Kyle is the writer behind The Travel Runner. He’s a full-time traveler and adventurer who’s visited over 20 countries, including places like Thailand, Mexico, Vietnam, and Albania. He prefers a slower pace to his travels to explore destinations more in-depth and to get a feel for what life is actually like there. When he’s not writing, he’s usually off exploring trails with his fiancée, Kaitlyn.
Learn how to avoid altitude sickness in Peru. Whether visiting Cusco or Machu Picchu, these tips help at high altitudes. Don’t let soroche ruin your trip!
Did you know that altitude sickness affects around 25% of people who visit Cusco and Machu Picchu?
Yep — that’s 1 in 4 of us!
Altitude sickness, known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) medically or soroche in Peru, can be more than just a minor inconvenience on your travel adventures.
Trust me. I’ve suffered from it myself. And it’ll ruin parts of your trip if you’re not careful.
So I’m here to help you understand how to avoid altitude sickness, recognize its symptoms, and provide you with reliable advice so you can create unforgettable memories in Peru — minus the headache and nausea.
Let’s dive into it.
What is altitude sickness?
Altitude sickness is a condition that can strike when you aren’t giving your body enough time to adjust to the lower amount of oxygen available at high altitudes.
Picture this: You’re hiking to Machu Picchu through the Andes in South America. You’re ready to visit Machu Picchu after planning about it for years and dreaming about it even longer. It’s so close you can almost see Huayna Picchu in front of you.
One moment, you’re reveling in the pure, exhilarating mountain air.
The next, a wave of ickiness crashes over you. Yup — that’s your body telling you it’s not getting enough oxygen due to the altitude.
Now, don’t go freaking out — I’m not saying you’ll literally suffocate.
But your body does need an abundance of oxygen to function smoothly, and the higher you climb, the less oxygen there is in the air. This lack of oxygen prompts your body to work overtime, and if pushed too far, you end up with altitude sickness.
Basically, it’s your body’s way of telling you it needs more time to acclimate to the changes in altitude.
Simple, right? But don’t worry; we’ll get into the details on how to avoid this. After all, who wants a side of nausea with their breathtaking panoramic mountain views?
Not me. And I imagine not you, either.
What are the symptoms of altitude sickness?
The symptoms of altitude sickness are wide and can range from a simple headache to full-on confusion and slurred speech.
So, let’s cover all the symptoms — from mild altitude sickness to severe. That way, you can recognize them and get treatment as needed in whichever high elevation destination you choose.
Mild symptoms of altitude sickness
- Headaches: Think of it like having a gang of llamas in your head, all jostling for space. It’s the most common early sign that altitude sickness is setting in.
- Dizziness: Not the kind from one too many Pisco sours, but a light-headed feeling that’s hard to shake.
- Shortness of Breath: An incredibly uncomfortable feeling when it strikes. Just relax (despite the urge to freak out).
- Loss of Appetite: That enticing plate of ceviche doesn’t seem so appealing anymore, and you’re eating less than usual (which isn’t great if you’re hiking).
- Insomnia: Even on the coziest alpaca wool blankets, a good night’s sleep feels elusive.
- Diarrhea: Bathroom trips are frequent. And you’ll feel extremely drained the following day.
- Vomiting: See diarrhea.
- High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE): This is when fluid builds up in the lungs, causing trouble breathing even when resting. Recognizing early symptoms helps avoid the onset of HAPE.
- High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE): This is the real baddy. It’s when the brain swells from fluid leakage. Think of slurred speech, confusion, and trouble walking.
Now, after reading about the serious symptoms, I can’t blame you if you’re a bit nervous. But cases of HAPE are rare, as are cases of HACE. And altitude sickness usually only shows itself as a headache or dizziness.
As long as you take proper care and recognize early symptoms, you’ll be okay. But if you have health concerns, consult your doctor for advice.
Tips to avoid altitude sickness in Peru
Peru has many high-elevation areas.
From Arequipa to hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley to Cusco and its cobbled streets, you’ll have to take it easy and let your body adjust.
Luckily, I have these tips to prevent the symptoms so you can enjoy your trip to the fullest.
1. Gradual Ascent
Most people come from a lower elevation or sea level (like Lima) before they go up in altitude to a city (like Cusco).
So the key is to try and gradually ascend from lower altitude to higher altitude.
For example, I avoided altitude sickness in Cusco because I first went from Lima to Arequipa for a few weeks. Then I arrived in Cusco, where the altitude didn’t affect me as much. That little bit of time to acclimatize in Arequipa first helped immensely. (Though it’d catch up to me when I visited Laguna Humantay.)
