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Altitude Sickness

How to cope with Altitude Sickness in Machu Picchu, Peru

If you are planning your trip to Peru to see the ancient citadel of Machu Picchu, it’s best to come prepared. Due to the elevation of Machu Picchu (7,972 ft./ 2,430 m) and the local cities of Cusco (11,154 ft./3400 m) or Puno (12,555 ft./3827 m), you will run the risked of dealing with altitude sickness in Machu Picchu, Peru. While this problem can make your trip uncomfortable for a short while, it’s best to know the signs and to prepare for them.

We at Machu Picchu Tours & Treks care for your safety and comfort, and that includes making sure your trip is memorable. Altitude Sickness is usually mild, but it can be the last thing you want to deal with when visiting Machu Picchu, Peru and the mountains like Palccoyo, Vinicunca, or Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. 

To give you a better understanding of altitude sickness and its symptoms, we at Machu Picchu Tours & Treks have put together this article for you and our other travelers. We put this together from past experiences from other travelers and from locals who’ve lived in this region their whole lives.

What is Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness, is something that affects mountain climbers, hikers, skiers, and even travelers that are at high altitudes. These are usually above 8,000 ft or 2400 m but can be felt at lower elevations. Here in Peru, these locations are Cusco, Arequipa’s Colca Canyon,Puno or Bolivia. Many travelers who experience this are usually from a place of higher temperatures and lower altitudes. Since most travelers come by plane, this can come about due to an abrupt change in altitude and climate. In the Cusco region, the air is thinner and much colder than you may be used to.

What are the Symptoms?

While we want you to enjoy your stay in Peru and while you visit Machu Picchu, you may come down with acute mountain sickness. You won’t be ill, but here, acute means that it happens suddenly. Your symptoms can run from mild, moderate, to severe. Mild and moderate symptoms often go away naturally if you rest before climbing or hiking further up or descend to a lower elevation. Severe symptoms often demand an immediate descent to keep you from further complications.

How you react to the altitude depends on many factors. These can be gender, age, or genetic factors. Women will be less likely to experience this than men, and younger people will respond better than their elders. Here are some symptoms to be aware of, so you know when its time to rest or descend:

Mild  AMS (acute mountain sickness)

Headache, combined with one of the following:

  • Feeling sick
  • Lack of appetite
  • Sleeplessness
  • Feeling lousy or lacking in energy

Moderate AMS (acute mountain sickness) 

has more symptoms like:

  • Higher chances of vomiting
  • Headaches don’t go away
  • Shortness of breath when resting for 15 minutes.

Severe AMS (acute mountain sickness) 

can develop quickly and shouldn’t be ignored.

  • Ataxia or loss of muscular coordination and balance
  • Altered mental state (confusions, withdrawal, or aggression)

Keep in mind that high altitude causes dehydration, and this alone could give you a headache. Stay hydrated and, if needed, a mild pain-killer to help alleviate the pain. If the problem disappears and you have no other symptoms, your body is giving you a gentle reminder to drink more fluids. A mild case of altitude sickness goes away after some rest or a downhill stretch before going on.

How Your Body Responds to the altitude

At Machu Picchu tours & Treks, we want you to enjoy your stay and build memories that last a lifetime. Due to the altitude, your body will respond differently to the lack of oxygen in the mountain air. Since air is thinner as you ascend in elevation, the air pressure drops. This means your heart and lungs will have to work harder to maintain the proper supply of oxygen your body needs. 

This can be:

  • You’re breathing faster and deeper
  • You’ll experience a faster heart rate to increase the oxygen supplied to your body and force it into your lungs
  • Since your body will get rid of excess fluid faster, it’ll create more red blood cells which thicken your blood

If you find yourself running to the bathroom a lot, don’t worry. It’s a sign your body is acclimatizing to the altitude. As it can take a couple of weeks for an increase in red blood cells, you may not be here long enough for that to happen, depending on your schedule. Keep in mind that you breathe deeply and freely as much as possible. Sleep is the best time to acclimatize. Also, avoid any alcohol or sleeping pills and allow your food to digest before going to sleep.

How to Avoid High Altitude Sickness in Machu Picchu, Cusco and Peru?

Though fatalities are unlikely and extremely rare, you may, however, experience a mild form of AMS while in Peru. Even mild forms of AMS can ruin your stay for a couple of days and make for some less-than-stellar memories. At Machu Picchu Tours & Treks, we want you to be prepared so you can enjoy your trip to its fullest. Use these tips to help prevent Altitude Sickness in Machu Picchu, Cusco and Peru:

Ascend slowly:If at all possible, ascend slowly. You don’t need to race to the top. This will give you time to adapt to the altitude. If you’re flying to a high-altitude location like Lima to Cusco or Lima to Puno, you may not have this option.

Take yourself some time to acclimatize on arrival:A new place will fill you with excitement, but there’s no need to overdo it right away. Do your best if possible, to avoid strenuous activities during your first 24-hours. Remain at this altitude if possible, for your first day. If at all possible, stop at Arequipa (2335m /7.66076ft) before going to Cusco or Puno. This will help the acclimatization process. It’s a beautiful city and worth the stay!

