately this has nothing to do with physical fitness, it’s just pure luck (or unluckiness). Visiting Potosi was by far the WORST – I got out of breath just brushing my teeth. In Cusco it’s not nearly as bad, especially since we’ve had ample time to acclimate, but a few aspects still stick out. If you’ll all remember, I used to live in Valparaiso which had comically steep streets that seemed, oftentimes, like a joke. Who would actually build a city so vertical, a city where most neighborhoods relied on ascensores just to get their groceries home? Well, Cusco has its fair share of inclines and hills, but it’s got nothing on Valpo. Which makes me feel particularly bad when I find myself out of breath here in Cusco after traversing a very minimal incline. And yes, that incline would be the equivalent of walking downhill in Valpo, but here? Steals your breath a little. Makes you feel pretty ridiculous until you remember OH YEAH…HIGH ALTITUDE.

4.) Thunderstorms aren’t just thunderstorms anymore. They are a full-body experience that gets you right into the middle of the storm cell, WITH NO FORGIVENESS. Plus, being this high up, you get the added benefit of strange snow-hail storms. In the middle of summer. Because it’s HIGH ALTITUDE!

5.) It’s pretty much always cold. I’ll go more into my geographic/weather pattern duncery in another post, but this high up, the extremes are more extreme. If the sun does come out in the middle of the day (which doesn’t always happen, not even in ‘summer’), it will be very hot, and you WILL get burnt. But then at night, you will need five blankets and a pair of alpaca booties and MAYBE THEN the only frozen item on your body will be your nose. For god’s sake, the alpacas here wear goggles and sometimes actual CLOTHING. That’s gotta tell you something…something like HIGH ALTITUDE!

Hey, Mr. Alpaca…can we borrow some of that fluff? Maybe for some traditional hats and sweaters?

There have been some other strange things going on around here too, though I can’t be sure if they’re related to the elevation or not. Either way, it seems safe to blame it on the altitude.

Is your boyfriend shedding chest hair at an unprecedented rate? Probably the altitude.  Does your tap water come out feeling like the literal refuse of a glacier? Might be the high altitude. Are people eating oven-roasted hamsters as a delicacy? Could also be the altitude. Are you suffering from painfully glorious mountain views nearly every moment of the day? The altitude may very well be the culprit. Have you recently scaled a mountain to reach a city that ancient people thought was a great idea to stick all the way up there? Now that one is DEFINITELY the altitude!

(Editor’s Note: I began writing this post when the sun was out in full force and I thought I might be able to take a trip to the market in my tank top, to get a little tanning in. It is now snow-hailing, and some of it is coming through our skylights, where it sits melting on our floor. A little message from the gods. High Altitude!)

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Bolivian Blockades: Part Two

Later that same night of our daring escape into Uyuni, Jorge and I were dining just around the corner from the bulk of the tour agencies. The door of the restaurant swung open, and some tourists walked in — dirty, ragged, boots covered with dust.

Their driver hadn’t made it past the protesters; they’d been forced to walk into town.

And only moments after they came into the restaurant, we heard some gunshots from outside.

The owner of the restaurant leapt into action; she scrambled out the front door, surveying something in the distance. Then she came inside and ordered all her employees to lock the place up. With all of us diners still inside.

“It’s okay,” she assured us. “We are going to shut the restaurant for a little bit because the protesters are coming around now to bother the businesses.” We heard shouting in the distance, something that sounded like stomping. “For the safety of our business and for your safety, we’re going to lock up.”

She yanked down the metal wall used to lock up shop at the end of each day. I watched as she used a padlock on both ends of the door. And then she and the other workers disappeared into the kitchen.

I can’t speak for the other patrons at that moment, but I felt deeply concerned. Jorge and I looked at each other, WTF heavy in our gazes. Seriously, what was going on here? Were we inadvertantly caught in the midst of some revolution? The situation had escalated greatly since our arrival that morning at 5:30 AM…and now the protesters were taking to the streets. Restaurant owners were locking up out of fear, “for our protection”. What were these guys going to do?

I was happy a jar of Sangria and three quesadillas were on the way to our table, because I needed something to take the edge off.

