The city of Cuzco is situated in the Peruvian Andes and was developed, under the Incan ruler Pachacutec, into a complex urban centre. It was the religious and administrative capital of the Incan Empire, which flourished in Peru between 1438 and 1533. When the Spaniards conquered it in the 16th century they preserved the basic structure but built Baroque churches and palaces over the ruins of the Incan city.
Cuzco has an elevation of around 3,400 metres. High altitude is classified as between 2,500 and 3,500 metres above sea-level; 3,500 to 5,500 is very high altitude and above that it becomes extremely high. At 3,500 metres there are approximately 40% less oxygen molecules per breath therefore, in order to supply your body with the necessary amount of oxygen, your breathing rate must increase. This extra breathing will increase the oxygen in the blood, but will still not restore it to the levels to which we are accustomed at sea level and our bodies must adjust to coping with less oxygen.
As we begin our decent into Cuzco all we can see is mountains and greenery. Apart from the occasional lake, there is nothing else. The plane begins to turn and the city of Cuzco comes into view. We can see the runway at Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport, which runs through the middle of an area of clay buildings and small streets.
As soon as we step off the plane we can feel the effects of the high altitude. Our breath quickens as we walk through the airport and soon we are panting although we are walking at quite a slow pace. Other symptoms of altitude sickness include headaches, nausea, tiredness and trouble sleeping. Contrary to popular belief, physical fitness does not prevent altitude sickness and older people seem to be less susceptible, although it can affect anyone.
On arrival at the Novotel in Cuzco city centre we are given a complimentary cup of Mate de Coca (coca tea). Coca leaves are the raw materials for cocaine, however chewing the leaves or drinking the tea alleviates the symptoms of altitude sickness and improve breathing. The use of the leaves in this way is legal in Peru and all sorts of products made from this basic ingredient can be found, including sweets, chocolate and liquor. The consumption of coca was a part of spiritual life among the Incas and had an important religious and cultural aspect.