Battling Sickness in Cusco

“I’m not kidding,” read the text. “I always thought, how can that happen? I was walking to the kitchen, I burped and shit my pants.”

I finally had service on the way back from a grueling four-hour hike to see Rainbow Mountain – an excursion that was my friend’s idea. And she had missed it. Because she was home literally shitting her pants.

The night before our day in Rainbow Mountain, she had been up since 2 am with diarrhea and vomiting. We had all eaten the same thing the night before, so we didn’t know what was wrong with her. She sat out our day in Rainbow Mountain, which was fortunate, because even in the comfort of an empty apartment, she had no control over her bowels. By the following night, her stool was green, which could either mean bile or contaminated water.

Luckily, our other friend had the foresight to bring metronidazole, an antibiotic for treating stomach parasites. Though she could also wait until it went away on its own in six to eight weeks. But one of our drivers suggested we could also go to a local clinic and a blood test would reveal the issue in a couple of hours.

This was the kicker in a long week of illness spurned mostly by Cusco’s high altitude.

From the second you step off the plane in Cusco, you’re going to feel a little funny. That’s because Cusco is over 11,000 feet above sea level. For someone like me, who has lived at sea level almost her whole life, the transition is a little difficult.

Forgetting that the air would feel different, I made a beeline for baggage claim. It wasn’t long before I realized that my legs were tingling and I felt a little woozy. But I made it to the Airbnb in one piece.

It was someone else in our group that first succumbed to the effects of the altitude. We were wandering around the Plaza de Armas watching the parades, when her face went pale and her lips purple. We went to the first restaurant we could find, thinking that sitting down would help her. It didn’t. She finally threw up, and momentarily felt better. She even started picking at her food. But before long, the nausea came back and she was looking dangerously pale again. She went back to the apartment where she spent the rest of the day resting and throwing up.

Later that day, it was my turn. Thinking I had escaped the effects, I bounced uphill toward the apartment. My head began to pound in the way that you only feel in college after a night of 9 tequila shots. By the time we got to the apartment, I couldn’t move, speak, or open my eyes. I had to cover my face to block out the light. Eventually, I raced to bathroom and threw up.

Fast forward a whole week and Cusco was still taking us out one by one, this time by stomach virus.
So what can you do to prevent getting sick in Cusco?

Altitude sickness

Given the fact that I flew 30 hours all the way from Europe, I’m surprised I didn’t get sicker. Flying dehydrates you and being dehydrated increases your risk of altitude sickness. Looking back on it, I think it would have been smarter to spend one or two nights in Lima, re-hydrating and resting after an international flight, before taking an hour-long flight to Cusco. Lima is about half the altitude of Cusco, about 5,000 feet above sea level, so you can begin to adjust to higher altitudes.

What you do when you arrive in Cusco also makes a huge difference. If you had a long international flight there, you should take the first day to rest. Stay home, catch up on sleep, and let your body adjust to the altitude while it’s at rest. Not getting enough sleep will also increase your chances of getting sick.

When you do begin walking around and exploring, take it easy. You probably won’t be able to go at your regular pace because you’ll get more easily winded. Not only is Cusco at such a high altitude, you’ll also find yourself walking uphill constantly.

Treating altitude sickness

Locals live and die by coca leaves. When you get to the airport, they have a bowl full of them to help you adjust. Unbeknownst to me, you’re not supposed to chew and swallow the leaves. You actually have to keep them in your mouth under your gums. The coca leaves will numb your gums a bit and slowly release chemicals that will alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness. It’s a stimulant so it will also give you a bit of energy.

If you haven’t been doing this your whole life, putting dry leaves in your mouth and sucking on them all day gets really fucking gross. Luckily, they also sell coca candies, gum, and toffee. You can also finish off every meal with coca tea, which is one of the most palatable ways to ingest it.

If your sickness is really bad, you can also treat it with medicine. Sorojchi pills, which are taken every 8 hours as needed, treat the symptoms of altitude sickness. They’re expensive, but after the first day I had, I didn’t mind shelling out $16 for 20 pills. (I probably got scammed, but I don’t even care.)

Drinking water throughout the day is also helpful. And if you do start to feel sick, slowing down and resting is a good way to make sure the symptoms pass.

Stomach illness

Peru is the kind of place where you don’t want to drink the water under any circumstances. Your stomach simply isn’t used to the bacteria in the local water. So it’s important to always drink bottled water. Since we were a group of 5, we bought giant two-gallon bottles and used that to refill our daily water bottles. If you’re really paranoid, you can also use this water to brush your teeth. Though none of that will guarantee you won’t get sick. It’s luck of the draw with these things sometimes.

If you’re the one that came down with a bug, don’t force yourself into uncomfortable situations (like ones where you might shit your pants on a mountain). Rest, drink plenty of fluids and Gatorade to avoid dehydration. Find safe foods like sealed crackers and bottled water to ease yourself back into eating regularly again.

And if you want to be extra prepared, it can’t hurt to bring some medicine from home as a precaution. I wasn’t adequately prepared when I flew back from Cusco to Miami. Thinking I had escaped the worst with the altitude sickness earlier in the week, I was surprised when my stomach started killing me at the airport in Lima. I spent the next 24 hours using every toilet in the airport and on the plane, fearing that I, too, would shit my pants.

One of the first things I did when I returned home to Miami was go to urgent care, where I was prescribed antibiotics for “traveler’s diarrhea.” I’m turning 30 tomorrow and I can’t stop involuntarily expelling liquid from my ass. I’m trying to keep a good attitude about it… Starting a new decade doing an Inca cleanse. But I’d like to take this moment to give a heartfelt FUCK YOU to Cusco. See you never.

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