Some of our most cherished travel spots have one thing in common, altitude. And with that comes the risk of altitude sickness. It’s more than just an inconvenience and can, in fact, be a life-threatening emergency. So let’s follow these simple tips to avoid the dreaded Cusco altitude sickness.
In no way do I want to discourage you from traveling to these amazing places. A TON of people visit these high country attractions without any problems. But knowing the signs of altitude sickness and things you can do to prevent it will assure a successful trip.
The above picture was taken in Nepal at just under 18,000 feet. Jill enjoying a delicious cup of coffee.
What is Altitude Sickness
As we ascend to higher elevations the air becomes “thinner,” meaning there is less pressure. The air is less dense which means in a given volume of air there is less oxygen. Thus at higher altitudes you get less oxygen with each breath.
Symptoms of Altitude Sickness
- Dizziness, lightheadedness
- Difficulty breathing
- Racing heart
Will I Get Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness is actually poorly understood. And even medical professionals have a difficult time predicting who will suffer symptoms and who will not.
Our bodies have the ability to adapt to altitude, increasing Hemoglobin molecules, but this takes weeks if not months.
The elevation of Cusco is 11,152 feet (3,399 meters). If you live in the beautiful town of Telluride Colorado which sits at 10,000 feet then you can probably stop reading this article as you are acclimated to high altitude.
For the rest of us that live at lower elevations, we will have a higher likelihood of experiencing symptoms.
In our own personal travels we have traveled as high as 18,000 feet on treks in Nepal. We follow all the tips listed below, most importantly taking it slow, and we’ve never had anything more significant than a mild headache.
Everyone is unique and even the most physically fit person in the group may be the one to suffer altitude sickness. Remember to keep an eye on your group and have open conversations about how everyone is feeling. This isn’t something you want to “just tough it out,” as that could be dangerous.
How To Prevent Altitude Sickness
- Good health – There’s no doubt that general physical health plays a role in how your body will react to the change in altitude. If you’re not a physically active person, starting getting out for some walks or jogs well before your trip.
- Take it easy – Altitude sickness tends to get those people who overdo it. Taking it easy is one of the most effective ways to combat altitude sickness. Especially on that first day at altitude, TAKE IT EASY. Spending a few days at altitude AND taking it easy will let your body adapt so that the visit to Machu Picchu or the next day of trekking won’t become a problem.
- Drink lots of water – Dehydration has been shown to contribute to altitude sickness. The air at higher altitudes is very dry and will suck the moisture from your body so drink far more water than you’re used to. If you’re not peeing several times a day you’re not drinking enough.
- Remember to breath – Remind yourself to take deep breaths. It’s not only relaxing but it will help get more oxygen in your body.
- Avoid alcohol – Alcohol contributes to dehydration and can lead to altitude sickness. Before pounding those famous Pisco Sours in Cusco give your body a day or two to adjust to the altitude. Most importantly, listen to your body and if you’re not feeling 100% you should probably skip the alcohol.
- Ascend slowly – If acclimating at a slightly lower altitude is an option, this is probably the best way to let your body naturally adjust. If you’re trekking in Nepal this happens naturally as each day you ascend to higher country. For Cusco that isn’t always the case as you can fly direct. Flying from sea level to Cusco would be quite a jump. Consider a stop-over somewhere a bit lower. The Sacred Valley about an hour outside of Cusco sits almost 2,000 feet lower and would be a great place to acclimate.
We’ve talked about some behavioral actions you can take to minimize your risk of altitude sickness, now let’s talk about some medication both natural and prescribed that can help as well.
Be sure to read our International Travel Guide and Travel Safety. These outline how to identify any specific health concerns for the area you will be traveling. From vaccinations to visas and everything in between.
Travel insurance is a must if altitude sickness is a threat. Altitude sickness is unpredictable and strikes even those in perfect health. The trouble and costs associated with a medical evacuation can all be covered through travel insurance. Even the flight home for definitive care.
Not to mention the many other benefits of travel insurance from theft to canceled flights. Check a quote below, you’ll be surprised how affordable it really is.
Altitude Sickness Remedies
- Diamox – A prescription drug commonly prescribed to treat altitude sickness. Ideally should be started 24 hours prior to arriving at altitude. Many people just get a prescription and have it with them should they start having symptoms. I frequently travel with it “just in case.”
- Chlorophyll drops – By helping to increase Red Blood Cell Counts, Chlorophyll increases your oxygen carrying capacity. This can counteract the effects of the “thin” air associated with high altitude. This remedy is most effective if started before your trip. They are offered as drops or pills. I’ve used this brand and just put a few drops in my glass of water in the morning.
- Drink Coca Tea – Coca tea is everywhere in Cusco and should be on your bucket list for sure. It’s likely the first thing handed to you as you check into your hotel. While Coca is made from the same plant that Cocaine is made from, it in no way resembles the illegal drug. It’s completely safe to drink but is a stimulant so I try not to drink it in the evenings.
- Oxishot – Have you seen the oxygen bars in Las Vegas? Well, Cusco has its own version called the Oxishot. Sold in the pharmacy, it’s a small tube filled with oxygen to help you combat altitude sickness.
What To Do If You’re Experiencing Symptoms
- Getting to a lower elevation is the best thing you can do. If you are on a trek then it’s time to turn around and head for lower ground.
- If you haven’t been taking it easy then it’s time to start.
- If you’re in Cusco there are some neighboring towns that are lower elevation and also fantastic places to visit.
- Most importantly, make it known that you aren’t feeling well. Talk to the people at your hotel and seek medical attention or advice. Sometimes a quick visit to the clinic and a little oxygen will get you turned around. Just be sure to not ignore it as it can become a real problem.
While altitude sickness is a concern it should not discourage you from seeing these amazing sights such as Machu Picchu. By taking it easy, hydrating, and following the above tips you will be able to enjoy these wonders of the world.