How to Deal with Altitude Sickness in Cuzco, Peru (and Elsewhere)

The first time I visited Cuzco, I didn’t feel any altitude sickness. I remember thinking it was a bit of a myth, until I saw one woman pass out cold while touring the ruins of Saksaywaman just outside of Cuzco; clearly this ailment was real.

What is altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness, also known as soroche in Peru, is a condition that occurs when you climb to a high altitude too quickly. Because the air is “thinner” at higher altitudes, when you ascend too quickly, your body struggles to get the oxygen it needs. This can result in symptoms like: constant headache which may feel like a migraine, tiredness, nausea or vomiting, loss of appetite, feeling unsteady, difficulty sleeping, upset stomach, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, and generally feeling unwell.

Altitude sickness in Cuzco is common, especially for travellers who have flown in from Lima without time to acclimatize to the change in altitude. Going from sea level to 3,400 meters is a lot for your body to handle. Some feel the effects mildly while others feel quite ill, but it’s hard to predict how your body will react until you get there.

The thing about altitude sickness is that there’s really no magical cure aside from descending to a lower altitude, however, there are a few ways to help lessen the effects of it. Here are a few tips to consider for anyone visiting Cuzco:

Head straight to bed and rest

The first things you should do once you arrive is get to your hotel and go straight to bed! Your body will need plenty of rest while it tries to acclimatize to the altitude, so take it easy. Have a nap, watch TV, or read a book, just don’t run out and start sightseeing right away because the altitude could hit you like a sack of potatoes when you least expect it.

Avoid strenuous physical activity

While you’ll obviously want to start your trip and begin visiting attractions around town, you should still avoid strenuous physical activity for the first few days. Of course you can still go out sightseeing, but just remember to take plenty of breaks, go easy on the steep hills, and take a taxi when necessary. On that note, you’ll also want to keep your daypack as light as possible. Only bring what you need for a day out sightseeing: water, camera, map, etc. There’s no need to wear yourself out.

Stay hydrated

Drink lots and lots of water! Because humidity is lower in higher altitudes, that means sweat evaporates quickly and you may not realize how much water you are losing. The lower oxygen levels also cause you to breathe faster, which means that you lose more water through respiration. You should be drinking plenty of water throughout the day, while also avoiding beverages with alcohol and caffeine which cause dehydration.

Try coca leaves

Coca leaves have been used for thousands of years by the people of the Andean region for their ability to help prevent altitude sickness. Mate de coca is a tea infusion made with coca leaves and it’s a popular drink that you’ll find available in hotel lobbies and restaurant menus. Alternatively, you can buy coca candy at the market or get a bag of loose coca leaves to chew on. If you decided to chew coca, you’ll want to grab a wad of leaves, break the stems off, wrap them into a little ball, and place them on the inside of your cheek. You can then bite down on the leaves every once in a while to help release the juices.

Be mindful of your meal sizes

Digestion occurs at a much slower rate here so you don’t want to go hog wild with your meals. You’ll notice that larger meals are eaten at lunchtime, while lighter meals are served at dinnertime. Having a light dinner will also help you avoid sleepless nights as your body inevitably struggles to digest all the food. Carbohydrates allow you to use oxygen more efficiently and to maintain your energy levels, so pastas, breads, and potato-based dishes are recommended.

Take bottled oxygen

Most hotels in Cuzco that are 4-5 stars have oxygen tanks at hand for any guests who are feeling unwell. You’ll also notice that pharmacies around Cuzco carry bottles of OxyShot, which are small oxygen canisters that you can carry with you.

Talk to your doctor about taking medication

I’m clearly not a doctor here, so if you want to get some medication to help fight altitude sickness and you have any pre-existing conditions you’ll want to talk to your physician about that. That being said, acetazolamide is the most common pill used to prevent and reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness. You can either buy it at home with a doctor’s prescription or pick it up at a pharmacy in Cuzco (much cheaper if you ask me). I took it as a precaution on my most recent trip to Cuzco, but it caused me tingling hands and feet which drove me crazy. That’s not to say you’ll experience the same side-effects, but I ended up ditching the medication after one pill and stuck to coca tea instead.

Get travel insurance before you go

This should go without saying as you should always be covered when you travel, but even more so when dealing with high altitude; this coming to you from someone who ended up in a hospital due to high altitude sickness – albeit in Argentina and not Peru. Lesson learned: always be prepared. You can get a quote from World Nomads travel insurance for your Peru trip here.

Have you ever experienced altitude sickness?
How did you deal with it?