Acclimating in the Andes

I have always had a problem with attitude. On one solo trip, I went from sea level to 11,000 feet without realizing It, and paid for it dearly with a blinding headache for three days. The only cure was to get to a lower elevation every day.

This experience obviously put a damper on high elevation international travel, especially with a group where I knew that I would never be able to keep up unless I had acclimated. So this became a travel project for me, and one I can happily say that I have now conquered.

I became interested in the Overseas Adventure Travel trip Colombia: Coffee Triangle and Colonial Jewels. Without air, the price for the 12 day departure on April 11, 2018 was $2695, minus any frequent traveler credits I had accrued. The only problem that I could see, was that they spent several days at elevations over 9,000 feet. However, I had a plan which turned into a grand South American experiment.

I had never been to Quito, Ecuador because of the 9,360 altitude, but it had always intrigued me. However, there are a number of small towns by the new airport, and they are in an elevation I knew I could easily handle. The one that seemed to work the best in terms of accommodations and which was recommended on Trip Advisor when I posted the question was Cumbaya (pronounced like the campfire song, and 7,218 feet). My plan was to spend at least a week in Cumbaya seeing the Andes at various elevations but always returning to the more comfortable elevation of Cumbaya. Then I would get to Quito itself for a while before flying to Bogota where I would also spend some extra time before the OAT tour began.

I was also never aware of medication for altitude headaches. One of my doctors is also a headache specialist. He recommended dexamethasone for me, to take only as needed. I took it several times  at home when I had just a regular headache and didn’t have any side effects, so I was good to go.

I departed Los Angeles for Quito on March 22, and was traveling until April 25th. The ticket was an open jaw, returning from Cartegena, for which I paid $565.

Upon arrival in Quito, with the new airport at 9,213 feet, I could barely get my luggage through immigration due to the immediate effects of the altitude. I was so thirsty, I demolished a bottle  of water waiting for the car to come. I had booked 9 nights in Cumbaya in the lovely Casa Magnolia, a huge 10-bedroom house owned by a German women (Praga S2-127 y Av. Oswaldo Guayasamin, 170902 Cumbayá, Ecuador). For $408 for those nine nights, breakfast was also included, a grand European affair. Hummingbirds and ducks were also in the backyard, making this the perfect place to rest and acclimate before taking on the Andes and Quito.  My hostess Carola also provided coca leaf tea for me the first few days at breakfast. Between taking it slowly, drinking the tea, and having private guides who understood my need for gradual acclimation, I only needed to take three of the dexamethasone pills.

I hired a husband and wife team with their own company, Let’s Go to Ecuador (https://www.letsgotoecuador.com). As it turned out, they too lived in Cumbaya, making morning pickups for us all a breeze. And as is Ecuadorian custom, when they came to pick me up for the following five mornings, Carola served them coffee, chatted with them, and hugged them hello and good bye.

The prices for the private tours they gave me in the Andes averaged out to $100 a day, paid in cash at the end of every day. They took me to the Mindo Cloud Forest, the Otavalo Market, the village of Cotacachi, Papallacta Hot Springs and Sacha Rose Plantation, Quilota Lake, Saquisili market, Cotopaxi National Park,  and of course the two sites on the Equator that really were at zero latitude, and two sites that were just off the mark, but which still had Equator Monuments.  The variations in altitude were anywhere form 4,000 feet (Mindao) to 13,000 ((Quilotoa Lake). The total for these five days was $500.

My guides Jamie and Angela had an altimeter app that they used to inform me of our altitude along the way. I finally downloaded one myself, but it became unnecessary after a while. I easily made it to10,000 feet without even noticing, and we took hikes at elevations that exceeded 12,000 feet. I was gasping for air at times, but I was thrilled. My grand plan was working.

On what turned out to be Good Friday morning, I left Cumbaya for Quito proper, where I had six nights booked in a converted convent right off San Francisco square for $634, the Hotel Boutique Portal de Cantuna (Bolivar Oe 6-105 | Centro Historico, Quito 170150, Ecuador). I was appreciating the more authentic hotels I was staying in, even though this one needed to have a lot of work done to it. But for a traveler who can look past that, the location in the historic center of Quito couldn’t be beat. The Good Friday procession started and ended right in front of my hotel. Angela knew the owner, so she called and arranged for them to send a car for me early in the morning, since many of the streets were being blocked off for the procession.

