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I’m not going to lie. One of the main hesitancies I had in visiting Peru was fear of altitude sickness (acute mountain sickness is its medical name) or soroche as it’s known in Spanish. At high elevations the air is “thinner,” meaning there is less pressure. While the oxygen amount stays the same, the air is less dense, so each breath you take contains less oxygen than what you’re used to. In order to mitigate the effects of this, your body initially needs to breathe and pump blood faster in order to take in the same amount of oxygen it’s used to getting. For most people not used to high altitudes, this causes red flags to go off in your body and causes numerous symptoms.
I know some of you may scoff at the idea of not visiting a country because of a potential sickness (I say potential since not everyone is struck by it), but the fact is altitude sickness is quite serious and for some people can even prove to be fatal. On a non-fatal level, symptoms include crippling headaches, vomiting, racing heart, difficulty breathing, dizziness, and lightheadedness-all things that can definitely ruin a trip. If altitude sickness isn’t treated it can even lead to fluid in the lungs and swelling in the brain, both potentially deadly occurrences.
I’m not a medical professional and won’t be dispensing any medical advice here (my advice is please go see a doctor whose specialty is travel medicine before your trip). But I did want to share my personal experiences and also clear up some of the common misconceptions and tips concerning altitude sickness.
Note: Peru’s Sacred Valley is the only “high altitude” area I’ve been to so I’m basing the post on that experience. However, most of the information will be pertinent to other areas as well.
Altitude sickness can strike anyone-young and old. It does not discriminate based on age, race, or physical status.
There’s a misconception that altitude sickness is an “old person’s thing.” That young people in their 20s who are active and fit wouldn’t get altitude sickness. Well, this is completely wrong. Altitude sickness can easily take down the 20 year running fanatic just as much as the middle-aged woman who never exercises. Just check out these articles here and here if you don’t believe me. Yes, these cases are the exception since most travelers to Peru (myself included) visit and have no major issues. However, you don’t know if altitude sickness will affect you prior to going to an area with high altitudes (heights of more than 8,000 feet). There’s no test you can take to predict this. The fact remains that no one is invincible.
Take it easy while at high altitudes
People often run into issues with high altitudes by overdoing it. They don’t give their bodies time to acclimatize to the higher altitudes and instead hit the ground running from day one. Cusco is the major airport in Peru’s Sacred Valley and sits at an altitude of over 11,000 feet. For most people, this is a staggering height. Trust me when I say you will feel the difference in the air when you take that first breath outside. Yes, Peru is undoubtedly an “active destination,” you want to go on as many hikes and climbs as possible. But know your limits and do not overdue it. On our guided tour of Sacred Valley sights, our Peruvian guide climbed down to the bottom of the agricultural terraces at Moray and back up again (even harder) like it was a walk in the park. While I felt slightly self-conscious over this, I also know that one, he was used to both the air and climbing and two, I needed to go at my speed, not anyone else’s. Make sure you’re leaving plenty of time for resting, of just doing nothing. Peru is a country replete with gorgeous scenery so even if you’re inactive, you’re still taking in majestic landscapes.
Looking down on the agricultural terraces of Moray from above
Feeling slightly exerted after climbing down, the terraces are much bigger than they appear in the picture
Lay off the booze…become a tea drinker
Alcohol consumption is one of the worst things for altitude sickness. No, I’m not saying don’t have a Cusquena beer or pisco sour with dinner, but be circumspect. Alcohol is known to exacerbate many of the symptoms associated with altitude sickness. Don’t willingly make stuff worse when there’s no need to by indulging in a night of drinking (something young backpackers tend to do). When at high altitudes you want to be drinking water ‘round the clock (no joke). Yes, it might get annoying having to urinate constantly but rather that than being holed up in your hotel room because you’re non-stop vomiting and in bed with the worst headache of all time. And while this may be more of a placebo than anything else, have some cocoa tea, which some people believe alleviates the symptoms of altitude sickness. Even if it doesn’t cure you, tea has innumerable health benefits. And if you’re wondering, cocoa leaves alone (what you find in your tea) are not potent enough to be anything akin to the stuff that made Colombia so infamous in the 1980s and ’90s.
Take Diamox as a preventative measure
Many people travel to areas with high altitude and never have any serious issues. However, with my trip to Peru being a once in a lifetime destination, not to mention just over a week long, I didn’t want anything to mess with it. So when I visited a travel medicine doctor, she wrote me a prescription for Diamox, a drug commonly used to treat altitude sickness. I took it while I was there and suffered no issues. Yes, maybe my body would have been fine on its own, but I didn’t want to find out naturally. I’ve spoken to too many people who talked about the crippling headaches they had while in Cusco, how they didn’t want to do anything but lie in bed. The negative side effect of Diamox (as my doctor warned me about) is that you’ll feel “pins and needles” in your fingers and toes at times. Odd and annoying but something you can live with.
Come down “off the mountain” if you need to
One of the best things you can do if you’re suffering from serious altitude sickness is to literally come down to a lower altitude. No hospital in the world can fix your body for good if it’s still at a high altitude. For many people, going from Cusco (altitude of around 11,000 feet) to Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of Machu Picchu whose altitude is just under 8,000 feet) is enough to help you feel better. However, in certain cases, some travelers need to head to the Peruvian capital of Lima, whose altitude is at 5,000 feet. No one wants their trip ruined, but rather have a bump in the road than a crash you’d never be able to recover from.
My trip to Peru was one of my favorites (if not THE favorite). I’m glad I overcame my fears concerning altitude sickness but I know that seeing a travel medicine doctor and being adequately prepared, both mentally and physically, helped immensely. One day I’d love to visit places like Ecuador and Nepal. You don’t ever want extreme paranoia to ruin a trip and yet altitude sickness is no joke, so be prudent with your choices and always listen to what your body is telling you.