We woke at 5:55am on (Good) Friday in order to begin our journey to the town of Putre. It is on the outskirts of Lauca National Park, and we were hoping to take a guided tour. After a few weeks of indolence in cities and the absence of anything remotely resembling the great outdoors, we were ready for some wilderness!
Three hours after our bus left Arica (at sea-level), and more hairpin turns than I could count, we arrived at Putre, which lies in a shallow valley at an elevation of 11,060 ft. Thankfully, we slept most of the way (which seems to help with carsickness), but I awoke in time to see this glorious sight several miles before our destination:
Because Putre was at such high elevation, I worried about soroche, or high altitude sickness. I had been prescribed acetazolamide before we left the States, so I was at least prepared to self-medicate (having a large supply of drugs on hand always gives me a sense of comfort). Our extremely knowledgable (and Kiwi!) hostel owner in Arica told me not to take the medication before we left (which was the way it was prescribed), but to wait and see how we felt once we arrived.
“Why take drugs when you don’t have to?” he said.
Despite my motto having always been, “Why suffer when you can take drugs?”, I decided to heed his advice. After all, he seemed to know what he was talking about. This turned out to be a mistake. I should always trust my gut reaction! After all, an ounce of prevention…
We disembarked in Putre with only slight feelings of light-headedness, but unfortunately for Craig, these quickly devolved into a headache. After obtaining suitable lodging, we inquired at a tour office about the National Park.
The tour included a guide and jeep ride out to some lakes to see wildlife and a soak in some thermal springs, but did not include any provisions or water. The grand total ran to 60 pesos.
That’s $120 US! Holy cow. We were under the impression it would be half that price, but once again we were foiled by the “per person” stipulation (see Torres del Paine entry). After mulling it over, we decided that, having already skipped several costly activities on this trip due to one reason or another, we could afford to splurge. We were already in Putre anyway, we might as well do something!
Tour booked, we headed to a very cheap lunch (but expensive glass of natural mango juice–$4!). The tour lady had told us to have tea made with mate de coca leaves, which would supposedly help with soroche, but unfortunately, Craig’s symptoms quickly devolved to full-on Acute Mountain Sickness, which his First Aid Kit Book describes as similar to an “alcohol hangover”.
Luckily, I was feeling only slightly under-the-weather at that point, and I was able to stroke Craig’s back as he puked up the contents of his stomach, take his pulse and respirations to make sure he wasn’t getting High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, and tuck him in. I felt like I was back at work! Nothing like some good ol’ vomit to make you reminisce about taking care of cancer patients.
We decided to cancel the tour and get a refund, since the National Park would have added another 3,000 ft in elevation gain, which would probably have made us feel even worse. I was able to communicate the situation to the tour agency, and even though I probably made about 10 grammatical errors per sentence, I felt pretty good about at least being able to have the necessary conversation. We got a full refund back, and then there was nothing left to do but wait until the next day, when the only bus back to Arica left at 2:00pm.
The night was cold, but I think we slept as well as can be expected. When we woke, Craig was feeling better, but then it felt as if I had been chugging beers all night (which I wasn’t…). I haven’t felt that sick in a very long time. I began to have a severe headache, muscle aches, and rigorous chills, despite taking lots of ibuprofen and acetazolamide. Our nursing roles reversed, Craig piled blankets on me in the hostel owner’s living room (since we had to check out of our room), and attempted to sing songs at my request. He failed miserably at the last part, but performed the first part well.
The bus finally came to take us away, and by the time we reached Arica, my headache had gone, and I was only feeling extremely tired and achy. Luckily, we had a great hostel to stay at (Sunny Days), and were made to feel comfortable and not as pathetic, since Ross, the owner, had seen many a person come back from Putre cowed by the elevation gain. Still, we felt a little disappointed in ourselves. As Craig put it, “We just paid a bunch of money ($50 US) to feel really terrible for 24 hours.”
Today, we took a walk around town, stopping at the extremely smelly fisherman’s wharf, where loads of sea lions and pelicans frolicked about. The walk was only a little more than 2 miles total, but I felt so very tired afterwards! We’ve decided to stay another couple of nights here to recuperate, before we head off to Arequipa, Peru. At an elevation of 7,660 ft, hopefully it will not destroy us quite as much as Putre did. Gearing up for another country… I’m excited but a little nervous as well! Chile and Argentina have been so great, and Peru, although fairly developed, is not quite at the same level. I’m pretty sick of Chilean food now, though, so perhaps there will be more palatable options across the border (ceviche!). Peru–The Cheap Hat Capital of the World–here we come!