How to Prevent Altitude Sickness in Cusco Peru

Are you looking for insights to conquer altitude sickness and fully enjoy your adventure in Cusco, Peru?

Navigating high altitudes comes with challenges, and I’m here to share personal experiences from extensive travels in Cusco and other elevated destinations, along with practical tips to combat altitude sickness.

In this post, you’ll learn:

  • The specific elevation of Cusco and its impact on your body.
  • What altitude sickness is and its symptoms in Cusco’s unique setting.
  • Differentiating between mild, moderate, and severe symptoms.
  • Effective acclimatization strategies tailored to Cusco’s altitude.
  • Additional tips and remedies, including local practices like coca tea and Agua de Florida.

Rest assured, by the end of this post, you’ll grasp the nuances of altitude sickness in Cusco Peru, empowering you to make the most of your high-altitude exploration.

What is the Elevation in Cusco Peru?

Located in the heart of the Andes Mountains, Cusco, Peru, boasts an impressive elevation of 11,154 feet (3,400 meters) above sea level. This makes it the third-highest major city in the country. To put it in perspective, Cusco’s altitude surpasses many renowned locations, including Arequipa. As you explore this ancient city with a population of approximately 500,000, the thin air at this high altitude becomes noticeable. Understanding the elevation of Cusco is crucial for any traveler, prompting questions about acclimatization and preparation. How does your body adjust to such heights, and what steps can you take to prevent altitude sickness during your visit?

What is Altitude Sickness?

altitude sickness in Cusco Peru

Altitude sickness, a common concern in high-altitude locations like Cusco, stems from reduced oxygen levels at elevated heights. As you ascend, each breath contains less oxygen, requiring increased breathing and heightened heart activity to distribute oxygen efficiently. At 11,154 feet, Cusco sits well above the 8,000 feet threshold where altitude sickness typically becomes a concern. Remarkably, this condition can affect anyone, irrespective of physical fitness or prior high-altitude experience. Even seasoned climbers and elite trail runners may encounter its symptoms.

Interestingly, in Cusco, the allure of sites like the alternative rainbow mountain Palccoyo, towering at 16,076 feet (4900 meters), adds a unique challenge. Travelers arriving by plane, particularly from warmer, lower-altitude regions, may find themselves more susceptible to altitude sickness due to sudden shifts in both altitude and climate. Understanding these factors is key to preparing and preventing altitude sickness during your time in Cusco.

What are the Symptoms of Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness manifests differently for each individual in Cusco’s high-altitude landscape. Contrary to a common myth, it doesn’t discriminate based on fitness levels. Some may acclimate swiftly, while others may experience pronounced symptoms. From headaches and nausea to fatigue, understanding these signs is crucial for personal well-being during your exploration of Cusco. How does your body respond to the thin air, and what can you do to mitigate potential discomfort?

Mild Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

In Cusco’s high-altitude embrace, mild symptoms of altitude sickness may greet you, typically surfacing 12-24 hours after arrival. Fatigue, headaches, nausea, dizziness, disturbed sleep, and shortness of breath are common companions. If you find yourself experiencing these symptoms, don’t be alarmed. Staying at the same altitude for 24-48 hours often allows your body to acclimate, resolving these mild discomforts.

Moderate Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

Moderate altitude sickness reveals itself with intense headaches, unyielding even to medication, severe nausea possibly leading to vomiting, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, and a sense of decreased coordination (ataxia). While those affected can usually still walk, further ascent often exacerbates the condition. Descent becomes the essential remedy, and swift action is crucial to returning to a lower altitude where symptoms dissipate. Once the symptoms subside, a gradual ascent can resume.

Severe Symptoms of Altitude Sickness

Severe altitude sickness presents ominous symptoms: an inability to walk, extreme shortness of breath, cognitive impairment, hallucinations, and potentially life-threatening conditions like HACE (fluid in the brain) and HAPE (fluid in the lungs). Ascent in the face of such severe symptoms is perilous and can be fatal. Swift and immediate descent becomes a life-saving imperative. Understanding these critical signs is crucial for anyone exploring Cusco’s elevated terrain.

