How to Survive Altitude Sickness in Peru

How to Survive Altitude Sickness in Peru

Peru is one of the leading destinations for many travellers. Home to one of the seven wonders of the world, Machu Picchu, Peru is a country made up of a variety of landscapes from mountains to sea, desert, and forests. 

It is the third biggest country in South America and owns the largest desert in the whole continent. Amazon forest also covers nearly half of the country and hosts a diversity of flora and fauna that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. 

The Land of the Incas offers a vast list of activities that tourists can experience, and most of them require hiking long hours at high altitude. 

 

Altitude Sickness

Gradually acclimatizing yourself is the best option to adapt to the elevation. Ascending too rapidly will cause altitude sickness because your body won’t have time to adapt to reduced oxygen. 

The recommended route would include Lima, located by the sea, followed by Paracas, Huacachina, Nazca, Arequipa, Puno, and finally, Cusco. 

Cusco is located at 3000 meters of elevation and is the closest town to Machu Picchu, where all the trips start to visit the Lost City. Usually, symptoms begin at 2500 meters of altitude.

Altitude illness is divided into 3 syndromes: acute mountain sickness (AMS), high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) which is a build-up of fluid within the brain and is the most severe form of altitude sickness, and high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) which is a build-up of fluid within the lungs.

The main symptoms are headache, trouble breathing, feeling sick, struggling to walk, dizziness, vomit and diarrhea, loss of appetite and difficulty sleeping. Recognizing the symptoms is essential to avoid worsening the situation. 

 

Can I Train for Altitude Sickness? 

Peru Alpaca

High altitude training is the practise of training at high altitude. When you work out though, you will feel more exhausted as it is harder to breath. One popular approach is “live high, train low” which involves living at high elevation that enables the body to customize to the altitude.

In fact, in Vinicunca, also known as Rainbow Mountain, you will see the local indigenous living and running at 5000 meters of altitude without difficulty. 

With this said, when it comes to this condition, being fit and eating healthy does not grant you immunity. 

“In fact, very fit hikers often go too fast and overexert themselves, leaving them even more vulnerable to problems” says Dr. Michael Koehle of the University of British Columbia’s Altitude Medicine Clinic. Travelling in large groups may create pressure to keep up with the speed, and some people can feel hesitant to complain when starting to feel the symptoms. 

“One study found that people trekking in groups have twice the rate of helicopter evacuation as those trekking independently” Dr. Koehle notes. “Whenever counselling groups, I always recommend that communication among members is just about the most important factor”. 

 

Remedies for Altitude Sickness

Peru tea

Coca leaves are a symbol of connection with nature and spirituality. They had a variety of uses and were attributed magical qualities. The Incas used to chew coca leaves to increase strength and reduce fatigue. 

Nowadays, consuming unprocessed coca leaves is still possible and encouraged by the local people to reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness. Farmers, miners, and ranchers chew the leaves to reduce the feeling of tiredness. It is important to note that unprocessed coca leaves do not make you feel addicted to coca and their consumption is legal in Peru. 

In every hotel in Cusco, tourists can find coca leaves at reception to brew in their tea and consume as a stimulant or to counter altitude sickness. Visitors can also buy them from fruit or vegetable vendors. It is interesting to know that you can chew coca leaves to numb your teeth in case of toothache, should you not have painkillers with you. Brilliant!

When preparing for your hike, it would be useful to carry with you a bag of coca leaves that you can chew for additional benefits. Note to self: do not swallow the leaves as they will make your tongue numb and may cause some stomach-ache. 

Another useful method is the coca and ginger pills. They can be purchased at pharmacies and need to be taken in pairs, ideally a couple of hours before reaching high altitudes. These pills need to be swallowed with water and contain only natural ingredients. 

Coca candy is also believed to reduce the symptoms but contains less coca compared to the leaves or the pills. 

It is also advised to adjust your diet for this sickness. Abstaining from alcohol and caffeine can be beneficial in alleviating symptoms related to dehydration. Do not skip meals but avoid overeating. Choose potassium-rich foods such as bananas and avocados. Carbohydrate foods are also a good option to keep the level of sugar in your body.

Make sure you eat protein, as well as taking vitamins and minerals. While hiking, resting is important too, and ensure you don’t stay too long in one spot, as you can get very cold easily, even if it’s sunny.

It is likely that you may experience a bit of migraine in the evening due to the pressure of the altitude.

Everyone responds to altitude sickness in a different way and only because you did not experience it in one trip, it does not mean it won’t happen. Make sure you listen to your body carefully and, if in doubt and already feel sick, it is best to start descending slowly. Always check that the organised tour you are going with will supply you with an oxygen mask should you need it. 

Prior to starting this kind of trip, consult your doctor as they will be able to provide further instructions. 

 

Embark on this Adventure!

Machu Picchu ruins

Peru is an amazing country that not only leaves a stamp on your passport, but also in your memory. 

A two-week trip can be sufficient for travelling around the country. You can either join an organised tour of Peru or buy some tickets for activities organised by online marketplaces. 

After taking the right precaution, do not feel afraid to embark on this journey and allow yourself to be captivated by the beauty of Machu Picchu - one of the best places to see in Peru, tasting Peruvian chocolate, participating in a Pisco Sour shot challenge, or the adrenaline-filled sand surfing experience in the desert.

By Valentina Pucciano