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.
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.
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:
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.
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).
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).
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.
♥ 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).
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.
♥ 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.
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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