Between breaking into the city twice — both that morning and that night — and now facing the increasing stomps of a psosible mob maybe only a block away…I was deeply confused about the severity of the situation, and deeply concerned about how we were supposed to get out of Uyuni.

Our dinner progressed relatively normally; after a little bit of banging around a few doors down, the threat disappeared and the owner opened up again. We consumed our quesadillas and Sangria with relative comfort. And as soon as 9PM rolled around, we bolted for the train station to find a way out of the city.

All bus transportation had obviously ground to a halt. If we couldn’t make it into the city on bus or Jeep, we certainly were’t getting out that way. And being that it was Friday, any negotiations between protesters and city officials likely wouldn’t happen until Monday. So we were looking at a potentially long weekend in Uyuni.

This was a no-go for a variety of reasons. First of all, Uyuni’s main draw is the salt flats. Now that the tour was over and we were safely absconded back into Uyuni’s unreleasing clutches, there wasn’t much else to do there.

And second of all, we had a flight from Lima, Peru in exactly one week. The miles between Uyuni and Lima were…well…a LOT. Easily several days voyage via bus. So we had to leave ASAP, and waiting until Monday would push us far too close to the deadline.

The train station in Uyuni was bursting with people. We entered a line a mile long that didn’t move an inch for a full hour.

A train was due at 10:30PM, but whispers said the tracks had been blockaded and it wouldnt arrive.

At 10:45PM, someone cried out, “THE TRAIN IS COMING!” and the ticket office opened and everybody sighed collectively with relief.

Once all the passengers had boarded and the train departed, we were able to buy our own tickets, for the next night to a city more to the north but not our final destination of La Paz. We’d take it. Fine. Whatever. Just get us out of here.

We left that night exhausted yet triumphant. The next night would see us on a train, chugging contentedly out of Uyuni and on our way to Lima, or at least one step closer. Excellent.

We slept like babies that night.

 

The next morning over breakfast, some travelers came into the restaurant. They talked in low tones, looked a little anxious. And then we overheard something unsettling.

The train was blocked. All outgoing tickets were suspended.

We wouldn’t be leaving Uyuni on bus, nor on train. What to do???

We confirmed the train blockade at the station; their advice was to wait until that night to see if it really showed up or not. However, we didn’t want to wait a whole day just to find out we were stuck another one. So we looked into our last option: PLANE.

We ran to the airline office. Their only flight that day had left at 7:30AM — completely full. Their next flight left the next night, at 10PM for La Paz. Over $100 per person, a stark comparison to the $9 train ticket.

Jorge and I didn’t know what to do — stick around to watch our options continue to disappear or otherwise shrivel? Wait for Monday and hope the rapidly worsening situation magically resolved itself?

As we paced the city streets plotting our escape, a wild-eyed woman approached us.

“Potosi,” she cried. “We’re going to Potosi, if you know of anyone that needs a ride, tell them we leave now!”

“How much?” Jorge asked. “And will you wait if we get our things?”

She said yes, they’d give us a half hour if we wanted to join them. We speedwalked to her office as she explained the details — $50 per person, her drivers were sneaking our tourists in 4×4 Jeeps via a back road. Three Jeeps had left the night before; three more were leaving today. The situation was rapidly worsening, and it was of the utmost importance to leave now, because later might not be possible.

We paid her (reluctantly, I might add — a regular bus fare to Potosi was only about $10) and then booked it to our hostel to pack up and check out. We arrived back at her office fifteen minutes later, huffing, puffing, and totally ready to escape.

The Escape Director led us and four other guys through the city, block after block under the mid-day sun. Again, I felt my body failing me, too much weight compounded by the three layers of coats that were useful in the morning but now, not so much.

Just as I was ready to call it quits — I’ll stay in Uyuni and wither, miss my flight, remain a tourist hostage, as long as I don’t walk another step! — we reached the escape vehicle. I’ve never been so happy to hand over my belongings to a stranger. The driver loaded our backpacks on top of the Jeep; he ushered us inside, and we began our swift and quiet exit from the city.

The Jeep was crammed full — 4 gangly early 20’s backpackers from a variety of countries (USA, England, Denmark), Jorge and I, and one small, quiet Bolivian woman. Nobody uttered a word as we turned down a dirt path and began driving away from the city.