I was able to enjoy both the historic and modern parts of Quito but did notice that on upward inclines on the streets I was huffing and puffing for air. And in spite of the rainy season and Holy Week, I was able to visit with friends there, see the sites, and round out my time in the Andes in one of its most illustrious cities. My curiosity in Quito all those years was not ill founded. The city has a lot to offer, and one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the Americas.

Colombia was of course the main event, even though my time in Ecuador was great and got me acclimated.

Airfare from Quito to Bogota was a stunning $400 for the short flight, but arrival at 8,661 feet was a breeze. I stayed for six nights in the historic Candelaria district at another boutique hotel which I highly recommend, the Hotel Muisca (http://www.hotelmuisca.com/en/). Newly renovated and with indigenous art everywhere, I paid only $313 for the six nights. For a few extra dollars a night, a traditional Colombian breakfast was Included.

The Hotel Muisca was a ” travel accident,” those grand and glorious events which add to the trip and  cultural understanding, all by accident. First, my friends in Quito who looked it up and know Bogota, told me that it was on the same street as the OAT meeting hotel for the first day of the OAT tour. More importantly for me however, was the fact that the Muisca are the indigenous tribe of Colombia, made famous by their discovery of the gold that legend says lined the streets of El Dorado. 

I took four tours in Bogota that were not part of the OAT tour, and all made easier by my acclimation. First, I went to Villa de Levya (only 7,051 feet). I highly recommend this day tour not just for the town and it’s architecture, but the convent, the terra cotta house, the former ceremonial  site of the Muisca people, and the hike i got to take around three beautiful lakes.

I also went to the salt mines in Nemocon one day, and took a walking tour the next of the grafitti that the city is so well known for. The OAT tour went to the famous salt cathedral in an opposite direction once the highway reached a fork in the road. I felt that being able to see both of these helped me to better appreciate how the Colombian people lived.

The last of my independent touring was to Guatavita, the lake where the Muisca people found the gold which I later saw in the Bogota Gold Museum when the OAT tour started. That hike started out at 8,000 feet range  but we had to climb 150 stairs so we could see the lake, which is  at 9,843. That one had me huffing and puffing more than I expected considering some of the other hiking I had done at higher altitudes in Ecuador. Getting to the top at nearly 10.000 feet walking on steep steps was more strenuous then I expected, but everyone in our small group cheered when I made It.

I booked these tours on Viator.com with the exception of the Nemecon salt mines tour, which the hotel arranged for me at a better price ($80). The total price for these extra tours which were a wonderful enhancement to the OAT tour, was about $400.

By the time I joined the OAT tour, I had expected to take the gondola to the top of the hill for a view of Bogota on the first day, which was 10,000 feet. As it turned out, that had been eliminated because it was too difficult an elevation gain the first day for many people. Our gondola rides instead were in the fascinating city of Medellin (4,905 feet)..The coffee region was up and down in terms of elevation, as the group’ took a hike in the Cocora Valley, at about 8,000 feet, but other areas were much lower. I took it easier on that hike since I had been huffing and puffing for about a month by that time in South America.

We ended the tour at sea level in Cartegena, where I stayed an extra two nights at the Hilton using points in the very Miami like new part of the city. But where the group stayed inside the Old City gave me the authentic vibe of the city filled with history, music culture, and glory of days gone by. Our group got a highlight of this when we were taken to our farewell dinner in horse drawn carriages and a night time tour of Cartegena along the way.

I am once again ready for another high altitude trip next year now that I know what to do to acclimate. I am booked on the OAT Southern Peru and Bolivia trip, and I will go to Macchu Picchu on my own after. The only thing I plan to do differently is to get in better hiking shape to enhance my endurance on high altitude hikes. Some people can fly right into high elevations. It took me some while to figure this one out, but as Robert Frost wrote, “I took the road less traveled on, and that has made all the difference.”

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