Acclimatization in Cusco

How to Prevent Altitude Sickness in Cusco Peru -

Ease into your Peruvian adventure by embracing a leisurely pace in Cusco. After flying in from Lima, resist the urge to rush directly to Machu Picchu or embark on the Inca Trail. Spend a minimum of two days acclimatizing in Cusco, a crucial measure to fend off altitude sickness. The city, at a higher elevation than Machu Picchu, demands patience. Explore Cusco’s rich heritage, from Inca sites to the cathedral and the vibrant plaza square. Indulge in a spa day, relishing affordable pampering.

Consider a side trip to the Sacred Valley, 2,000 feet lower than Cusco, for a gentler acclimatization. Alternatively, a 29-hour bus ride from Lima offers a more gradual ascent, providing a scenic route but challenging for those prone to motion sickness. Whether strolling through Cusco’s enchanting streets or opting for a slower bus journey, allow the altitude adjustment to unfold naturally. By prioritizing acclimatization, your body will be prepared to conquer the heights of Machu Picchu and fully savor the wonders of Peru. How can you make the most of these initial days in Cusco, ensuring a smooth transition to higher altitudes?

10 Additional Tips to Prevent Altitude Sickness in Cusco Peru

Chew Coca Leaves or Drink Coca Tea

Embrace the local remedy for altitude challenges in Cusco—coca leaves. Sipping coca tea, the highland’s favorite, aids acclimatization. Easily prepared by steeping coca leaves in hot water, it proves both accessible and effective. Locals often chew coca leaves, a cultural practice believed to enhance focus. Having personally tested this during our time acclimatizing in Cusco, during the Inca Trail hike and other day hikes around Cusco, we found it beneficial. For a convenient on-the-go option, coca leaves are available in cookies or sweets at tourist shops. Incorporating this tradition into your routine can be a flavorful and practical strategy to combat altitude sickness.

Drink Sufficient Water

Combat altitude sickness in Cusco by staying well-hydrated. The dry air at higher altitudes accelerates dehydration, making it crucial to consume more water than usual. If you’re not urinating multiple times a day, you likely need to increase your fluid intake. Adequate hydration supports your body’s adjustment to the thin air, reducing the risk of altitude-related discomfort. Ensure your water bottle is a constant companion, replenishing fluids and enhancing your overall well-being.

Take Medicine

For altitude sickness prevention in Cusco, consider medication. Acetazolamide, such as Diamox, is effective in preventing and treating high altitude sickness. Local options like Sorojchi pills are available in Peruvian pharmacies. Ibuprofen and paracetamol help alleviate headaches, while Gravol or Promethazine address nausea. Begin taking Diamox or Sorojchi pills 1-2 days before ascending, allowing gradual acclimatization. If symptoms persist despite medication, prioritize rest or descent until improvement. These pills are easily accessible at local pharmacies, and your accommodation staff can assist. Plan ahead, consult your doctor, and familiarize yourself with instructions for a proactive approach to altitude sickness prevention in Cusco.

Eat Low-Fat Dishes

How to Prevent Altitude Sickness in Cusco Peru -

Opt for low-fat dishes in Cusco to aid altitude sickness prevention. Embrace soups, rice, pasta, potatoes, bread, fruits, and chicken for essential energy. A high-carb diet, incorporating lean protein like chicken and healthy fats such as avocado or nuts, supports mood and metabolism, requiring less oxygen. Steer clear of creamy or salty fare to facilitate digestion and prevent rapid dehydration. It’s common to experience reduced appetite at higher altitudes, leading to a potential 40% calorie deficit. Counteract this by consciously consuming sufficient, nutritionally rich meals upon arrival.

Avoid Alcohol

In Cusco’s high-altitude haven, avoiding alcohol is crucial for preventing dehydration and altitude sickness. Before indulging in the famed Pisco Sours, allow your body a day or two to acclimate to the elevated terrain. Pay heed to your body’s signals, and if you’re not feeling optimal, it’s advisable to forgo alcohol consumption.