I looked around, trying to discern whether blockades would be a problem this time. Our driver was taking the road opposite of…any road. He was, in fact, driving toward pure wilderness. The mountain was the only thing in front of us.

As the road gave way to craggy dips, arching geologic formations, soemtimes almost vertical rock faces and a barely discernible sandy path, I felt deeply grateful for the 4×4. We alternated between safari-style bouncing and bated breath creeping. At some points, I thought I might see a rhinocerous. The landscape was so utterly pure and wild. Again, I dared not question where we were going and when me might get there, afraid that any display of doubt might make our escape mission crumble to the ground.

We wound through this ‘back road’ for nearly an hour, passing by a handful of ‘villages’ that were no more than a cluster of huts and sheep. Finally, in the distance, we could see the glimmering arc of a highway. We cheered. And once we set tire to smooth pavement, I breathed easily, feeling like the final threat of the protesters was securely behind us.

We drove on 4 more hours to Potosi, stopping once in a small village to pee behind a building.

This village had slightly more buildings than sheep,
and electricity. I think.

And the second we got to Potosi, we high tailed it to La Paz, hopping on the first bus to the capital. This time, when morning came at 5:30AM rolled around, we were snug and warm inside the bus, and not trudging along a highway with a million kilos of crap strapped to us.

Small joys.

Bolivian Blockades: Part One

A Spanish friend of ours who recently traveled through Bolivia said the following about his experience there: “Bolivia is a good country if you want to put your patience to the test. What you are told will happen rarely does; improvisation is your first friend of the day. The good part for us was that you can eat for 1 euro, and you can sleep two people for 5 euros. ”

After roughly 8 days in Bolivia, I have to say, truer words have never been spoken.

From the botched entry visa to the last moments spent in that country, the whole experience was a constant exercise in creative adaptation…and cheap as hell everything.

I don’t want to imply that we had a bad time there; not at all. Bolivia rocked our respective worlds — the people were friendly, the food was tasty, the landscape was breathtaking, the cities were historic and interesting, there was a profound and fascinating past, and so much more.

But there was a definitive lack of structure in a lot of ways. A visit to any restaurant, in a variety of cities, invariably produced the following experience:

SHANNON or JORGE: I’ll have the gnocchi.
WAITER: Oh, we’re out of that.
S or J: Okay, uh…*looks through the menu quickly* How about the vegetarian lasagna?
WAITER: No, we don’t have that either.

Repeat for up to five menu items until you finally hit an item that is available and/or the waiter kindly informs you what fourth of the menu is actually capable of being produced.

This sudden and unexpected unavailability of something tended to be the norm for Bolivia. All the way down to regular transportation.

We had planned to arrive to Uyuni, the city nearest to the salt flats, during the day Thursday. But our bus that morning was inexplicably cancelled due to a bloqueo, a blockade. They told us we’d leave that night at 8:30PM.

So we called the terminal in advance of making the full 20 minute cab ride with the bags, confirmed the bus was in fact leaving, and showed up for the 8 hour bus ride to Uyuni. We departed on time, all things normal. Excellent.

Around 4:20 AM, our bus came to a stop. Jorge and I stirred to life, partially frozen from the cold night in the bus (Bolivian buses don’t tend to have any sort of heat or air movement). The bus had come to a shuddering stop. Not just casually idling on the side of the road, but OFF. And in the middle of nowhere.

We were informed that the blockade was still, in fact, in effect. We were totally unable to drive further. And we were about 4 miles from Uyuni.

What to do? Grumbles, complaints, fears, ideas, and plans began filling the chilly air of the bus. Bolivians familiar with this phenomenon informed the rest of us what was up: These blockades were serious. Creeping past was not an option. It was unlikely the blockade would lift by tomorrow. We would have to walk to town.

We, and a majority of passengers, decided to stay in the bus until daybreak. That way, we could complete the journey on foot with at least a modicum of daylight to guide us. From my bus window, the lights of Uyuni burned bright but distant, tiny flickers of life just beyond reach.

Around 5:30 AM, Jorge and I suited up and headed out. The new day was clear and bright — and terribly cold. For reference, the salt flats sit at about 3,000m above sea level — that’s about 12,000 ft. And on top of that, it’s winter down here. It felt like Ohio on an early February morning.
Good morning, Uyuni! Lovely way to start the day.

