CUENCA, Ecuador — By the time we had walked the half block to the corner from our building gate and up the slight grade of the next block, I could already feel my lungs calling for oxygen.
“I can feel it already,” I called back to my wife, Char, as we tread single file along the narrow, uneven, chipped-paver sidewalk of Hermano Miguel. “The altitude. I can feel it already.”
“So can I,” Char called back.
We were headed for La Escalinata, a wide stone staircase whose 88 steps lead over the bluff on which we were walking down to the rushing Tomebamba River. The Tomebamba separates Cuenca’s historic center, El Centro, from the newer parts of the city to the south, and we had to cross it to get to our destination, the Supermaxi supermarket.
In Minnesota, we live at 900 feet above sea level, so the jump to an Andean location of 8,400 feet is noticeable. From what I read, it takes a couple of weeks or so for a low-lander like me to acclimate to a high altitude such as Cuenca. That’s about how long it takes for a body’s physiological changes to kick in–like readjusting blood pressure and creating more red blood cells to capture more oxygen. But there is a benefit to living high (I just had to say it that way): when a person returns to low country again, blood pressure is likely to be a bit lower after living closer to the sky for a while.
In the meantime, I’ll have to huff and puff my way through this period of acclimation. Every time I climb the 88 steps of La Escalinata with my tote bag of groceries in hand, I try my best to focus on how I’m improving my cardiovascular reserve and lowering my blood pressure, and try not to wonder, as my heart is thumping in my chest, whether this is the day I’m going to die.
As I plant my trekking pole on the top step of La Escalinata and pull myself up to the sidewalk along Calle Large, which is one of Cuenca’s main drags running along the bluff above the river, I proclaim triumphantly between gasps for air, “Made it again!” And then, to mask from passersby that I am trying desperately to catch my breath, I plant the rubber tip of my trekking pole firmly on the ground with both hands atop the grip, and survey the street, traffic, and intersection as if I were Sir Edmund Hillary standing atop Mount Everest, taking the most satisfaction possible at my accomplishment.
The great benefit of living in Cuenca is that, in El Centro (the center city), nearly everything a person needs, or wishes to see, is within walking distance–most places within a 15-minute walk or less, and certainly within a 30-minute walk. I am always chuffed to see the number of steps recorded on my Fitbit. The proximity of restaurants, grocery stores, shops, theaters, museums and other civic activities makes Cuenca convenient to living an active lifestyle, which is a plus for me.
So for the first week of our sojourn in Cuenca, we have probably trudged up La Escalinata seven or eight times. Truthfully, it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier, but it certainly must be a major factor in acclimating to the high altitudes. We are now beginning to walk all around the city again. Char and I have signed up for private Spanish tutoring classes (more on that later), and the walk to our tutor’s house is about 30 minutes, most of it along the scenic walk next to Rio Tomebamba. In a couple of weeks, we should be doing just fine up here in the Andes.