An essential fact to understanding life in the Andes Mountains is altitude. Cusco is 11,126’ above sea level, which is more than double the height of Denver, the mile high city, which is only a mere 5280´. I’m told that it takes about six months to become truly acclimated to the altitude of this place, but I’m not so sure. I think it must take a lifetime. While I really like living here, altitude included, I find that it does touch every facet of life, even if in a subtle way.
The air here literally contains significantly less oxygen than the air at sea level. The lungs fill up with the same volume of air as normal, but the body isn’t getting the same amount as of oxygen that it may be accustomed to. Just walking up a slight incline and can leave you slightly out of breath. If walking quickly up a big mountain, it’s not uncommon to be heaving and gasping for air. Of course, this isn’t true for the local population, but it is true for most foreigners, myself included.
Inka messengers were able to cover incredible distances at surprising speeds within this network of oft-14,000’ mountain passes with ease. The indigenous people from this region are small in stature and tend to have barrel-shaped chests, which allow for larger lung capacity. I find myself thinking Gosh I must really be out of shape, but in reality, it’s just that my body has to work twice as hard because its not used to the landscape.
Transportation is certainly affected by the topography of the area. Busses and combis (mini-vans) are slow-moving as they struggle to get up the steep hills and curve through the complicated switchbacks of the area. This pace seems to fit the majestic beauty of the mountains perfectly; to speed through such a gorgeous place at any speed higher than 45MPH would be a shame. Get on a bus, though, with suspect brakes that squeak or make airy gushing noises at every curve and suddenly the romance of the distant mountaintops is replaced by silent prayers or the deep need to just take a nap.
Water boils here at a lower temperature instead of the normal 212 degrees. This affects cooking and baking. I still haven’t mastered how to cook rice to a fluffy consistency. My favorite café, Ulreke’s, serves moist, home-made carrot cake, so I know that success in baking is possible here. I plan to take a foray into high altitude baking. I’ll be sure to post my trials and tribulations.
Coca is ubiquitos in Peru. It’s a medicine as old as the Andes themselves. The locals call her Cocamama. Intricate Qechua ceremonies revolve around the giving and receiving of coca leaves. Chewing the leaves or drinking coca tea, both of which I do regularly, helps alleviate altitude induced headaches and lethargy. Yes, cocaine is made from coca leaves, but the leaf and the highly processed drug are two completely different things. Without coca, adjusting to life here would be much more difficult.
If I get cranky for no apparent reason, I blame the altitude. Sunburns happen more quickly here, alcohol goes to the brain faster and sometimes folks new to the area just pass out for no reason. I think the general laid back attitude of the people around here has to do with the altitude too. People move slower, but more deliberately and at a steady pace. Things get done when they get done. No one is in a hurry about deadlines or appointments or times – they’re too busy climbing, making a living from, or gazing at the beauty of the surrounding mountains.