Jorge and I trudged along, finally passing the blockade itself. The road was littered with rocks of varying sizes, from pebbles to boulders. We didn’t say anything as we passed the protesters themselves, who sat in a group around a fire at the side of the road, the Bolivian flag waving gently in the morning breeze.

After about 20 minutes of walking, Uyuni looked no closer but we had certainly traveled far. However, we didn’t pack for real backpacking. Our belongings are ample and heavy. We packed up a whole life in Chile, and aren’t traveling as light as other backpackers who are just on a little vacation. Certainly not equipped to be walking miles with my luggage. Just as we were about to collapse and rest a bit, a truck rumbled past. Jorge stuck out his thumb. The truck stopped.

The saviors took us into town, mercifully dropping us off right outside the center where all the tour agencies and hostels are found. I think the guy was a relative of someone on the bus, who had been summoned to pick her up, and just happened to see us withering on the side of the road.
Uyuni, the morning we arrived. The cars blocking the road
in the distance are part of the protest, too. 

Fast forward to our tour through the salt flats. We took a roundabout way out of the city due to the blockades. Someone mentioned the regular route out of town was now similarly covered in boulders and armed with protesters waiting for people to attempt to pass. We didn’t think much of it, just enjoyed the bumpy road and craggy mountains in the distance. Everything seemed to be continuing as normal despite the blockades and protesters.

On our way back from the salt flats tours, around 7pm, our Jeep shuddered to a stop. The other Jeeps we’d been traveling with similarly turn off and go dark. Our driver disappears, rushing to the other drivers. They stand there talking for 15 minutes. Finally, he comes back to us and says,

“The protesters are blocking our road back into the city,” he explains. “The one we took this morning can’t be taken again. We are going to wait to see if they go away.”

But they didn’t go away. And as time wore on, and the night grew darker and colder, our driver and the others decided to risk it.

With lights off and driving in a tight single-file line, our 5 Jeeps attempted to circumvent the protestors. Unable to see us, the plan was that we were swing wide around them, and gun it into the city.

I didn’t know where to watch. I was horrified by the proximity of the Jeep in front of us, how murikly dark it was, how dangerously close we sometimes came to it as our driver struggled to stay connected to the line and look out for protestors. In the distance, we saw the wide sweep of headlights. Protesters looking for people just like us: trying to escape into the city.

The inevitable came: we were spotted. Those sweeping headlights suddenly focused only on us. Our driver turned wide, executing a 180, and we began running from the car. We lost all of the other Jeeps we’d been following. We were on our own.

The protesters following us got distracted, maybe they decided to pursue someone else. Their goal was to prevent us from entering the city, and to do so they pelted trespassers with rocks. We knew our lives weren’t necessarily in danger…but we didn’t want an errant rock through the window, either.

Our driver doubled back and, flying solo now, began creeping along the far side of the field. All of us in the Jeep scoured the countryside, looking for protesters that might have spotted us. So far, so good. All clear. We continued on.

To our far left was the burning bonfire marking the protesters and the beginning of the blockade. We saw groups of people milling around; the road full of boulders.

And then, we saw three pairs of headlights following us.

We’d been spotted again, and this time, we had two motorcycles and a car racing after us. Our driver gunned it — we were in the city limits now, no turning back — and in the distance we could hear the accelerating whine of the motorcycles pursuing us.

This was no easy escape for our driver. Pitch blackness plus a very jagged, bumpy road, littered with bushes and dips. A few minutes once we’d driven past the protesters, he flicked on the lights. We drove in incredibly tense silence, all passengers craning to see if anyone would catch up with us. What would happen if they did? Would they make us stop, circle around us, throw a rock through the window? Or would it go even further? The driver made mention of the campesinos getting drunk and macho, liking to push the protest further at night. Would they force us to walk back into town? Or maybe they’d take all our stuff first?

Nobody knew the answers; nobody dared ask.

Finally, Uyuni grew nearer. We pealed into a side road. No headlights were following us.

We breathed a sigh of relief; and by the time our driver had parked in front of the tour agency, we were lauding him with applause and claps on the back.