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How to Manage Altitude Sickness during the Inca Trek

Inca Trek, Map, Height, Altitude, Peru, Machu Picchu
En route to Machu Picchu (image courtesy of Taylor Hearts Travel)

En route to Machu Picchu (image courtesy of Taylor Hearts Travel)

Three steps feel like you’ve taken three hundred steps. One long inhale leaves you quickly panting for more. A dizzy head to rival even your worst hangover. A constant wave of fatigue, mixed in with the odd flash of nausea and a pounding headache. Altitude sickness is anything but pleasant. Unfortunately, it was the annoying third wheel for my visit to Peru (South America) and I wasn’t prepared.

Up, up and up on the Inca Trek (image courtesy of Taylor Hearts Travel)

Up, up and up on the Inca Trek (image courtesy of Taylor Hearts Travel)

Yeah, I’d read the odd blog post mentioning it, but as I’m fit and young (less of the sniggers – I’m still in my twenties so that counts) I somehow thought I was immune to it. Although not as high, I also used my trip to the Mile High City of Denver, and Winter Park (both in Colorado, America) as a benchmark. I was completely fine there, despite only having a day or two to acclimatize, so I thought Peru would be the same, especially as I had a few days to adjust in Lima.

Up, up and up yet again. The steps are relentless (image courtesy of Taylor Hearts Travel)

Up, up and up yet again. The steps are relentless (image courtesy of Taylor Hearts Travel)

I hope the above wakes you up to take notice and get prepared if you’re thinking of doing the Inca Trek to Machu Picchu. More so though, I hope my seven pearls of wisdom for dealing with altitude (below) help:

Maximise

If budget/time allow, add a few extra days in Cusco (pre-trek) and don’t really plan any activities. I only had two days in Cusco before I set off for the Inca Trek so I had to battle through my sickness to ensure I didn’t miss the sights. If I went again, I’d plan two days to sleep/laze/take it easy (whatever you want to call it) – basically, to get used to the altitude, and two days for exploring this beautiful place.

There are so many lovely buildings in Cusco (image courtesy of Taylor Hearts Travel)

There are so many lovely buildings in Cusco (image courtesy of Taylor Hearts Travel)

Pre-Purchase

Buy some altitude sickness tablets from your home country. I’d read that you could buy them out in Cusco (which you can), but don’t expect the staff to speak English or the instructions/advisory note to be in English. I would have felt more comfortable taking a tablet that I knew was safely recommended by GP. If you don’t end up needing them you can always pass them on to a fellow traveller who does. The tablets help to minimise the symptoms of altitude sickness and with most, you can combine them with ibuprofen or paracetamol (which will help to ease your headache).

I was prescribed Acetak from a pharmacy in Cusco (image courtesy of Taylor Hearts Travel)

I was prescribed Acetak from a pharmacy in Cusco (image courtesy of Taylor Hearts Travel)

Rest

My Peruvian guide thoroughly recommended that I sleep to combat the effects. Whilst it is hard to stay in the confinements of your room and fear missing out on all the fun, you don’t want to be the miserable one of the group or do more damage. If you can’t face staying inside all day, then make a compromise with yourself by offsetting a short venture outside with an afternoon nap and an early bedtime. Oh, and request a ground floor room if you can (the less steps the better).

A big comfy bed in my lovely hotel in Cusco (image courtesy of Taylor Hearts Travel)

A big comfy bed in my lovely hotel in Cusco (image courtesy of Taylor Hearts Travel)

H20

Drink at least two litres of water per day. Water has so many health benefits and it certainly helps with altitude sickness. A hydrated body will help to minimise your headache and help keep your body fighting fit.

Accept It

Whether you’re old/young, fat/thin, male/female, the chances of suffering with altitude sickness are a bit random. Some people are fine, whilst others are not. Even my Peruvian guide explained that she suffered with it when she was away from Peru for a few months. Naturally, being fit and healthy will help your body with any activity, but don’t assume that means you won’t get it. Just remember that it will subside once your body adjusts – it won’t last forever. Try and remember why you are in Peru in the first place – Machu Picchu will be worth it.