Buy Oxishot

Consider purchasing Oxishots in Cusco, a portable device filled with up to 8 liters of oxygen. Priced around S/50, it proves valuable for alleviating headaches, fatigue, and breathing difficulties associated with altitude sickness. Obtain Oxishots from pharmacies or local shops to have a convenient solution at hand. Additionally, exploring the Sacred Valley, situated 400-500 meters lower than Cusco, aids acclimatization.

Get Agua de Florida

Explore the local remedy of Agua de Florida in Cusco, a small bottle of yellow cologne crafted from various herbs. Inhaling this renowned elixir is believed to aid altitude-related difficulties, including headaches and breathing issues. Embrace this traditional medicine, widely popular among locals, available at pharmacies, small shops, and markets throughout Cusco. Incorporating Agua de Florida into your altitude sickness prevention toolkit adds a cultural touch to your journey, providing a locally embraced solution to ease the challenges of Cusco’s elevated terrain.

Take Deep Breaths

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In Cusco’s elevated embrace, a simple yet effective strategy to prevent altitude sickness is taking deep breaths. Beyond relaxation, this practice ensures your body receives more oxygen, aiding acclimatization. Amidst the captivating sights, remind yourself to embrace deep, intentional breaths, fostering a calm and oxygen-rich environment within. By incorporating this mindful approach, you empower your body to adapt more smoothly to Cusco’s unique altitude.

Know Your Limits

Embarking on mountain treks in Cusco? First, know your limits. Ensure you’re free from lingering illnesses or medical issues that might hinder your enjoyment. This precaution is vital, given Cusco’s high altitude and the potential challenges it presents. By understanding your physical capabilities and addressing any health concerns beforehand, you set the foundation for a safer and more enjoyable experience in Cusco.

Have Travel Insurance

When navigating the altitude of Cusco, having travel insurance is non-negotiable. Altitude sickness can affect even the healthiest individuals unpredictably, making insurance crucial. In the event of a medical evacuation or the need for definitive care, travel insurance provides essential coverage. Beyond altitude-related concerns, it safeguards against theft, flight cancellations, and various unforeseen circumstances. Explore affordable options from our preferred provider below to ensure a worry-free trip to Cusco.

How to Prevent Altitude Sickness in Cusco Peru -

How to Treat Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness can strike unexpectedly, but understanding how to treat it is crucial. First and foremost, if symptoms like headaches occur during high-altitude activities, stop and remain at the current altitude until feeling better. It’s safe to resume the journey once symptoms alleviate, but proceed slowly. If symptoms worsen, descending is imperative. Patience is key; your body typically acclimatizes within 2-3 days at the same altitude. Conduct a simple test: if you can walk in a straight line heel to toe, you’re acclimatized; if not, immediate descent is necessary.

How Does High Altitude Affect the Body?

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Altitude sickness, known as soroche in Peru, is akin to a severe hangover and typically strikes at elevations above 8,000 feet/2,400 meters. It stems from reduced oxygen levels as air thins with higher altitudes. While the body can adapt, rapid ascents pose risks. Machu Picchu, Peru’s iconic site, sits at 7,972 feet. Symptoms include shortness of breath, headaches, nausea, and fatigue, manifesting 4-36 hours post-arrival. Rest often resolves mild symptoms within 6-48 hours, but persistent signs demand descent and medical attention. Altitude sickness doesn’t discriminate; anyone can be affected. Yet, individuals with specific medical conditions, such as heart or lung issues, diabetes, and pregnancy, face higher risks and should consult a doctor before high-altitude travel.

High Altitude Training for Cusco Peru

Professional athletes often engage in high-altitude training for a competitive edge. Training at high altitudes induces changes in red blood cells, enhancing the body’s ability to manage lower oxygen levels. This physiological adaptation becomes an advantage when athletes subsequently compete at lower elevations, utilizing their heightened endurance and oxygen efficiency to outperform rivals. The principles of high-altitude training are not exclusive to athletes; individuals planning to explore elevated regions like Cusco, Peru, can benefit from similar training to better adapt to the unique challenges presented by high altitudes and make the most of their experience.

