Machu Picchu in Three Words: “I Can’t Breathe”

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Written by Dr. 99 back on April 11, 2015 while visiting Machu Picchu, Peru.

No less than a few hours ago, I visited the absolutely breathtaking ruins at Machu Picchu, perched a mere 8,000 feet above sea level. As I passed through the ruins and gazed upon the mysterious rolling clouds and the luscious green terraces as sunlight magically illuminated this incredible wonder of the world, only one thought crossed my mind:

Help me, I can’t breathe.

I don’t know about you folks out there, but I… love… oxygen. Hold on… phew… let me … gather (tripod)… pheeeeewwwwwww... myself here. Oxygen, it’s really good stuff. Have you tried it? I highly recommend it.

I was one of many purse-lipped tourists from all over the world visiting Machu Picchu. As we stood there, we couldn’t help but be amazed by our hypoxemia. As I worked my way through a maze of staircases to visit The Temple of the Sun and Intihuatana, I thought about how much I missed oxygen; how it helped my red blood cells stay nice, red, and plump; and how it helped my organs stay functional. I like it when my organs are functional. They make me feel alive.

Machu Picchu translated means “oxygen deprivation.”

If there’s one thing I like more than sleeping, it would be breathing every few seconds. Machu Picchu made me realize how spoiled I was with 21% oxygen at sea level. How I yearned for the true luxuries in life: nasal cannulas, face masks, and non-rebreathers. Did you know they sell ponchos in Aguas Calientes, the town adjacent to Machu Picchu, but not oxygen? What gives? Not a single respiratory therapist or street pulmonologist in sight! This made me very sad.

Before going to Machu Picchu, most people stay in Cusco or the Sacred Valley to acclimatize. These sites sit at 11,150 and 9,160 feet above sea level, respectively; much higher than Machu Picchu. It was like breathing through an occluded straw. I wept. And when I didn’t weep, I cried. I drank bottled water to offset the dehydration from my tears. Ever drink water with a straw while breathing through a straw? No? Well, let me tell you: it’s tough.

There are many theories about why Machu Picchu was built. I have my own theory. Machu Picchu in its finished form was a hospital, complete with an atrocious cafeteria, administrators, medical records, and a billing department. Nurses kept it all running, while interns and residents subsisted on a diet of sleep deprivation and fear. Machu Picchu was the Incan cardiologist’s stress test: climb 8,000 feet with a giant boulder on your back. Then, the patient was counseled on the importance of a low guinea pig diet and taking an aspirin a day. Machu Picchu was abandoned when it failed a Joint Commission inspection. To this very day, archaeologists are still searching for ancient patient satisfaction surveys.

If you haven’t visited Machu Picchu, please go visit. And when you do, take a breath. And then another deep breath. Actually breathe a lot, use an inhaler if needed, and go really, really slowly. I’m talking med student pace. Pack a portable oxygen tank and don’t check troponins. Confirm code status and enjoy the breathtaking view. Literally.

I want to sincerely thank a great friend of mine who stuck with me during my amazing journey through the beautiful country of Peru: his name is acetazolamide.

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