Getting High in the Land of the Incas: How to Avoid Altitude Sickness in Peru
It's on the bucket list of outdoor enthusiasts for good reason. You can find just about any activity there for outdoor lovers - from sand boarding in arid deserts, hiking the famous Inca trail, or climbing Machu Picchu. You can explore the islands of Lake Titicaca, discover the many walkable Colonial cities, or trek the Colca Canyon.
Or you can laze your day away in a hammock on some of the best beaches in South America (everyone needs a break now and then). But wherever you go, you'll be traveling in high elevations you may not be used to. And you may not exactly feel yourself from the lack of oxygen.
Altitude Sickness in Peru
The one thing that all of these places in Peru have in common is high altitude - typically much higher than you'll find in the rest of the world. Peru claims some of the highest elevations in South America with some of the most breathtaking high altitude hikes. All of these treks are accessible to the average adventure traveler, and the potential for altitude sickness is very real. It can wreak havoc on your trip if you don’t adjust to it properly before you set out. And if you're not fully adjusted and find yourself on the Inca Trail or hiking Huayna Picchu for example, one wrong turn from being lightheaded or out of breath can most certainly be dangerous - even fatal. So don't derail your train trip to Machu Picchu being stuck in an oxygenated hotel (or hospital) by insisting on starting your journey right from the airport. Especially if this is your first time to Peru. Be smart, and prepare, with these easy tips to avoid altitude sickness in Peru.
What causes Altitude Sickness?
Altitude illnesses are basically caused by a lack of oxygen and your body’s response to this stress. The main cause is going too high, too fast without acclimating to the lower oxygen level. In the "Mile High City" of Denver, Colorado for instance, there is 17% less oxygen in the air than at sea level. At 8,000 feet, there is 25% less and at 14,000 feet about 40% less oxygen than at sea level.
If you live in an area that is 500 feet or less in altitude, I guarantee you’ll feel the effects of higher altitude when you arrive in Peru just by briskly crossing the street (and in Cuzco, I mean briskly or you'll be run over by cars, but that's another story for another day!)
Let me give you an example of U.S. cities:
New York City lies at 13 feet (yes, 1-3) above sea level and Los Angeles is at 126 feet. Miami is 11 feet, and Anchorage, Alaska is 144 feet. Most people fly from Lima, Peru into Cuzco to visit the Sacred Valley -- Cusco altitude is 10,800 feet. That's over twice the altitude of Denver, Colorado, the Mile High City (5,280 feet)!
Machu Picchu Elevation and Other Peru Altitudes
City - Height in Feet / Meters
Lima elevation - 5,080 ft / 1,550 m
Cusco elevation - 10,800 ft / 3,300 m
Ollantaytambo elevation - 9,150 ft / 2,790 m
Machu Picchu elevation - 8,040 ft / 2,450 m
Puno elevation - 12,420 ft / 3,860 m
Arequipa elevation - 7,740 ft / 2,380 m
Lake Titicaca elevation - 12,420 ft / 3,860 m (Isla Amantani - 13,300 ft / 4,053 m)
Altitude Sickness Symptoms (What to Expect & When)
Typically, altitude sickness symptoms occur between 6 and 24 hours of reaching a higher elevation and are generally worse at night. Some hotels may provide oxygen to guests who are experiencing symptoms. If you experience any of these, ask for help through your hotel, hostel, or guide. Generally, once symptoms appear, the best solution is heading to a lower elevation. Mild symptoms may include:
nausea and vomiting
loss of appetite
shortness of breath
increased heart rate
generally feeling unwell
Even if you're in excellent physical condition, this really has no bearing on how you will acclimate to high altitude. Nor does your age, gender, or overall fitness level. Everyone adjusts to altitude differently and not everyone has difficulty. But why take the chance? There are several things you can do that will help significantly with acclimatization so your trip starts off on a good note.
How to Prepare for High Altitude
1. Acclimatize for 3 days at the start of your trip
Spend a few days in Lima, Cuzco, or even better, Ollantaytambo - allowing your system to adjust to the higher elevation. I suggest Ollantaytambo if you plan to explore the Sacred Valley or Machu Picchu because it lies at 9,150 feet, a lower elevation than Cuzco and therefore a more gradual adjustment. Plus, it’s closer to Machu Picchu if you plan to take the train there.
TIP: My suggestion? Fly into Cuzco and hire a guide to drive you the few hours to Ollantaytambo. You'll relax and enjoy the first amazing scenery of your trip.
2. Yoga Breathe
Even if you don't actively practice yoga, breathe from a position of awareness. Sit straight and take long, deep breaths, slowly oxygenating your body. It calms the mind, expands the lungs, steadies the heartbeat, and promotes oxygen flow to the brain.
Acclimatization is often accompanied by fluid loss, so you need to drink lots of water to remain properly hydrated (at least 3-4 quarts per day). Bring along some packets of Emergen-C to add needed electrolytes to your water, or drink sports drinks such as Gatorade. Electrolyte-enhanced waters benefit your body with added potassium and sodium which help your body absorb it more quickly. And speaking of drinking...
4. Coca tea leaves
You may have read about coca tea effects and how it's used to avoid altitude sickness in Peru. While coca comes from the same plant from which cocaine is derived, it is not cocaine. Coca has none of the habit-forming effects of cocaine, and is very effective in helping your system adjust to altitude.
Coca tea is to Peru as coffee is to the rest of the world. And it's everywhere. Drinking it as a tea is easy on your stomach, tastes mildly floral like a good green tea, and is very soothing. Chewing the leaves (as the locals do) will also help adjust to altitude, and may give you a mild tingling sensation in your cheek.
Have you been to Peru? I'd love to hear your suggestions/remedies for altitude adjustment.