Cusco Peru Altitude Sickness FAQ’s

What Do Peruvians Take for Altitude Sickness?

Peruvians often take preventive measures for altitude sickness, using Diamox or Sorojchi pills 1-2 days before ascending to higher altitudes. The key is gradual acclimatization to avoid rushing and ensure a safer and more enjoyable experience in elevated areas like Cusco.

Is Altitude Sickness Bad in Cusco?

Altitude sickness in Cusco can be serious. Consult your doctor, especially if you have heart, lung, or severe health issues, as not everyone can safely travel to Cusco or the Sacred Valley due to the high altitude. It’s crucial to prioritize your health before embarking on this adventure.

How Common Is Altitude Sickness in Cusco?

Altitude sickness is reported in approximately 50% of visitors to Cusco, giving you a 50/50 chance of experiencing it during your trip. Being aware of this prevalence underscores the importance of taking preventive measures and acclimatizing gradually to ensure a smoother journey in this high-altitude destination.

How Long Does It Take to Acclimate in Cusco Altitude?

For effective altitude acclimatization in Cusco, spending a minimum of 2 or 3 days is advisable before embarking on a trek. Embracing this period not only enhances your physical well-being but also provides a perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in the enchanting atmosphere of Cusco and the Sacred Valley.

How Bad is the Altitude in Machu Picchu?

Machu Picchu sits at an altitude of 7,972 feet (2,430 meters) above sea level, with the towering Huayna Picchu reaching 2,720 meters. Regardless of your fitness level, altitude sickness symptoms can manifest at this elevation, underscoring the importance of acclimatization and mindful preparation for a fulfilling visit.

Is It Hard to Breathe at Machu Picchu?

Machu Picchu’s altitude, at 7,972 feet (2,430 meters), can lead some to feel a bit more breathless than usual. While individuals acclimated to higher altitudes typically fare well, those less accustomed might experience mild difficulty breathing. Overall, being reasonably fit and acclimatized enhances the experience at Machu Picchu.

How Do You Avoid Altitude Sickness in Machu Picchu?

To avoid altitude sickness at Machu Picchu, ease into your journey, steer clear of alcohol, and stay well-hydrated by consuming at least half a liter of water per hiking hour. Prioritize your well-being over tempting libations to ensure an enjoyable trek.

How Long Does It Take to Acclimate in Machu Picchu?

For proper acclimatization to Machu Picchu’s altitude, spend 2 to 3 days adjusting before embarking on a trek. Utilize this time wisely in the captivating settings of Cusco and the Sacred Valley.

Can a Beginner Hike Machu Picchu?

Beginners can hike Machu Picchu, but be prepared for a challenging ascent, as the trail lacks flat sections—either uphill or downhill. While prior hiking experience isn’t mandatory, physical fitness is essential for an enjoyable journey.

What Can I Drink in Peru for Altitude Sickness?

In Peru, to combat mild altitude sickness, locals traditionally chew or brew tea with coca leaves. This remedy, prevalent among Andes workers in places like Cusco, aids in alleviating symptoms associated with high altitudes.

Final Thoughts on Altitude Sickness in Cusco Peru

So, there you have it – a comprehensive guide to navigate and conquer altitude sickness in Cusco, Peru. I trust this information equips you with the tools to fully savor your time in this high-altitude haven.

If you’re still pondering whether Cusco is worth a visit, let me assure you, it absolutely is. The rich tapestry of Incan history, the captivating blend of tradition and modernity, and the breathtaking landscapes make Cusco a must-visit destination.

So, embrace the altitude, and let the magic of this Peruvian gem captivate you. Safe travels, and may your time in Cusco be nothing short of extraordinary! Feel free to share your thoughts or questions in the comments below – I’d love to hear about your adventures in this high-altitude marvel.


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