Inca Trail: High altitude nosebleeds

(Bit of a long read. Wanted to record this for myself, and unsure if long-form works for others. Lots to observe during the trail, so I’ve crammed a lot in from my Day 1 notes. Because of a mix of writing from notes and at the time this is written from the future and later Day 2 is written from the time.)

All my life I have been pro-oxygen. Definitely coming down on the side of more oxygen not less. The first day of our 4-day Inca Trail cemented this position into a fervour.

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and the rapid pumping of my heart could perhaps be mistaken for fondness.

It started out simply enough. Rising gradually, we walked the undulating, sometimes bumpy path of ‘Peruvian flat’ (as our guide Sandro calls it). Stunning views immediately. Even if the path and landscape around us had been dull, the distant glacier-capped mountains in the distance were distraction enough.

The landscape below us was mainly farmland, but around us was dry ground, with foliage and cactuses at the side of the path. We tasted the fruits of the cactus plants which were being sold by holidaying school children. It was juicy and refreshing. An ideal mini-break in the hot sun.

Interestingly thDye from cactus funguse fruits of the cactus aren’t the most useful part. The fungus that grows on the cactus is a source of a strong purple dye – it explains some of the colourful natural dyes used in this region of Peru, many of which are derived from this fungus in the area. The dye is now less important with synthetic dyes being so common, but it was once a very valuable commodity for the area.

As the day wore on, with the refreshing fruits long past, the sun continued to blaze, and we went higher and higher. As we rose I was hit by the altitude much worse than the others, who had been in Peru for a week longer.

Worryingly at about 3,500m above sea level (and not far from the end of the day) I got a nose bleed. Nosebleeds are associated with the worst kind of altitude sickness, and I was understandably kinda freaked out. I was also feeling light headed from the effects of altitude, and was dog-tired.

I bled on the ground, I bled on leaves, I bled on tissues, I bled on my bag (as I discovered 3 days later). Fortuitously it seems to have been just a normal nosebleed, and did stop eventually, but we certainly proved that high altitude = bleeding copiously. I’m glad I didn’t graze my knee or get a nasty papercut. I would have flooded a valley.

That final 15 minutes to the campsite was pretty difficult with a light head, and a now complaining stomach, but at least we were able to take it slow.


Our mantra throughout was ‘move like a sloth’. When your muscles don’t respond properly, and you can’t properly catch your breath, taking every step carefully is the best approach.

We were lucky to not feel pressure to go faster, since it was just me, Kristin, and a friend of ours Clare in our own group. Just a group of 3, with a single tour guide (and 7 porters hurrying ahead of us). It meant we set our own pace, and don’t have to awkwardly get to know people when we’re tired.

Our sloth-like approach meant we were passed all day by what I’ve been calling (in my catchy way) ‘fast silly people’. People practically running up the mountain. Like the tortoise and the hare, we keep catching them up at every rest stop. They lie on the ground clearly suffering, and still exhausted having been at the rest stop for 20 minutes already. Groups of 10-15 chugging water and snacks.

It isn’t the fast approach to mountain climbing at altitude that baffles me though – they are clearly fitter than me, so more power to them if they want to run the Inca Trail (They won’t be beating the record time, which is apparently 3 hours and 45 minutes. Our 4 day hike seems less impressive in the light of this.).

What really baffles me is why they all seem to have earphones in while they climb. Maybe the sounds of nature are too boring? Are they all getting pumped listening to DMX? Is there an accompanying audio guide I missed out on? Do they feel uncomfortable without the sounds of traffic in their ears?

‘To be honest with you guys’ (a phrase used at least once in every conversation by our guide) I enjoyed the sounds of the walk, though I’ve been surprised by how loud the river at the bottom of the valley is. It keeps winding its way around the mountains, 100s of metres below, and often heard even when out of sight.

I’ve been surprised too that this part of the Inca Trail is inhabited. Since the only access is by the trail, motorbikes rushed passed us early in the day. Later in the day it seems only horses and llamas are able to traverse the tracks. It’s useful for us, since it means we can buy cold water and soft drinks! Much needed during a tough introduction to walking at altitude.

We were repeatedly told by our guide that Day 1 is a training day. A simple introduction to walking at altitude. Apart from the last 30 minutes it was good training. Day 2 is supposed to be the real test. Day 2 we’ll get up early to walk up to 4,215m. I will never have been so high in my life.

Peru day 2: cuteness overload

Day 2 in Peru started slowly. I spent the early parts of the day eating a lot and walking, trying out a bit of running. I ran 50m and felt like I was about to have a heart attack. Never again. I’ll stick to walking.