Resting at the Cloud Forest during the trek (image courtesy of Taylor Hearts Travel)

Resting at the Cloud Forest during the trek (image courtesy of Taylor Hearts Travel)

Slow and Easy Wins the Race

Take your time and don’t try to rush the trek, overexerting yourself. The Inca Trek is something that some people only dream about (high five to those of you that have a trip to Machu Picchu booked), so take your time. Chances are you will be hiking in a group, so who cares if you are first at the campsite? All this means is that you will have to sit waiting for the rest of your group to arrive. I think it is more fun to go with the group pace, where you can have a laugh along the way, listen to the informative guide and notice more of the outstanding scenery. Absorb each and every second of the trek (it’s just a bonus that this will help your sickness).

There are so many quirky things to look at on the way up to Machu Picchu (image courtesy of Taylor Hearts Travel)

There are so many quirky things to look at on the way up to Machu Picchu (image courtesy of Taylor Hearts Travel)

Sweetness

Sucking a small hard boiled sweet (I found mints were the best) or chewing minty gum can be helpful. It provides a distraction and the sugar can give you a little boost of energy. Small sips of an energy drink can also help. The sweets and drinks can easily be bought in Cusco in the supermarkets or near the start of your trek. Just bear in mind you’ll pay a little more the higher up the trek you get (after all, the Peruvians have to lug them up there). You will also undoubtedly be offered coca leaves to chew or to coca tea. They are legal in Peru, but I’d only recommend buying/accepting either forms from a trusted guide/shop owner. The chewing of the leaves made me feel sick, but the tea was quite good.

The trek is pretty high (image courtesy of Taylor Hearts Travel)

The trek is pretty high (image courtesy of Taylor Hearts Travel)

Tell a Friend

Not wanting to scare you, altitude sickness can be potentially fatal. Therefore, if you are suffering (or even think you might be) make sure you tell your guide and/or a fellow group member so that they can be on alert.

Why?

To put it into perspective, Cusco is 3330 metres above sea level, Machu Picchu is 2410 metres above, and Lima is distinctly lower, at 500 metres above.  Please don’t be put off. The Inca Trek is hard, but it is sooooo worth it. I’ll be sharing a blog post on just how amazing shortly. I have every confidence that you’ll be able to cope with the altitude if you follow those tips. Plus, you might not even end up suffering. I’ll cross my fingers for you.

Do you have tips to add to my list? X

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Comments (13)

  • […] If you’re worried about altitude sickness, you can read my seven pearls of wisdom for managing it here. If you have any questions about the Inca Trek, please drop me a comment and I’ll get back to […]

  • […] regime. Showers are often less frequent (especially if they’re ice cold like the one on the Inca Trek) and you don’t always have the luxury of an electrical point for your phone, let alone your […]

  • […] How to Manage Altitude Sickness during the Inca Trek; Seven Pearls of Wisdom (taylorheartstravel.wordpress.com) […]

  • […] was out of this world. After the four day Inca Trek which was particularly hard as I suffered with altitude sickness, the vision and experience of this ancient wonder of the world was mind blowing. The dancing […]

  • Nicola 6 years ago Reply

    Great blog Char, I’ve always wondered about sickness altitude and this trek is definitely on my wish list! X

    Taylor Hearts Travel 6 years ago Reply

    Thanks Nicola! You won’t be disappointed – it’s amazing (even with altitude sickness!) x

  • Ayla 6 years ago Reply

    This is a really handy read for me as I’ve just booked my Inca Trail trip last week and am a bit worried about altitude sickness!

    Taylor Hearts Travel 6 years ago Reply

    With lots of preparation (and acceptance that you might suffer) there’s not much else you can do. The landscape is so beautiful throughout the trek, so just remember why you’re doing it. I think it was 100% worth it!

    Ayla 6 years ago

    Yey so exciting! Will take lots of tablets with me though and try to be as prepared as poss.

  • Carl 6 years ago Reply

    Great post Taylor. The Inca Trail is something I hope to do someday, so I found this really helpful.

    Taylor Hearts Travel 6 years ago Reply

    Hey you! Thanks for letting me know. I’m glad you found it helpful. What’s holding you back from booking it? You’ll love it out there.

    Carl 6 years ago

    No problem :)

    Haha good question there too – I guess there’s nothing holding me back from booking it (which is a nice thing to be able to say), there’s just other places higher up my list for now. But yeah I look forward to the day I do hit it that’s for sure!

    Taylor Hearts Travel 6 years ago

    Fair enough. Lots of places, not enough time/money and all that – I know the feeling!

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