There’s no oxygen in Peru. At least that’s what it felt like as I lay in my hotel room, wrestling with sleep, nose and mouth encased in an oxygen mask, the cylinder standing to attention on the floor beside my bed. This was serious. I felt really unwell. To distract myself through the wee hours I watched a relentless stream of German TV and, in my semi-conscious state, became fixated with thoughts of the bathroom cleaner Cif, or was it Jif..?
Through the spacious window I watched Lake Titicaca change colour as dawn inexorably stole in to reclaim the day, and night slipped away to join the west. I really hoped I would feel better in the morning.
Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest navigable lake and I was staying on its shores in the Hotel Libertador, just outside the city of Puno where, at 12,565 feet (3,830 metres) above sea level, it’s an almost certain recipe for altitude sickness.
I’d come to Peru after many years dreaming of visiting the hidden Inca city of Machu Picchu. Situated high in the Andes at a mere 7,970 feet (2,430 metres), there’s certainly more oxygen to be had there! I’d read about it, watched documentaries, woken from my slumbers with images of ascending the giant steps and seeing a roseate dawn over the ancient stones and thinking “I’ve done it!!!”
Now I was travelling alone in a small, organised group of enthusiastic travellers who were as keen as I was to see the mysterious edifice. It was a lifetime’s ambition for us all and we chattered animatedly, eagerly anticipating the culmination of our adventure as the tour meandered through the Peruvian landscape.
The decision to go had been a tough one, despite the years of longing to do so. Days after I’d eagerly booked the trip, my 90-year-old mother died. Two months later I was still fragile, feeling anxious and hesitant about the impending journey, emotions that I don't associate with travel. I usually love the anticipation of new experiences, meeting people, exploring. I questioned the wisdom of going on my own, minus the ‘security blanket’ of husband or friends. I would be with other people, yet the very thought of setting off into the geographic unknown when my inner world was devoid of sense felt utterly daunting. My husband commented that I was either “very silly or very brave”. I decided on ‘very brave’.
I loved Peru. All of it. It exceeded every expectation. Whatever I’d read in my Rough Guide, whatever pictures I’d seen of gaudily attired Peruvians, these paled into mediocrity compared to the reality of its colour and vibrancy. I hadn't expected the desert oasis of Huacachina, situated five hours south of the capital, Lima. Sand dunes, heat and Andean pipe music greeted us after a hot journey on a (thankfully) air-conditioned coach. Warmth and sunshine began to melt my numbness.
On another day I watched Humboldt penguins frolicking in the Pacific Ocean while we were pitched and tossed in a small boat on a short tour of the Ballestas islands – I still have the eponymously embroidered baseball cap to prove it.
Another day, another adventure. Cuzco, once the capital of the Incan empire, is a grand and proud old lady who holds her head high at almost 11,154 feet (3,400 metres) above sea level. The architecture bears witness to the Spanish conquest of Peru in the 16th century, but the city has retained its dignity and is characterised by much of what is typically Peruvian. Women loiter optimistically in their traditional, strikingly coloured dress, attached by short pieces of rope to their tourist-attracting llamas. They're waiting with their captive beasts for touristic photo opportunities and hoping to secure a few nuevo soles, the local currency, in return for that ‘photo of a typical local woman’.
Our hotel was an old monastery with cool courtyards, polished wooden floors and dark, shiny furniture. The pervasive perfume of flowers floated through the corridors, infusing the building with their sweet scent. Early next morning I watched from my room as the city stirred into life and the people of Cuzco began their daily rituals. Curiosity got the better of me: having time to myself between organised trips, I wandered the old narrow streets alone, their earthquake-proofed, closely packed stone walls the legacy of earlier eruptions. I found I could take as long as I wanted to get ‘a really good angle’ when taking my beloved photos, and also have the pleasure of sharing images when rejoining the group.
And yes, I ate guinea pig and alpaca. Sorry. And yes, they taste like chicken and pork, respectively. I hasten to add I did not have the whole guinea pig on my plate, as some did; I just asked the person next to me for a taste of their meal.
We continued along the ‘tourist trail’ to Machu Picchu, reaching the Sacred Valley and the town of Urubamba. As we travelled, we shared tales of past journeys, home thoughts while abroad and lots of the usual coincidences: people who lived and worked not far from me, people who had similar interests, someone whose father had died not long before the trip and had also been anxious about her journey. These fellow travellers were kind, interesting and fun to be with. Sometimes on my own, sometimes with the ‘company of strangers’ on the trip who were becoming my ‘journeying friends’, I realised I was enjoying myself. We were strangers no more.
