The Altiplano – don’t forget to breathe
July 12, 2010, 7:25 pm
Filed under: chile, culture, health, mountains, south america, travel, weather


Originally uploaded by cobismith.

For us, a big attraction of the north of Chile was the Altiplano. Santiago is interesting as a city, but it wasn’t what I expected from South America. I wanted llamas, mountains and colourful garb reminiscent of the Incas. Patagonia is freezing at the moment, but up north it’s warm enough to go surfing (with a wetsuit) on the endless beach at the frontier of Chile and Peru.

So up we came, with one adventure firm in mind – visiting the Altiplano. I was apprehensive, however, because the majority of my travel woes and general maladies result from pressure and balance challenges. Flying offends my sinuses, while rocking boats or winding roads distress my inner ear to the point of nausea. Thus I anticipated altitude sickness.

I Googled the altitude of past sickness-free mountainous trips with self-deceptive optimism, but French glaciers and Canada’s high lakes were more than a thousand metres lower than the Altiplano would be.

I prepared with natural and mildly pharmaceutical remedies. Plenty of garlic meals and clove tea to thin the blood the week before our journey up, plus aspirin on the morning. In the wisdom of my late twenties I’ve finally found a cure for my motion sickness: fresh ginger. When my powdered ginger tablets last ran out I realised I was paying more for a less potent form, which is harder to come by in foreign-language pharmacies as well. But I’ve found ginger itself universally available and unmistakeable, so I need only point or pick it up at the market. So on the bus ride up I had ginger in my pocket, an edible talisman to fend off the spirits of sickness.

This worked a charm for nausea, but not for the thinning air. As the bus ascended by hundreds of metres our drink bottles swelled, popping indignantly upon opening. We began yawning; I drank more of the expanding water in attempts to fend off headache.

The bus, destined for the dizzying heights of La Paz, reached Putre, our point of departure. We tumbled out with our bags into the sunshine and crisp rarefied climate, which seemed more translucent than at sea level. I felt I could touch mountains far in the distance if I reached out enough, my arm perhaps becoming more translucent and lengthening as it stretched. I stretched some more, boldly defying advice to move as little as necessary after ascent. But after being cramped in the bus my muscles demanded release. I slowly, cautiously, stretched my head down to my knees, breathing deeply, as yoga taught me. I felt triumphant. I was well! My body hadn’t betrayed me!

I sat on the bus stop bench, and I realised it was good that I had. Things were not quite right. My body was fine, but my head was light. I realised I was shaking a little, the stretching had exerted me more than it should have, at least in the air it was used to. I took another gulp of water and looked out again, my head swimming.

We waited some minutes before our guide arrived, in a car full of young blonde women. I’ve grown used to what’s normal here, so I felt startled and curious by the foreigners, forgetting that I too am foreign in the same way. Three Dutch girls jumped out onto the highway, nonchalant, tanned in that northern European way from the UV-rich mountain sunshine. The driver of the car looked anxious and ushered them to the side of the road.

“Are you sure you’ll be okay?” he asked. They laughed and assured him, confident in their trinity of youth and blondness. As a freight truck destined for Bolivia approached they stuck out their thumbs; the Andean driver put on his breaks, slowing in wonder. The three Dutch girls danced up to the driver and chattered in Spanish. It was the stuff of dreams – who needs cocaine to keep you awake when three exotic young women appear, as if stepping from a magazine cover, to keep you company on the journey? They departed.

My triumphant feeling of adventure had already vanished with my light-headedness and now was further muted; our adventure, a conventional bus trip and a conventional B&B, outdone by the hitch-hiking Dutchwomen. However with my system muted I felt recovered. It was true; exertion brings on altitude sickness.

Later in the day I discovered just the exertion of digesting lunch brought it back with a fierce thumping in my head. Our host suggested perhaps I go to the clinic to take some oxygen; stubbornly and proudly I insisted that I sleep on it and hope for acclimatisation by the morning.

I took some more aspirin, but the headache remained. As I lay on our comfy bed (where did the hitch-hikers sleep?) I thought about how we take for granted the oxygen at sea level, except when we dive below it and then come up for air. This was the same air, but too refined. Like watery powdered milk for starving babies without mothers, it lacked the nutrients to keep my system glowing.

I realised I was breathing shallowly. It occurred to me that perhaps it was little coincidence that yoga flourished in the kindred heights of the Himalayas. I practiced breathing deeply, fully, using my diaphragm. The bed covers rose higher and crumpled deeper with me. I resisted the urge to breathe in again immediately after exhaling, willing myself to lengthen the moments between whole breaths. After fifteen minutes my headache dissipated, and my mind sparkled with the feeling of learning something for oneself; the glow of understanding what had before been just words of wisdom. There was enough oxygen in this air, if you know how to use it.

I fell asleep content already with my trip to where the Inca shadow is long and Spanish is a thin veneer over proud, ancient cultures.


3 Comments so far
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Your writing astounds me

Comment by Emily Walker

I hope in a good way! 🙂

Comment by cobi

I read through the night.

Comment by Destiny Longman z

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