Trips to Peru are not complete without awe-inspiring visits to the incredible city of Cusco and the surrounding Incan sites. The city of Cusco sits at an incredible 11,152 feet above sea level and serves as a gateway to the 15th-century Inca citadel of Machu Picchu. One of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu sits on a scenic mountain ridge at a lower elevation than Cusco at just about 8,000 feet above sea level. While, the less visited site of Incahuasi sits at an astounding 13,060 feet above sea level. Cusco receives approximately two-million visitors per year looking to hike the world-famous Inca Trail or ride a train to Machu Picchu or to explore the other surrounding historic monuments and cities.
While visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Cusco and Machu Picchu are both life-changing excursions, the elevation can lead to altitude sickness. Unfortunately, altitude sickness cannot be accurately predicted, and some individuals suffer no ill effects at all. Even age and physical fitness don’t play much of a role in determining whether or not altitude sickness will set in. However, those with lung problems and heart issues are at a notably higher risk. Luckily, while altitude sickness cannot be precisely predicted beforehand, there are no shortage of treatment options once symptoms appear. Plus, many of the symptoms are mild and will subside on their own in a day or two. Read on to learn about the most common symptoms and how to avoid altitude sickness in Peru.
What Is Altitude Sickness?
Altitude sickness, known as “soroche” in Peru, is caused by the comparatively low amounts of oxygen present at high altitudes. The air at high elevations is “thinner”, so each breath taken contains less oxygen. This leads to more rapid breathing, which means the body also has to pump blood faster. Dehydration due to the quicker rate of water-vapor evaporation from the lungs also contributes. Understandably, these changes can come as a shock to the unprepared body. The symptoms of altitude sickness present themselves differently in each person negatively affected by the elevation. Altitude sickness can feel like a simple hangover or the full-fledged flu. It can also lead to life-threatening complications.
Mild symptoms of altitude sickness can appear at just 5,000 feet above sea level, while more severe symptoms usually show up at elevations above 8,000 feet above sea level. Symptoms generally show about five to 10 hours after arriving and subside after a few days. The most common symptoms of altitude sickness include dizziness, headache, fatigue, upset stomach, and trouble sleeping. Physical exertion tends to worsen the symptoms. Unfortunately, in rare cases, altitude sickness can also lead to pulmonary and cerebral edema. Edema — or fluid accumulation in the body — usually sets in after rapid ascension and should be addressed immediately. Descending to a lower elevation with help or by a sufferer’s own accord is the most reliable treatment option. While these more severe symptoms can occur, they are decidedly uncommon. Descending is really the only actual “cure”, but there are numerous ways to help prevent the onset of altitude sickness or to alleviate its more common symptoms. Remember, if you are unsure about the severity of your symptoms, play it safe and consult a doctor.
How to Avoid Altitude Sickness in Peru
Talk to a Doctor Before Departure
If you are nervous about altitude sickness, talk to your doctor before leaving. Diamox tablets (generic name of acetazolamide) are known to help with some symptoms of altitude sickness. The medication can help with headaches, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, and nausea. However, as with many drugs, side effects are possible, so it’s best to discuss your best options and possible dose with your physician. If push comes to shove, pharmacies and health clinics in Cusco do offer acetazolamide.
To make your trip less stressful plan to spend at least one day (maybe two for some people) relaxing and getting used to the altitude. When booking your vacation to Cusco take the first day to simply relax and get to know the city. This is the perfect time to try some new food, slowly wander some of the Cusco streets and relax in your hotel room. Allowing yourself a full day to rest will help ensure you don’t miss anything should you get sick from the altitude change.
Drink Coca Tea
Coca tea and other coca products are found everywhere in Cusco. Coca tea is completely safe to drink, and coca leaves have been used as a “soroche” cure for thousands of years. Coca is a mild stimulant that helps with fatigue, pain, hunger, and other ailments. However, it lacks the euphoria and other psychoactive effects of the drug many associate with coca — cocaine. Many hotel lobbies even offer the tea readily.
Buy an Oxishot
An Oxishot is a dischargeable can filled with concentrated oxygen. It can easily be carried around with you throughout the day and taken any time you feel lightheaded or just need an extra boost of oxygen. Oxishots are found all over Machu Picchu and Cusco. They are reasonably priced and one of the easiest ways to increase your oxygen level on the go.
Stay in a Nice Hotel
While this isn’t a plausible option for all travelers, many four- and five-star hotels in Cusco offer oxygen machines. If altitude sickness is something you suffer from, acclimating to the elevation in a luxury hotel for a day or two might be worth the extra money. Of course, hospitals also have oxygen machines, but let’s face it, a hotel is a much better environment for relaxing and recovering from adverse symptoms.
Physical exertion exacerbates symptoms of altitude sickness, so let your body get accustomed to the changes for the first few days of your trip. Avoid hiking and other strenuous activities during this time period. Luckily, there is plenty to see and do in Cusco that does not involve heavy exercise. Slowly meander through the city center and admire the pre-Columbian and colonial buildings. Next, visit the Barrio de San Blas. One of the most picturesque parts of the city, this neighborhood features narrow streets, a 16th-century church, and numerous artisan shops.
Drink Water and Avoid Alcohol
Dehydration is known to happen more rapidly at high elevations, so drink plenty of water. Similarly, the effects of alcohol are enhanced at high altitudes, so try to avoid drinking alcoholic beverages for a few days. Alcohol is also known to lead to dehydration, and a hangover on top of altitude sickness is less than ideal.
A vacation to Peru is an epic adventure, and many travelers will be visiting Cusco at some point during their vacation. Don’t let the threat of altitude sickness deter you from this remarkable destination! There are plenty of simple ways to avoid altitude sickness in Peru, and most people will suffering from any symptoms will recover quickly in a day or two with rest and relaxation.
Find the perfect places to visit in Peru with our Insider Guide to Peru here.