What is altitude sickness? (or “soroche” as it’s called in cusco)
Cusco and Machu Picchu are amazing places worth at least one visit in your lifetime.
You can never predict altitude sickness; you may not even get it. Physical fitness, age, and gender have no bearing on whether you will get altitude sickness. However, people at higher risk for feeling its effects are those with heart problems or lung problems. Those with sleep apnea may also experience worse problems at high altitude; if you have a CPAP machine, it is important to bring this. But first, be sure to check that it is built to operate at high altitude (yes, machines can be affected too!)
At high elevations—above 8,000 feet—the air is “thinner,” meaning there is less pressure, so while the oxygen percentage remains the same, the air is less dense, so each breath you take contains less oxygen than what you’re used to. To counteract this, your body will, at first, need to breathe faster and pump blood more rapidly in order to take in the same amount of oxygen it is accustomed to receiving. For many people, this comes as a shock to the body, causing various symptoms.
Symptoms Of Altitude Sickness
- Dizziness, lightheadedness
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Difficulty breathing
- Heart racing
Important Things To Note
- There isn’t really a “cure” for altitude sickness, other than descending back down to a normal elevation.
- Cusco is at 11,152 feet (3,399 meters). Machu Picchu is significantly lower at 7,972 ft (2,430 m). Altitude sickness generally starts affecting people at 8,000 feet or higher, so Machu Picchu isn’t really the potential problem–Cusco is. Everyone who goes to Machu Picchu must pass through Cusco. Flights land here. Buses from Lima stop here.
- I am not a doctor.
How The High Altitude Has Affected Me
I was born in Florida–flat, sea-level Florida–and lived there for almost my entire life. Prior to April 2014, I had never been at altitudes as high as Cusco. Therefore, I felt I was a prime candidate for altitude sickness (although, again, you never truly can predict it). Now I’ve been in Cusco since April, on and off. I’ve arrived in Cusco three separate times; in other words, I visited here for 10 days, went to Buenos Aires for 10 days, came back to Cusco, went to the U.S. for two weeks, then came back again. Each time I arrive in Cusco, it gets easier to acclimate. The first arrival, I had a pounding headache for five days, though it wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t do activities. I think I took Tylenol a couple of times to relieve the headache. I also drank coca tea during my first visit, but haven’t since (there’s no proof it actually works). Thankfully, my symptoms have never been worse than that.
Below Are The Many Ways To Treat Altitude Sickness, Including Natural Ways.
Take it easy. This is seriously the easiest—and most ignored—piece of advice for avoiding altitude sickness. Remember, your body is trying to get accustomed to the lower amount of oxygen it’s getting; therefore it is of utmost importance that you take it easy the first few days you are in Cusco. Don’t go on hikes or long walks. Don’t put any excess stress on your body—it’s already working overtime to oxygenate your blood!
Take deep breaths. Again, your body is trying to get oxygen, but there is less of it available in each breath. So take deep breaths to try to get more air in.
Avoid alcohol. The reasons for this are debated, but certain studies show that the effects of alcohol are enhanced at high altitude (i.e. You get drunk more easily). Also, alcohol may exacerbate the effects of altitude sickness. Hold off on the Pisco Sours for the first couple of days you’re in Cusco.
Drink lots of water. This may not alleviate altitude sickness exactly, but sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between altitude sickness and dehydration, and high elevations tend to be very dry, meaning you need more water for proper hydration.
Acclimate at a lower altitude, and ascend slowly. This piece of advice is sometimes hard to follow because it means changing your trip plans. A lot of people recommend that the second your plane lands in Cusco, you should take a taxi or colectivo to the Sacred Valley, about an hour outside of Cusco, where the elevation is about 2,000 feet lower. This allows you to acclimate at a somewhat lower altitude, and then move back up to Cusco when your body is more used to high altitude. The other option is to take a 21-hour bus ride from Lima to Cusco. Some people think the Lima-Cusco bus is a better option because it allows you to ascend slowly over the course of 21 hours—however, the bus route is very curvy and mountainous, so you will likely get very car sick if you’re prone to motion sickness.
Bring chlorophyll drops. (Yep, chlorophyll as in the green stuff from plants.) This one took me by surprise! I had never heard of this treatment until I met a couple on the train from Machu Picchu to Cusco. They told me they had brought a small bottle of chlorophyll drops they’d bought at a natural health store back in the States, and they put a few drops in their water every day and never suffered any ill effects from the altitude. The idea behind this natural treatment is that the chlorophyll increases the amount of red blood cells in your system; the more red blood cells there are, the more opportunities there are for oxygen to be absorbed, thereby reducing the effects of altitude sickness. You can purchase chlorophyll drops
Drink coca tea. Oh my, coca. You will find it everywhere in Cusco. Let’s clarify a few things: Yes, coca is the plant from which cocaine is made. However, coca leaves alone are not potent enough to be anything near to resembling the illegal drug; so yes, it’s totally safe to drink coca tea. However, don’t drink more than four or five cups, or else you could suffer heart palpitations.
Take Diamox. In the U.S., Diamox is a prescription drug often used to treat glaucoma; however, it can also treat altitude sickness. You need to take it 24 hours before arriving in Cusco, though, and a side effect of the drug is that you’ll probably need to pee more frequently–not very convenient when you’re traveling. I brought Diamox with me, but have never used it.
Buy Oxishot. These are plastic tubes filled with oxygen! They’re sold in almost every pharmacy in Cusco. However, many people claim it’s a gimmick. Yes, it contains real oxygen, but it’s such a small amount that it probably will have no effect on you. Your best bet is to go to a hotel or hospital that has real tanks of oxygen.
Go to a 5-star hotel, or the emergency room, and get hooked up to oxygen. If your altitude sickness reaches “emergency” status, you’ll need to get hooked up to a tank of oxygen, ASAP.
Bonus! Bring A Blood Oxygen/Pulse Meter
You know those little “finger pulse oximeters” they put on your fingertip when you’re in the hospital? Thanks to my super smart and always prepared dad, I brought one of these with me, and it’s been great at helping me monitor myself (and others) to see if I’m getting to “emergency” status. Basically, your SPO2 (blood oxygen level) shouldn’t fall below 90%. In Florida, mine is normally 99%. When I first got to Cusco, it fell to 69%! This is serious. I just lay down for a few hours and breathed deeply, and I was fine. You can also use this to keep track of your heart rate. In Florida, my resting heart rate is usually in the low 70s. In Cusco, it’s usually in the 80s.
My handy-dandy blood oxygen meter. I sometimes like to test random people’s blood oxygen level and heart rate just for fun. (I’m weird, I know.) But what’s interesting is that even natives of Cusco have lower blood oxygen levels than what is normal at low altitude. I guess you never really get used to it?
While you shouldn’t let the fear of altitude sickness cancel your trip, you should also take any symptoms of altitude sickness seriously. As long as you listen to your body and take precautions, you should be fine.
Note: This is probably pretty obvious, but I am not a doctor, so this post should not be used as a substitute for medical advice. Before heading to Cusco, you need to visit a doctor to get vaccinations anyway, so while you’re there, check with him/her about the different options for treating altitude sickness.