Get me down from here: cycling at altitude

Get me down from here: cycling at altitude

I totally underestimated the difficulties of cycling at altitude, thinking that rising slowly on our bikes we would acclimatise easily. We’ve been pedalling at over 3400m for four weeks now though, and I’m still gasping for breath at the slightest exertion. As beautiful as it is high up in Peru, I can’t wait to get back down to sea level and oxygen.

Altitude sickness is a strange one. There is no rule as to who will suffer; you can be young or old, fit or sick. Whilst I continue to have problems, Paddy acclimatised well after a couple of days. We’ve met cyclists coming from Lima towards Bolivia who told us of being sick and suffering bad headaches, whilst others haven’t noticed it at all.

Laura stopping for a rest cycling to Salinas
Laura stopping for a rest cycling to Salinas from the Salar de Uyuni

For me the problems have been shortness of breath and a racing heart that goes into overdrive in the middle of the night, leaving me reading my book under the covers from 2am until the alarm goes off. Sleep-deprived cycling is never much fun and after several nights of disturbed sleep we have often ended up finding a hotel mid-afternoon so that I can crash.

On the bike, steep uphills and headwinds have left me crouched on the roadside gasping for breath, as if having an asthma attack. Fortunately the route from the Salar de Uyuni to La Paz and then onto Peru, was pretty flat, but the daily north winds literally took the breath, and the little oxygen, out of my mouth.

In La Paz, at 3650m high the world’s highest capital city, I was dizzy and tired and found myself sitting down on the floor in shops to stop passing out. So we decided not to chance the 400m climb out of the city. I can’t say we were too disappointed to miss cycling through the crazy traffic and smog.

Paddy in El Alto, overlooking La Paz
Paddy in El Alto, overlooking La Paz

We headed up to the bustling El Alto, overlooking La Paz, with the two bikes loaded into the back of an estate taxi and with me sat on Paddy’s knee in the front. With my head stuck sideways to the windscreen, I had an unusual view of the city as we drove out.

Back on the road and heading towards Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake, we battled into the wind, whilst watching cyclists heading the other way being merrily blown uphill. But, on reaching the lake, sparkling blue, we realised our hard work had been worth it.

We spent a fantastic few days cycling along the water’s edge taking in the stunning scenery. After crossing the Tiquina Straights on a rickety wooden raft, one end of which plunged into the water and the other which stood well clear, we climbed up to the top of the Copacabana peninsula which gave dramatic views of the lake from all angles.

Crossing the Tiquina Straights to Copacabana
Crossing the Tiquina Straights to Copacabana

It was a perfect cycling road, and after a tough, panting climb up to 4300m, our highest point so far, we were rewarded with a fast 13km descent down to the beautiful town of Copacabana. By some chance of coincidence we arrived in the town five months to the day we left its namesake in Rio de Janeiro at the start of our trip.

Our bodies, accustomed to cycling rather than walking, found the trek to our third floor room exhausting, and we didn’t fare much better on the hike up the Inka steps on the Isla de Sol we visited on the middle of the lake. Perhaps we should have copied other travellers we met who had taken anti-altitude sickness pills before arriving, but it seems a bit late for that now.

Paddy at the top of the Abra la Raya pass
Paddy at the top of the Abra la Raya pass

Here in Cusco, Peru we have dropped down to 3400m, high for people just arriving at altitude, but welcome for us. From here we head to the Nazca Lines on the coast. The excitement of seeing these ancient, mystic lines is equalled by the fact that we will be back down at sea level. We have a few more high passes to climb before then, but we are looking forward to gulping in luxurious, oxygenated air.

I’m not sure we could have done much more to counter the problems of the altitude, other than taking the pills, which may or may not have worked. Taking time off to acclimatise helped; the odd asprin when feeling particularly breathless has been good; as was the local coca tea. We’ve stayed clear of alcohol and taken breaks whenever our body has demanded it. Yet, I have continued to struggle regardless.

The lesson for us, I suppose, is that you can’t beat the altitude. Instead it needs to be respected and adhered too when cycling along.

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