Dec 9, 2014

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Peru Altitude Sickness Prevention

How to Avoid Altitude Sickness in Peru

The locals call it soroche, doctors call it AMS. Whatever you want to call it, elevation sickness is not something you want to mess around with and can easily spoil your trip to the Peruvian Highlands if you don’t take proper precautions.

Cusco Peru Altitude

12,500 ft. Mountain Pass between Cusco and Urubamba

When they refer to Peru’s mountainous interior as the “highlands,” they mean it quite literally. With iconic peaks rising more than 21,000 ft. above sea level and some of the highest cities in the world snuggled between the mountains, the Peruvian Andes make the American Rockies look like mere foothills. Denver’s measly “mile-high” elevation is laughable when compared to the altitude of Cusco and other cities in the Peruvian Highlands.

At 11,152 ft. above sea level, Cusco isn’t the only “high-light” destination in Peru. Many of Peru’s most intriguing places to visit are situated high in the Andes Mountains (see below for reference).

Altitude of Popular Peru Sites:

Aguas Calientes Elevation:                           6,693 ft.

Machu Picchu Elevation:                              7,970 ft.

Urubamba (Sacred Valley) Elevation:          9,420 ft.

Colca Canyon Elevation:                               11,926 ft.

Lake Titicaca Elevation:                                12,565 ft.

Sacred Valley Pisac View

Sacred Valley near Pisac

At such high altitudes, each breath provides your body with only a fraction of the oxygen that you would normally receive at sea level. Consequently, your body has difficulty functioning normally with less oxygen readily available. Some travelers may develop headaches, nausea, and other debilitating effects as a result.

Unless you’re going to wear an oxygen mask during your entire trip to the Peruvian Highlands, every traveler planning to visit Machu Picchu must be prepared for high altitude. Do not fear though. Fortunately for we low-altitude folk, there are a variety of ways to prevent altitude sickness in Peru and make your South American journey filled smiles rather than headaches. Below are some key tips and suggestions for preventing altitude sickness in Peru:

Peru Altitude Sickness Prevention Tip 1: Avoid Alcohol for the First 48 Hours

I know what you’re thinking… “Avoid alcohol! What kind of vacation is that?” Before you bail on the trip of a lifetime to Peru for yet another not-so-memorable trip to the Caribbean, understand that you don’t have to refrain from booze the entire time. Peru is a great destination for beer and liquor connoisseurs, and we encourage you to try a glass of aged Peruvian wine, an-ice cold Cuzqueña, or a fresh pisco sour in the evenings. But don’t do it right away. Instead, take a break from alcohol during the day before your flight and for the first day at high elevations and save your sophisticated palette for a later point and time.

Use this as an opportunity to hydrate yourself and get plenty of rest. Wait until this crucial “48-hour window” has passed, and then ease your way into the alcohol, making sure that you have properly acclimatized before you start slamming back the drinks. Lets face it. You’re visiting Peru to explore Inca ruins and experience the energy of sacred Andean peaks, not to get hammered.

Peru Altitude Sickness Prevention Tip 2: Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate.

Add “agua, por favor” to your short list of essential Spanish phrases that you’re going to need on your Peru Expedition and don’t forget it. We recommend you start hydrating at least 72 hours prior to traveling to high elevations. You may have to use the bathroom a time or two on your flight, but that’s better than missing out on an opportunity to explore Machu Picchu because you have a splitting headache!

Once you arrive in the Andes, you should continue to drink plenty of water and stay as hydrated as possible throughout the trip. We recommend drinking ten eight-ounce glasses of water a day and keeping your water bottle close by on all of your Peru excursions and day tours.

Peru Altitude Sickness Prevention Tip 3: “Travel High: Sleep Low”

When it comes to preventing altitude sickness in Peru, we look to the mountaineers for guidance. Those who climb Huascaran, Aconcagua, or any of South America’s great mountains are only able to do so by taking careful measures to prevent altitude sickness. In the mountaineering world, “climb high, sleep low” is the golden rule.

Cusco Plaza de Armas

Cusco, Peru. Elevation 11,152 ft.

Though most travelers who plan to visit Machu Picchu don’t plan to conquer any great mountains during their trip, those who implement the “golden rule” of high altitude travel are far more effective at preventing altitude sickness in Peru.

For example, on each of our Peru tours to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, we descend to the Sacred Valley as soon as travelers arrive at the airport. On the way to the Sacred Valley you must cross a 13,000 ft. mountain pass before descending into the Urubamba Valley. Thus visitors travel high and sleep low, exposing their body to extremely thin air for a brief period before descending and sleeping at a significantly lower altitude.

Peru Altitude Sickness Prevention Tip 4: Slow it Down a Notch

Despacio, amigo, despacio. One of the biggest mistakes travelers make is running around trying to conquer every Inca Ruin in Peru as soon as they arrive. In reality, this is the worst thing you can do. When you arrive in the Andes, your body is trying to adapt to the lack of oxygen and needs a few days to do so. The best things you can do during this acclimatization process are rest as much as possible and try not to raise your heart rate. Once you’ve been there for a couple of days and have allowed your body to adapt, then you can set out for all of the epic Peruvian sites you’ve been longing to explore.

If you’re traveling to the Andes to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, we strongly advice you take a few days in Cusco or the Sacred Valley to acclimatize. Utilize this time to partake in mellow activities such as a city tours or museum visits and save this strenuous excursions for a later time.

Peru Altitude Sickness Prevention Tip 5: Try Natural Remedies

For years, indigenous groups have used coca leaves to relieve soroche. In fact, the coca leaf has become such an integral part of Quechua culture that it is considered sacred in the Andes.

Sacred Coca Leaf Ritual

Traditional Coca Leaf Ritual Performed by Andean Shaman

We encourage you to try coca tea or coca leaves to help alleviate the effects of soroche. Don’t let the social stigma weigh you down and make you feel like you’re committing a crime by doing so. In reality, coca leaves are every bit as natural as a coffee plant, and the effects are even milder when chewed or brewed in its natural form.

You shouldn’t have a problem finding any coca in Peru either. Almost all of the luxury lodges in the Andes have coca tea in the lobby, and you can find coca leaves at just about any local Peruvian market in the mountains.

If you really want to play it safe, try taking elevation sickness prevention medication before your Peru trip just to be safe. Although we personally refrain from using pharmaceutical medications before traveling to high altitudes, there are a variety of medications that you can purchase that are specifically designed to prevent altitude sickness. By far the most popular altitude sickness prevention medication is Diamox (Acetazolamide) and works well with minimal side effects.

Although the Peruvian Highlands are a high place, don’t let fear of altitude sickness scare you away from experiencing the magic of the Andes. If you play it smart and exercise proper elevation sickness prevention tactics, your Peru trip will be as extraordinary as Machu Picchu itself!

Contributing Author: Hannah Wolf