Suffering with Machu Picchu altitude sickness is tough. Really tough.
Altitude sickness is anything but pleasant. However, there are ways to prevent it, medicine and tips, or at the very least, ways to try to make it more bearable.
What is Altitude Sickness?
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.
Breathing becomes difficult because you aren’t able to take in as much oxygen.
It’s also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS) and can become a medical emergency if ignored.
Why Do We Get Altitude Sickness?
Age, sex or physical fitness have no bearing on your likelihood of getting altitude sickness.
It can occur when you travel to a high altitude too quickly. The NHS says symptoms of altitude sickness usually develop between 6 and 24 hours after reaching altitudes more than 3,000m (9,842 feet) above sea level.
Machu Picchu Altitude Height
To put it into perspective, Cusco is 3,330 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 (read all about it here), but it is sooooo worth it. Those views are absolutely incredible and worth every step.
Tips to Prevent Machu Picchu Altitude Sickness
1. Factor in Rest Days
If budget/time allow, add a few extra days in Cusco and don’t really plan any activities. That way if you feel the effects of altitude sickness you’ve got a chance to aclimatise, but resting, sleeping and taking it slow.
And if you don’t feel unwell? Great! You’ve got more time to enjoy Cusco (there’s plenty to see).
Most routes to the Inca Trek start from Cusco. It’s a beautiful place in its own right, but more so, it’s a chance to adjust to the altitude levels.
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2. Pre-Purchase Altitude Sickness Remedies
Buy some altitude sickness pills from your home country and bring them with you. At the very least, ask your GP what tablets they would recommend.
You can buy altitude sickness medication over the counter in Cusco. After all, altitude sickness is pretty common with visitors. However, don’t expect the staff to speak English or the instructions/advisory note to be in English. You also won’t know if they’re safe altitude sickness medication that your GP would recommend.
If you don’t end up needing them you can always pass them on to a fellow traveller who does.
The altitude sickness tablets help to minimise the symptoms and with most, you can combine them with ibuprofen or paracetamol (which will help to ease your headache).
3. Give In and Rest
Sleep to combat the effects of what’s also known as ‘mountain sickness’.
Whilst it is hard to stay in the confinements of your room and to 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).
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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.
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5. 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.
6. Slow and Easy Wins the Race
Take your time and don’t try to rush the trek, overexerting yourself and no doubt making Machu Picchu altitude sickness flare up. The Inca Trek is something that some people only dream about, 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.
It’s 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).
7. Natural Remedies for Altitude Sickness
You will undoubtedly be offered coca leaves to chew or coca tea. The leaves are legal in Peru, but it’s recommend that you buy or accept either forms from a trusted guide or shop owner. The chewing of the leaves made me feel sick, but the tea was quite good.
Sucking a small hard boiled sweet (I found mints were the best) or chewing minty gum can also 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).
8. Tell a Friend
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.
9. Comfort Food
You’ll find Jack’s Cafe in Cusco. It’s small, so you’ll often find a queue, but it’s worth it for a plate of comfort food – burgers, nachos, toasties. It helped a lot when I felt unwell – so much so I went twice!
Altitude Sickness in Children
There is no solid evidence to suggest that children are more at risk of suffering with altitude sickness. As mentioned earlier, altitude sickness effects people from all kinds of backgrounds.
However, it can be difficult for young children to let you know how unwell they’re feeling, so it pays to be super vigilant. Factor in plenty of time to acclimatize and travel slow where possible. The“wait and see” approach doesn’t work with children and acute mountain sickness. It’s not worth the risk.
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