The stunning city of Cusco (Peru) is located at quite a high altitude, 11,200 ft. (3,400 m) above sea level, to be exact. Destinations significantly above sea level expose travellers to cold, low humidity, increased UV radiation, and decreased air pressure, all of which can cause problems. This whole ‘package’ is called: altitude sickness. When travelling in Peru, many people ask us what they can do to combat altitude sickness. Here is our answer: Quick Steps to Combat Altitude Sickness While Traveling in Peru.
There are many tourist destinations in Peru with a high altitude. Not only Cusco; other popular places in Peru include the city of Puno on the shore of Lake Titicaca (12,556 ft; 3,830 m), and Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca (peaks >18,040 ft.; 5,500 m).
The most frequently asked questions to our Peru trip counsellors – when people contact us while preparing a trip to Peru – are:.
“How will the altitude affect my body?”
“Will I have problems with the altitude in Cusco?”
“Do I need to acclimatize before coming to Cusco? How long?
“Will I be able to hike the Inca Trail or the Salkantay Trek”?
“How can I prepare for the altitude?”
To alleviate some concern about the altitude and altitude sickness in Peru and how to best prepare for your trip to Peru, we will answer most of your questions and give you tips.
Quick Steps to Combat Altitude Sickness While Traveling in Peru
What is altitude sickness?
The low oxygen levels found at high altitudes can cause problems for travellers going to destinations higher than 8,000 feet (2,438.4 meters) above sea level. The signs of altitude sickness, or ‘soroche’ as it is called in Spanish, are similar to those of a hangover:
- Shortness of breath
- Headache (2-12 hours after arrival)
- Lack of appetite
- Restless sleep
- Frequent awakening
- Irregular respiratory patterns (alternating between deep and shallow breathing)
- Children who cannot talk yet may seem fussy.
Generally speaking, the process of acclimatization to high elevations takes 3–5 days. Not all travellers in Peru have this much time to ‘wait’ before they explore their new destination, of course. But you should know that this is the ‘official’ time for your budget to adjust.
Especially if you prepare for trekking in Peru, like the Inca Trail or the Salkantay trek, we recommend you plan accordingly. It is best to arrive in Cusco a few days before the starting date of your tour to Machu Picchu.
Should I talk to a doctor before travelling to a high altitude?
People with pre-existing conditions should talk with a doctor before traveling to high altitudes:
- People with heart or lung disease.
- People with diabetes should be aware that their illness might be difficult to manage at high altitudes.
- Pregnant women can make short trips to high altitudes, but they should talk with their doctor because they may be recommended not to sleep at altitudes above 12,000 feet.
- People with obesity
If you are a healthy person with no or not too much overweight, you should be fine, and the process of adjusting to the altitude should come naturally. If you give your body some rest and time, you’ll feel fine and will be able to live an active live (doing tours, being up and busy all day, do a trek to Machu Picchu, etc)..
What medication can help with altitude sickness?
Mild altitude sickness can be treated with painkillers for a headache. However, it is recommended that people with (severe) altitude sickness do not continue nor go up in altitude. They should first get used to the altitude they are at.
A person whose symptoms are getting worse while resting at the same altitude must go to a lower altitude or risk a more serious illness. Medicines are available to shorten the time it takes to get used to the high altitude.
How can I help prevent or alleviate altitude sickness?
If you plan to travel to a high altitude and sleep there, you can feel ‘weird’ or even get a bit sick if you don’t ascend gradually. This means that if you come to Cusco by plane, you should consider taking time for rest and taking it easy.
Quick Steps to Combat Altitude Sickness While Traveling in Peru
- No alcohol for the first 48 hours; continue caffeine if a regular user.
- Drink loads of water instead (water or (coca) tea)
- Only mild exercise (this includes walking, especially when it’s uphill) for the first 48 hours.
- Have light meals (preferably no meals after 7 pm)
- Avoid going directly from a low elevation to more than 9,000 ft. (2,750 m) sleeping elevation in 1 day.
- Consider using altitude medications to speed up acclimatization if a quick ascent is unavoidable.
- Being exposed to a high altitude (greater than 9,000 ft (2,750 m) for 2 nights or more, within 30 days before the trip, is helpful, but closer to the trip departure is better.
- As an alternative, consider taking a day trip to a higher altitude and then returning to a lower altitude to sleep.
N. b. Once above 9,000 ft. (2,750 m), move sleeping elevation no higher than 1,600 ft. (500 m) per day, and plan an extra day for acclimatization every 3,300 ft. (1,000 m).
This all being said, it’s also worth saying that most travellers are absolutey fine and do not experience any more discomfort than tiredness and, maybe, a headache.
| If you worry about adjusting to the altitude during your trip to Peru, we propose an alternative itinerary for those exploring the Cusco area.|
Instead of staying in Cusco, new arrivals may find it helpful to transit directly from Cusco to the Valle Sagrado of the Rio Urubamba to spend the first few days and nights at a lower elevation.
The Sacred Valley begins at about 15 miles (24 km) northeast of Cusco in the town of Pisac (9,751 ft; 2,972 m), known for its colourful Sunday markets, continuing downstream toward the northwest for another 37 miles (60 km) to reach the town of Ollantaytambo (9,160 ft; 2,792 m).
You can board the train to Machu Picchu in Ollantaytambo and visit Cusco on Machu Picchu’s return. The rails follows the Rio Urubamba north and northwest (downstream) to Aguas Calientes (6,693 ft; 2,040 m). Machu Picchu (7,972 ft; 2,430 m) is located on a ridge above the town.
Traditional Peruvian Medicine for Altitude Sickness & Coca Leaves
People from the Andes refer to altitude sickness as soroche and may offer new arrivals a cup of hot coca tea (mate de coca) or coca leaves to suck on.
Although traditional medicine in the Andes Mountains encourages the use of mate de coca to prevent and treat soroche, there is no strong data to support its use in the prevention of altitude sickness. But, Peruvian people stand by using coca leaves, and you can see many locals drinking the tea or with bags full of coca leaves to suck on when heading to a higher altitude. Even if coca leaves may not help you greatly with altitude sickness, it still may be an exciting experience to try them!
N.b People who drink a single cup of coca tea will test positive for cocaine metabolites in standard drug toxicology screens for several days. This may be a potential concern to anyone subject to random drug screens at work.
We recommend not taking coca leaves before bed as you may not be able to sleep due to the leaf’s stimulatory effects. However, coca leaves do not have caffeine.
If you would like to drink a local herb that helps with the altitude before bed, try muña tea!