Avoid cigarettes, medications (sleeping pills/tranquilizers), and alcohol. These can make your symptoms worse.

Drink lots of fluids: Staying hydrated is essential, so do your best to get four to six liters a day.

Carbohydrates help:While you may be on a low-carb diet, foods like pasta will help reduce any risk of AMS. So, feel free to splurge and get that extra helping of bread or other carbs. It’ll be worth it!

Altitude Sickness medication:While no substitute for acclimatization or a slow descent, Acetazolamide (Diamox) is a common option along with “soroche pills.” Check with your physician before taking these medications due to potential side effects.

Coca leaves:Drinking coca tea or even chewing on coca leaves may help reduce AMS. This is a traditional method in the Andes. Many hotels in Cusco and Puno may present you with some coca tea (don’t take any home due to its prohibitive nature in many countries). Your tour guide may recommend you do this before your excursion to Machu Picchu. These leaves have been a part of indigenous culture for thousands of years. It was used by the Spanish to help overwork laborers during Inca times to suppress hunger and fatigue. It also helps mask the headache that comes with AMS.

What is the best medicine for altitude sickness in Machu Picchu, Peru?

Diamox has been studied for over thirty years and reduces the alkalinity in your blood from the loss of carbon dioxide when you exhale at high altitudes due to panting. It stimulates the rate of a depth of breathing, which in turn, speeds up your acclimatization. This makes Diamox an excellent treatment for Altitude Sickness. Before getting a prescription, consider the side effects, and discuss these with your physician. Side effects are:

  • Increased urine flow
  • Feet, face, hands, and feet may tingle, or you may feel numbness
  • Any carbonated drink you taste may come off as flat

The diuretic effect is usually due to a higher than needed dosage and can cause interrupted sleep due to urination. For those susceptible to AMS, Diamox can work very well. Most won’t need it, but it helps to check with a physician to make sure it’ll be right for you.

How Fitness Can Help AMS ?

When you exercise regularly, your muscles get stronger and can handle more sustained periods of activity. If you’re a hiker, your lung and heart are more important than your legs, especially for those high altitudes. A better equipped cardiovascular system means blood is pumped more efficiently through your body, which means oxygen is delivered better. To get into your best shape, you need to exercise within your heart rate.  

Your target heart rate is dependent on your age. Try to exercise for 20-40 minutes every other day for a few weeks before pushing yourself further. As your fitness increases, it’ll make it easier to hike higher and further, and you won’t use as much oxygen as someone who doesn’t exercise regularly. Check with your physician to make sure you are at an excellent point to exercise.

When and how do you train to prevent altitude sickness in Machu Picchu Peru?

When it comes to how you train, it will depend on your preference along with your lifestyle and location. You may find walking or jogging the best way to achieve your fitness results while another may prefer biking. If you come to Machu Picchu with friends or family, get them involved before the trip and work out together for extra motivation. A fitness band with a heart monitor will help you stay within your target heart rate. 

If you need some help, joining a gym and hiring a personal trainer will help you stay motivated and achieve your goals. Plus, the equipment in the gym will help monitor your fitness, and you won’t be dependent on weather or certain times of the day to workout. If you use a treadmill, use the incline feature or any program that involves hills to help get your ready for your hikes in Peru. Be sure to warm up first to avoid injury and cold down afterward. Stretching will help reduce lactic acid build-up and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated!

Try to workout every other day. Also, start your training long before your trip to Peru as this will give you more time to achieve the fitness you need to make the climb easier and hold off AMS better. Stop training a couple of days before the trip, and make sure you plan to stay in the higher altitude for a few nights before your journey to Machu Picchu. This exercise before your trip with strengthen your heart and lungs and make you better prepared to acclimatize to the higher altitudes.

How Altitude Sickness May Affect Your Trip to Machu Picchu, Peru?

At Machu Picchu Tours & Treks, we recommend you get to Cusco at least two days before your start of any tour or hike. This will help you acclimatize better and fully immerse yourself in the Machu Picchu experience. Keep in mind that mild altitude sickness shouldn’t be too much of a problem with your regular activity while on your trip to Peru. Usually, you’ll see symptoms within your first twelve to twenty-four hours of arrival. These will subside within a few days. If you continue to feel unwell, your hotel will be able to call you a doctor as you may be having a more severe reaction. Since many hotels offer coca tea or “mate de coca” to their guests, they may also have oxygen to help you acclimatize better to the altitude.

Prepare well for your trip so you can enjoy your experience here in Peru and at Machu Picchu.

How common is Altitude Sickness in Cusco, Peru?

The chances of developing Mild and moderate AMS (acute mountain sickness) in Cusco, Peru is highly unlikely. It’s best to use preventative measures like having a sensible itinerary and react appropriately to any warning signs. At the same time, your tour guide with Machu Picchu Tours & Treks does their best to keep an eye on everyone, its best to communicate about how you feel. Sometimes an itinerary can be adjusted to help your needs. The best advice is to drink plenty of fluids and don’t ascend further until you any symptoms you may have to go away. If they don’t, then descend right away.