In Cusco, at 11,152 feet above sea level, I succumbed to altitude sickness. Nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath – feelings of impending doom overtook my senses. But it left after 36 hours.
Altitude sickness usually happens at 8,000 feet above sea level and above. Not everyone will experience the same symptoms. The most common symptoms include shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, insomnia, headache, fatigue, rapid heart rate, and vomiting. At higher altitudes, the barometric pressure drops, and there is less oxygen in the air. You’ll feel the effect when your body is not used to the change of pressure and oxygen level.
According to WebMD,
Altitude sickness also called “mountain sickness” is a group of symptoms that can strike if you walk or climb to a higher elevation, or altitude, too quickly.
Before leaving for the Andes in Peru, Trippy user Kasia Wdaniec from Norway asked:
I am going to Peru in few months time and worrying about Altitude Sickness when in there. I live by the seaside; I had never been at altitudes as high as Cusco.
Have you experienced Altitude Sickness when in Peru? How do I prevent it?
Here are 11 ways to cope with altitude sickness while traveling:
1. Take time to acclimatize
Alex Jorge from London suggested:
The best thing to do is give yourself time to acclimatize. Take the first day in Cusco slow, give it a day or two before trying any hiking (Inca trail) — you can always explore other sites in the Valle Sagrado like Maras, Moray, Ollantaytambo, etc.
Altitude sickness symptoms usually happen within 12 to 24 hours of reaching a higher elevation. Most people feel better after the 24-hour period. For some people, it takes up to three days. Different people acclimatize differently. Listen to your body and adjust.
Trippy user Oliver E. echoed:
I’d recommend at least 1-2 days acclimatization in case you are looking forward to doing any kind of trekking tour in Cusco.
2. Ascend slowly
If you have a choice, ascend slowly. Dennis Swaanen from Hilvarenbeek, Belgium wrote:
First, travel from Lima to Arequipa, and do the Colca Canyon trail! Here you can get used to the altitude. After Arequipa, you can travel to Cusco without altitude sickness. When you have an experience of sickness though. Then go to bed, sleep or relax do rest of the day and night. Next day you will be fine.
Dennis suggested starting a trip in Lima (1,312 feet), ascending to Arequipa (7,661 feet), Colca Canyon (11,482 feet) and finally to Cusco (11,152 feet).
It worked for me when I started my journey in Salta, Argentina (3,780 feet), Tupiza, Bolivia (9,350 feet), Salt Flats (11,955 feet) and to Potosi (13, 343 feet). I arrived in Potosi feeling light-headed and had shortness of breath with no other significant issues related to altitude sickness.
Not everyone has the time to ascend slowly to their final destination. If this is you, remember to acclimatize before doing strenuous activities like hiking.
3. Do not exert yourself during the first three days
Take it easy in the first three days. Jae Oh from Singapore didn’t heed the advice, and this happened to him:
I made the foolish decision to do some strenuous hiking at altitude on the day after getting into town. I suffered severe insomnia for about two sold weeks thereafter! Take everyone’s advice here and acclimatize as much as you can. Take it easy and enjoy your trip.
Kim M from New York City said:
I was in Peru this past June to hike the Salkantay Trail and to see Machu Picchu. We arrived in Cusco three days before starting our hike. You should be okay if you just remember to walk slowly and really take it easy.
4. Avoid too much alcohol
In an article by ABC Science, Why does drinking alcohol causes dehydration, Dr. Karl said the short-term side effect of alcohol is excessive urination. Even if you drink more water, most of it will go out in your urine. Thus you end up being dehydrated.
Trippy user Oliver E. suggested:
In general, you should drink a lot of water and avoid an excess of alcoholic beverages.
In other words, drink in moderation.
5. Stay hydrated
Loss of fluid happens when in high altitude. Drink plenty of water, at least 96 -120 fluid ounces (12 to 16 cups) while you acclimatize and when you’re enjoying the mountains.
El Dorado Natural Spring Water has this to say about water intake and your urine when you’re involved in physical activities in high altitudes:
Typically, you should aim to drink 24–28 ounces of water every hour, monitoring your hydration and electrolyte levels by observing your urine. Voiding light yellow urine every hour or two would be considered healthy.
6. Electrolyte drinks
Electrolytes comprise of minerals like sodium, potassium, chloride, bicarbonate and hydrogen phosphate. Besides Gatorade, there are natural drinks with less sugar like Acli-mate Natural Sports Drinks, formulated by Dr. Roanne Rouse Houck, N.D., a naturopathic doctor in Colorado. According to the website, our body dehydrates faster in high altitude places, and electrolytes may support hydration.
Trippy user Marina Janeiko from Riga on the other hand wrote:
…some people experience nausea and fainting as well; sugar candy will help with that.
7. Drink tea and take local remedies
At the Andes mountains, the locals and some tourists swear by the tea and coca leaves. Andres Calcina, a resident in Arequipa, recommended the following from his country:
We have a tradition to recommend herbs tea as Coca Leaves, Muña (smelling like mint), but you should drink more water, perhaps you should bring for prevention “Coramine,” Sorochepill tablets for the sickness of altitude. You could buy in Arequipa or Cuzco in the pharmacy.
Lorraine Moore said:
A negative response to high altitude is an individual physiological one-you won’t know till there if it will affect you. Keep hydrated. Don’t do too much in the first few days. Drink coca, mint and ginger tea-some of the hotels have large urns of coca tea in the foyer. Eat lightly. Going to a lower altitude can relieve symptoms-the Sacred Valley and Macchu Picchu are lower altitude than Cusco-spend a day there or even stay in Ollantaytambo or Aguas Calientes if necessary.
Alexander Jansson from Stockholm added:
Chew coca leaves and mix it with these sweet tasting ash (?) that activates the chemicals. Helped my cousin a lot when we were in Cusco.
8. Eat a high carb diet and less meat
Studies show that high carbohydrate intake will reduce the effects of altitude sickness. Also, it takes less oxygen to metabolize carbohydrate compared to protein and fat. According to NatureMed in Colorado, fat is not tolerated well in high altitude places and may make mountain sickness worse. At high altitudes, our body uses more blood sugar, plus fatigue and low blood sugar levels will happen quicker compared to sea level, so an increase in carb intake will help.
9. Bring preventative medicine
Some of the most recommended preventative medicine are Dexamethasone and Diamox. I didn’t travel with these medicines while in high altitude places.
Joe Studlick said:
We decided to use Diamox but got vastly different recommendations/ prescriptions from noted travel med doctors in Houston. The dosage and duration prescribed for each were very different (in fact one doctor prescribed very high daily dose (“slow release”) for 30 days!). So research what med you want/need.
On the trek (which was at 12,000′ – 15,000′) for the first few days, 2 of our group had “issues.” One had very mild headaches in the mornings which went away quickly with an Advil; one of our group had extreme difficulty sleeping. 2 hours one night; 1 hour the next; and 2 hours the next night. Exhausted by lack of sleep and the trek (exhausting due to less oxygen – slower steps and lots of stops), contacted a doctor in Lima who prescribed additional Diamox (as Diamox prescribed by Houston doctor was already used up). Everything went well after that.
10. Protect from the sun
Avoid getting sunburned and protect yourself from the sun. The UV rays are stronger at high elevations, and too much exposure to the sun will result in fatigue, exhaustion, and dehydration.
11. Visit oxygen bar
David L from Quebec wrote:
I felt so bad in Cusco; I had to take some oxygen. You have to be very careful because you can become very sick. Never felt sick because of the altitude. Nobody in my group was.
Photos and article by Claudia Looi