In my room later that evening, I went onto the balcony to look at the stars. I found myself whispering my thoughts into my camcorder as I stood peering upwards and waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Real darkness: no light pollution and millions of stars. There was no room in the sky for any more stars. It was like someone had thrown silver paint into the cosmos and it had splattered everywhere, leaving no gaps. Starstruck, spellbinding, awesome – here was the true meaning of all these carelessly overused words. I felt I was part of outer space, not alone but part of something greater than planet Earth. I heard dogs barking somewhere, felt the cool night breeze and saw the shadowy outlines of towering mountains; not alone but part of the universe.
Next morning we began the final part of our journey to the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu. Magnificent as other places had been, this was my reason for coming to Peru. We travelled by train to Aguas Calientes, the small town in the valley below the hidden city, far above us now and obscured by clouds. The existence of Machu Picchu was ‘made public’ by Hiram Bingham in 1911, though it’s claimed to have been built in the 15th century. We ascended the steep track in our tourist bus with mounting excitement at each hairpin bend
Nothing really prepares you for the first sight. It’s a cliché, but so true. I felt my heart quicken. “I’ve done it!” I gazed around me, at the sky, at the encircling peaks, at the city below. I wanted to hold this in my memory. To feel it. The majesty, grandeur and scale was mind boggling: a city built in the Andes, precariously positioned on a soaring, mountainous landscape, incorporating astronomical alignments, temples, crop stores, vegetation and drainage. Sure-footed llamas bounded between vertiginous slopes, tourists trod carefully, stopping to take photos for their albums, creating new memories.
I felt exhilarated. I was tearful and wanted to ring my Mum and tell her where I was, to share it with her. There were people around me but no one I knew – really knew. So I stood, I looked and I thought about my Mum and I remembered what she used to say when considering a new experience. She used to say, “Why not!”
“Why not?…” Back in my room in Puno these thoughts filled my mind, while I made use of the oxygen I’d casually requested from reception. No questions asked, it’s brought to your room together with copious amounts of coca tea, a claimed remedy for altitude sickness. I knew I wasn't really, really ill, but it was alarming and not a little disconcerting to have no energy, feel sick, have a migrainous headache, not eat, not go off exploring and basically want to go home. Most unlike me.
I’d experienced some symptoms the previous day and was rather alarmed when the tour guide asked whether I’d ever had a heart attack – NO! He then proceeded to put plastic bags on my feet as I’d felt chilly, and produced an oxygen mask to wear as we traversed the Altiplano at 11,480 feet (3,500 metres) above sea level. He was being kind and doing his job but I got some very funny looks!
As morning arrived at the Libertador Hotel, I concluded I had three choices: go home, go to hospital or get out of bed and join the trip to the Uros islands on Lake Titicaca as planned, something I’d wanted to do since childhood. Restored by the oxygen, I got up, I got dressed and I got out there.
We disembarked and I stepped tentatively onto the floating reed island, and into the pages of a National Geographic magazine. It was like standing on an unsteady hay bale in the most intensely coloured field imaginable. Uros islanders, dressed in glowing colours and with their characteristic red cheeks, greeted us as we entered their watery world. We were shown how they fashion their boats, houses and utensils from the indigenous lake reeds. They indicated smaller houses where guinea pigs were kept, and sold us some delightful souvenirs that help sustain their livelihood.
Our visit over, we departed in a traditional reed boat, ‘powered’ by a single oarsman. From the island’s edge young girls serenaded us with an incongruous rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. I became acutely aware of the privilege of being in this situation – on this boat, on top of the world. I thought about how I’d almost reluctantly joined the trip, how I’d worried I wouldn't cope, how I’d imagined I might feel lost, lonely, sad, disorientated and tearful while on my own.
How wrong can you be? Imagination plays tricks. I felt strengthened, restored, attuned to myself and with a greater sense of my own resilience. If I could do this... I’d regained my sense of wonder, my inherited joy of travel. Being so far removed from all things familiar reinforced my familiarity with myself. The capacity for fortitude and self-sufficiency so ably demonstrated by my dear Mum was a precious legacy. I had not only remained intact, I’d actually grown. I was all I had. And I was ok! And have continued to be so on my many subsequent solo trips.
“Why not?” indeed! Much as I hate to admit it, Mum was right.
Enid Astley travelled on a Solo Travellers tour to Peru >
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