It occurred to me as I wandered that the mountains don’t seem so tall without some sort of low reference point. The small mountains I am looking at are already 3000m above sea level, but I think it will be hard to supervised that until we’re much higher up and can see further.

Once Kristin’s conference was finished done we went back from Pisac to Cusco – from where we will go on the Inca trail on Friday morning. On the way I experienced the first vehicle I have been in that didn’t take a disconcerting racing line through corners (wide in advance, tight at the apex). Looking down a sheer cliff is enough excitement without dodging traffic on the wing side of the road.

In the evening we joined some Quakers who had also been at the conference for dinner. Being Quakers they found a place that series local organic produce. Many had locally grown alpaca steaks. I don’t think I’m ready to eat a fluffy cute alpaca yet, but I’ll give it a try at some point.

Speaking of cute, everywhere we went there were unbelievably cute children. They have turned this cuteness into a money earner by charging money to pose for photos. Generally they have a rabbit or a baby alpaca to double down on the cuteness overload.

Where children aren’t carrying bunnies, they are having water fights. One lucky kid in Pisac had a water pistol, while the rest are just chucking buckets of water at each other, readily supplied by the adults. They would be drenching each other if they were actually strong enough to throw the water. It is fun to watch.

In a piece of very good news, my big rucksack rejoined me last night after being stranded in Lima. Happily I’d packed stuff into my carry on, but it was a relief to be reunited with my walking gear.

Today in Cusco, at the start of day 3, we’re going to do some proper touristy stuff, and grab some high calorie food for the Inca trail tomorrow. I won’t have internet until Monday, so this will be my last post for a while.

I am looking forward to it, despite the forecast of rain.

Peru day 1: unexpected golden retrievers

I’ve been in Peru for just over 24 hours, and it has been full of firsts and personal milestones. I’ve never been so fast south, I’ve never been to Peru (or anywhere in South America), and I’ve never been at the ground at high altitude.

Getting here took…. a while. 17 hours worth of whiles. Less painful than I thought they’d be, but not hugely eventful. My main muzzy reflections:

  • Madrid airport is comically oversized. The bus ride to another terminal felt like it took less time than the night bus home from central London.
  • The plane’s definition of blockbuster and miner differ somewhat. Mad Max I get, ‘aloha’ I don’t, nor:
    • Pawn sacrifice
    • Ricki and the flash
    • Sleeping with other people
    • The end of the tour
    • Digging for fire
    • Mistress America

Flying into Peru was unsurprisingly spectacular. The first hint came with the daylight when I suddenly realised that I want looking at a distant cloud bank, but rather snow capped mountains.

Coming in over the Andes, I realised I have never been simultaneously so high in the air and so close to the ground. Particularly flying from Lima to Cusco, the ground rises up faster than the plane, until we’re swooping between cliffs and along valleys. It felt oddly thrilling.

I couldn’t help but be surprised at the colours of the landscape as we rise too. Browns and the white of ice, against rough black stone. Those I expected, but not the musky greens that seem to be more prevalent the higher you go. Almost the reverse of Norway, where the greenery abruptly halts at a certain altitude.

Lima is much less green. It crawls along hills and hides in little valleys. Buildings pump out smoke like cloud machines, with the city wreathed in mist. It’s not all that romantic when you see just how many industrial buildings are pumping out smoke.

Straight off the plane in Cusco I met Kristin, who had been here for over a week already. Happily she was able. 

Last night I stayed in Pisac, just 30 minutes from Cusco. With jet lag and altitude I was pretty drained, I haven’t been up to much other than rating and wandering. That is enough here. I will end up overusing the word stunning.

Agriculture and geology both fascinate me as I eat breakfast (my kind of thing, simple scrambled eggs on toast). You can see the stepped fields, forestry, eucalyptus trees (I think), some grazing. But I don’t think my Spanish is yet up to the task of along about the economics, primary products and labour requirements of the whole system.

Once my Spanish is up to scratch I’ll try my best asking about a few other things too. How common are landslides? Why I’d your WiFi better than mine in London? Why are there so many golden retrievers? Do people really easy alpacas?

There are way more healthy looking retrievers than I expected. So far 3 more than I expected. I have seen 3 retrievers. Why retrievers?

For now I’m going to go wander along the valley, while Kristin finishes her conference. We’re going to Cusco to see the sights, whatever they may be. This time I think I’ll have enough brain power left to drink in the sights on the breathtaking drive there.