Before we left for Peru, we had heard all the warnings about soroche, or altitude sickness. Headaches, dizziness, nausea... all common symptoms striking visitors not used to high altitudes. Our first stop was Cusco, located in the heart of the Andes - and at a height of more than 3300 meters (that's close to 11,000 feet, or about twice as high as Denver), a dangerous city for someone like myself who had never spent much time in the mountains.
I expected the problems to start right away as I stepped outside the airport to grab a cab. But I felt just fine - no trouble breathing, no dizziness, nothing. What was the big deal?
Unfortunately, I was a little too confident. After finding a guesthouse and settling in, we walked around the city for nearly two hours... under an intense sun... with no water... wearing several layers of clothes, which we had needed to stay warm on the plane. We finally decided to stop for lunch.
Waiting for our meals to be served, I kept wondering why the restaurant had to be so stuffy... and why I had no appetite despite not eating all day... and why the room was suddenly spinning. I buried my head in my hands and then put my head on the table. I didn't feel good at all. I needed air. I managed to make my way out the door and sit down on the front steps, gasping.
The waiters had seen it all before and knew right away what my problem was. One of them came outside with alcohol for me to breathe in, which helped to clear my head. The other brought mint leaves, which eased my breathing. They also recommended coca leaves, a local remedy to help with acclimitization.
I eventually recovered enough to walk back to the guesthouse, though I did need to sit down on the curb twice in the one block I had to travel. I slept for a couple of hours and took things slow for the next few days - and I learned my lesson to take soroche very seriously!