What is altitude sickness?

Andes Mountains, Sacred Valley, Peru

Let’s start by looking at what high altitude means. High altitude starts to have an effect on our bodies from between 1,500m – 2,000m (4921ft – 6561ft) when our bodies start to react differently to make up for the changes in oxygen levels.

So, as you go higher the air pressure gets lower (the air gets ‘thinner’) so that for every breath there will be less oxygen for your body. Your body gradually adapts to getting less oxygen – you breathe faster and deeper and the body produces more red blood cells. This takes time so this is why if you go from low to high alitude too quickly, you may feel symptoms of altitude sickness until your body acclimatises.

Cusco is located at an altitude of 3,400 metres (11,200ft) and it is common for many visitors to experience some mild symptoms of altitude sickness or ‘soroche’ as it is known locally. It’s hard to tell if you will be affected by altitude sickness as some people can be more susceptible than others regardless of age, sex or physical condition.

How might altitude sickness affect my trip?

Mild altitude sickness should not interfere too much with your normal activity. Symptoms are usually felt within 12 – 24 hours of arrival and tend to subside within 3 days.  If you continue to feel unwell ask your hotel to call you a doctor as more severe reactions may require medical attention. Many hotels provide coca tea or ‘mate de coca’ to guests and they also have oxygen available to help you acclimatise.

Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

Common mild symptoms of altitude sickness may include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Poor appetite
  • Dizziness
  • Disturbed sleep

Climbing the stairs to your hotel room can sometimes feel like the last mile in a marathon in the first few days of your trip!

Ten Tips to avoid altitude sickness in Cusco:

  1. Relax and take it easy!. Take a few days at the start of your trip to acclimatise to the altitude before attempting any treks or strenuous activity. This is the easiest advice we can share, take it easy for the first few days and your body will thank you later…
  2. Avoid alcohol & drugs.  This includes sleeping tablets and tranquilisers as these can all make symptoms worse. Trust us, we’ve been there! Even one Pisco Sour cocktail could tip you over the edge to a raging headache and nausea which is quite unpleasant.
  3. Drink lots of water. Staying hydrated prior to and throughout your trip is crucial to avoiding unpleasant altitude sickness symtpoms.
  4. Go lower and acclimatise. Head straight to the lower altitude of the Sacred Valley or Machu Picchu. Believe it or not, Cusco is at an altitude of 3400m (11,154ft) so heading to Pisac or Urubamba at 2,900m (9,514ft) or Machu Picchu at 2,400m (7,874ft) can make a huge difference. After a few days you can then make your way back up to Cusco and will feel a lot better. (The general rule of thumb is “walk high, sleep low” so if you are at over 3,000m (9,842ft) sleep at no more than 300m (984ft) higher at the end of each day.)
  5. Drink coca tea. Nearly every hotel in Cusco and the Sacred Valley offers fresh coca tea to guests and for a good reason too! Coca tea is completely safe to drink and a cup or two each day can ease altitude symptoms. Just remember coca is a mild stimulant so don’t go over the top and drink cup loads. 2 -3 cups for the first few days will be just fine.
  6. Get an Oxishot! Oxishot is a small dischargeable can that contains 8 litres of oxygen that you can take when you arrive in Cusco and anytime you need a boost. It can help reduce headaches and fayigue associated with altitude sickness. They are on sale everywhere in Cusco & Machu Picchu and cost approximately S/.45 (Approx. US$16).
  7. Visit your doctor. If you are still worried before you to travel, head to your doctor and ask for an acetazolamide prescription (also known as brand name Diamox) which can be taken to help avoid altitude sickness symptoms. Some people can experience side effets from this medication including tingling of the hands, feet and face, so check with your doctor before use.

Coca tea, coca leaves and how to beat altitude sickness in PeruAltitude sickness can be a very serious illness so before travelling to Cusco consult your doctor particularly if you have any heart, lung or other severe health problems as not all people can travel to Cusco or the Sacred Valley due to the altitude. However, do bear in mind that almost three million people from all over the world visit Cusco and Machu Picchu each year with only a small percentage suffering from altitude sickness.

Cusco and Machu Picchu are one of the world’s major tourist destinations and as such have good medical facilities available. Many of the five star hotels in Cusco offer 24 hour oxygen pumped into your room and most of the smaller hotels have oxygen cylinders and oxishots available upon request. Medical practitioners and hospitals are well used to treating altitude sickness so if something does go wrong there are medical facilities available.

For more detailed information on altitude sickness visit:

WebMD

Medex

This information is intended as a guide only. Consult your doctor for more information on altitude and altitude sickness in Peru. 

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