The Inca capital of Cusco is 11,152 feet (3399 meters) above sea level. That’s more than two miles high. For an unlucky few the lack of oxygen can trigger high-altitude sickness. Being informed can show you how to stave off altitude sickness while you are in Cusco, prevent feeling sick and possibly save your vacation.
What is High Altitude Sickness?
Rapid ascent to heights exceeding 7,874 feet (2399 meters) above sea level can cause oxygen saturation of hemoglobin in the body to decrease — something most people will feel in Cusco within moments of stepping off the plane from Lima.
Breathing and heart rate increase immediately, and the heart beats faster.
What’s happening is that there are fewer oxygen molecules per lung-full of air. In other words, a smaller percentage of hemoglobin is saturated with brain-nourishing oxygen.
For most people, quicker breathing and the thumping in their chest is the worst of it, as their bodies adapt and the concentration of red blood cells increase.
For others, however, it triggers the oxygen saturation of hemoglobin to plunge, and the feeling of breathlessness soon spirals into a prolonged bout of pounding headache, nausea and vertigo.
Scientifically known as hypoxia, acute mountain sickness or “soroche” are more common names for this condition.
How to prevent high-altitude sickness in Cusco
There are things you can and should do that can help abate, or altogether prevent, this from happening to you.
Here are the Do’s and Don’ts:
Check with a doctor before your Cusco vacation
Do: Consult with your physician before your trip to Peru about whether you should come prepared with a prescription of acetazolamide (Diamox). Taking prophylactic doses of 125 mg twice daily, starting a full day before you travel to high altitude, will help you to metabolize the thinner air.
Over-the-counter Acetazolamide (generic Diamox)
Acetazolamide is also available over the counter in Peru for less than US$3 for 10 pills. (Be sure to choose one of Peru’s major chain pharmacies — Inkafarma, Pharmax, Boticas Arcangel, etc. — and not a Ma and Pop drug store, where adulterated or fake pharmaceuticals are often sold.)
A study published by the Journal of Applied Physiology found that acetazolamide does not reduce or alter endurance or exercise performance at high altitudes — so no worries if you’re planning on tackling Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point on the Inca Trail.
However, it is important to note that acetazolamide has some minor side effects, such as making your fingers, toes and cheeks tingle, and it makes carbonated drinks taste bitter and metallic.
Diamox and Sulfa Drug Allergy Concerns, etc.
Acetazolamide is definitely not for everyone, including those allergic to sulfa drugs — another reason to first consult your doctor.
You Might Also Like: Explore The Sacred Valley of the Incas on Private Tour
Sorojchi High Altitude Pills (over-the-counter remedy)
Do: Consider Sorojchi High Altitude Pills, a Bolivian-made, over-the-counter remedy, containing 325 mg of aspirin, 160 mg of acetaminosalol (Salophen) and 15 mg of caffeine. For many people, a Sorojchi Pill every eight hours, particularly in combination with 400 mg of ibuprofen, can help ward off the worst symptoms of altitude sickness.
Bring Ibuprofen for your Cusco trip
Do: Consider taking ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, Nuprin, etc.) to prevent or diminish the ill effects of altitude. A 2012 Stanford University study found the drug significantly reduced the incidence of altitude sickness when taken six hours before ascent. The researchers also noted in their double-blind, placebo controlled study that even when the anti-inflammatory didn’t entirely prevent soroche, symptoms were less severe overall for those who took the medicine.
ALTI Vital (over-the-counter remedy)
Do: Consider trying ALTI Vital, a fairly new Peruvian-made alternative remedy to prevent and treat altitude sickness. It is produced using natural ingredients, including coca leaf, ginger, a medicinal jungle fruit called guaraná and minthostachys mollis, an Andean medicinal plant more commonly known as muña, as well as 12.5 mg of caffeine. ALTI Vital can be purchased at any of the many Inkafarma or Mifarma pharmacies around Cusco.
You Might Also Like: The 3 Best Cusco Private Tours
Do: Take it very slow and easy. Over exertion can trigger altitude sickness.
Do: Drink copious amounts of bottled water or herbal tea.
Do: Help yourself to Mate de Coca known as Infusión de Coca, a traditional brew made from coca leaves, a mild stimulant, to help with hydration. It is offered free in the lobby of nearly every hotel in Cusco.
Don’t: Drink Mate de Coca if you are subject to drug testing at work. It can result in a false-positive urine drug screen for cocaine.
Don’t: Eat heavy meals, which will tax your metabolism, or drink alcohol, which can dehydrate your system. Wait a day or two. The pollo a la brasa and pisco sours will still be there once you’ve acclimatized.
Do: Seek an oxygen tank, available in most hotels and even sold over the counter, to relieve extreme symptoms. (Note: Fertur clients can contact their local travel representative, who will be available 24-hours-a-day to offer assistance.)
Do: Travel to lower altitude if you’re suffering acute soroche. The full-proof cure-all for soroche is rapid descent. Pisac, the first town you reach in the Sacred Valley, is just a little more than an hour from Cusco, and is more than 1,400 feet lower than the city. Ollantaytambo is closer to 2,000 feet lower. If you’re in the grips of altitude sickness or feel it coming on, going to the Sacred Valley can provide some quick relief.
You Might Also Like: 4-Day Classic Machu Picchu Travel Package
Tips for Traveling to Cusco
Weather and Wear:
There are only two seasons: Dry season from May to August, when the weather in the morning is hot, but considerably cooler in the shade, and very cold — even frosty — at night. Rainy season from September to April, when the temperature is cool to frigid with plenty of precipitation.
Tips for Traveling to the Sacred Valley
The altitude of the main destinations in the Sacred Valley are significantly lower than Cusco’s breathlessly beautiful heights:
- Pisac at 9,751 feet (2972 meters) above sea level,
- Urubamba at 9,419 feet (2871 meters) above sea level,
- Ollataytambo at 9,160 feet (2792 meters) above sea level.
So if you are suffering an oxygen pinch in the Inca capital city, getting to these lower lying environs can definitely help. Here it is warm and generally sunny during the dry season and cool with intermittent rain showers and sun during the rainy season.
You Might Also Like: The Ultimate 3 Days in Cusco Itinerary
Tips for traveling to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu altitude: of 7,972 feet (2,430 meters) above sea level. It’s location in the high Amazon jungle of the Cusco department means you should be prepared for warm, sunny and intermittent rainy conditions from May to August, and muggy, overcast and rainy weather from September until April.
It’s recommended during the dry season to bring along light clothing, sunscreen, and a hat for the warm days, and a warm sweater and jacket for the nights. Also a lightweight rain poncho is a good idea for the occasional showers at Machu Picchu. For the rainy season, you should bring a water-proof jacket and/or lightweight rain poncho and comfortable, breathable cotton clothing to wear in layers as needed.
Recommended reading: The best month to visit Peru