And it’s the same case for ascending from Cusco to a higher elevation.
Keep it gradual, and take it easy the first few days if you can so your body gets used to the altitude. If you’re patient, it’ll pay off for you.
2. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
You need to drink more water than you think you should.
Dehydration exaggerates the symptoms of altitude sickness. And they’re already rough. You don’t need to help it out.
It’s a good idea to drink plenty of water, but don’t overdo it — balance is key here.
3. Drink coca tea
Coca tea, a traditional Incan drink loved by locals and tourists in Peru, is used to treat altitude sickness.
It’s made from the leaves of the coca plant and is praised for its health benefits. Though it comes from the coca plant, the tea is both legal and safe. When used naturally in this tea, the coca leaf doesn’t have negative effects, instead providing nutrients and one of the best ways to prevent altitude sickness symptoms.
I was skeptical at first. But I tried it and can say for a fact that it works.
4. Avoid alcohol and tobacco
I hate to sound like your high school health teacher, but it’s true.
These substances can do more harm than normal at higher altitudes. And they’ll definitely worsen your symptoms.
Besides, wouldn’t you rather enjoy the spectacular Andean views with a clear head?
5. Eat a balanced and high-carb diet
Find an excuse to munch on carbs — now, that’s my kind of tip!
Foods high in carbs are easier for your body to metabolize at high altitudes than fats or proteins, and that helps your body save some energy.
So yes, you now have a legitimate reason to indulge in that extra serving of quinoa during your Peru tour.
If you’re still concerned, you can consider medication.
Drugs like Acetazolamide can help. However, always talk to your doctor before opting for this route so you’re fully aware of how it can affect you.
7. Get an Oxishot
An Oxishot is a small device that can supply you with a burst of oxygen.
It’s a great aid, especially when hiking around Cusco or the Sacred Valley, where the air is thin and harder to breathe.
This portable oxygen canister has a simple operation — you just need to wear the mask, press the button, and breathe in.
You can find it almost everywhere in Cusco if you’re visiting, including various travel shops, outdoor gear stores, and some pharmacies, or you can buy it online if you prepare in advance. Your hotel in Cusco may even have it for sale.
However, remember that an Oxishot isn’t a substitute for acclimatization. It can provide temporary relief when you’re suffering from altitude sickness, but it won’t make you climb mountains effortlessly.
Altitude sickness myths debunked
There are tons of myths floating around about altitude sickness.
And, truthfully, they do more harm than good. So let’s debunk a few of the myths so you know right from wrong on your next Peru trip.
1. Only inexperienced trekkers get altitude sickness
Altitude sickness can affect anyone: professional mountaineers, seasoned hikers, or wide-eyed rookies alike.
It doesn’t discriminate based on experience, only preparation. And if you’re on a trek through high elevation in Peru, you’d better come prepared.
2. Altitude sickness only happens at extreme heights
Altitude sickness doesn’t only occur at extreme heights (although it can definitely happen faster!).
It can kick in at heights as low as 2,500 meters (around 8,200 feet). That’s not even high enough to high-five Everest! For comparison, the Andes average height is 4,000 meters.
3. If you’re fit, you’re immune
Take it from someone who’s been there. I run most days and have run distances further than 100 kilometers.
And altitude sickness kicked my ass every which way for the first day of the Salkantay Trek.
It doesn’t matter how fit you are (or think you are). If you don’t take time to acclimatize, altitude sickness will kick you into the dirt and have you wishing one of the transport donkeys walked over your lifeless body.
Trust me, it’s no fun.
4. If you have mild symptoms, you can keep ascending
No, no, no!
If you start exhibiting even minor symptoms, pushing further up isn’t a wise move. Listen to your body, and you’ll make it for the long haul.
5. Drinking lots of water can prevent altitude sickness
While hydration is vital, knocking back gallons of H2O is not a guaranteed shield against altitude sickness.
Hydrate, for sure, but don’t believe the water will magically ward off the symptoms.
altitude Sickness in Peru? No problem.
There is no shortage of places in Peru to suffer from altitude sickness. Lake Titicaca, Colca Canyon, a trek to Machu Picchu — it seems like the entire country is high elevation!
But now you’re armed with the knowledge to tackle those epic Peruvian peaks and high-altitude destinations without fear of feeling woozy or winded. And with so many destinations in Peru, it’s hard to choose just one to visit. But, if you’re deciding, you may enjoy my posts on Palcoyo Mountain or Arequipa to help narrow down your search.
Otherwise, have a safe trip to Peru and the Land of the Incas, and I’d love to hear about it when you get back!