The beautiful town of Cusco and the picturesque surroundings of the Sacred Valley once the home of the Incan Empire is one of the most popular destinations in Peru and South America and a perfect place to stay before visiting Machu Picchu. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the historical capital of Peru, Cusco has a great number of archeological sites, historical buildings and interesting museums however one thing may stand in your way at fully enjoying these attractions and activities.
The town of Cusco is situated at an impressive 3,399m (11,152ft.) above sea level and is the twelfth highest city by elevation in the whole of South America. You may have heard some people coming back stating that they weren’t affected by the altitude whilst others were, and there is no set rule as to whether or not you will be affected. However, you can take preventative measures as well as reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness.
Cusco and the Altitude
Altitude sickness, or ‘soroche’ as it is known in Peru, occurs at high altitudes where the air is at lower pressure than at lower altitudes. This means that there is a reduced amount of oxygen in the air that you breathe and therefore less enters your bloodstream. Your body therefore responds by increasing your breathing, your heart rate and after some time, the number of red blood cells in your blood. You are more likely to develop altitude sickness if you go too quickly to high altitude such as arriving at Cusco airport from Lima or other coastal cities. As mentioned earlier, everyone is susceptible to experience altitude sickness irrelevant of your age, gender or weight and it can affect even the healthiest of travelers.
The Altitude Sickness Experience
The symptoms of ‘soroche’ include a constant headache which may feel like a migraine, tiredness, sickness or vomiting, loss of appetite, dizziness and difficulty sleeping. Sometimes the symptoms can take up to 24 hours to develop meaning even if you feel fine on your first day in Cusco, you should still take it easy and follow the following advice on reducing the effects of altitude sickness. This means walking slowly, taking it easy and only taking part in mild activities on your first few days in Cusco and most importantly to listen to your body.
Ways to Prevent & Avoid Altitude Sickness
On a normal day we are meant to drink up to 2 liters of water in order to avoid getting dehydrated, however in Cusco as dehydration is one of the main causes of altitude sickness, you should try to drink at least 3 to 4 liters of bottled water a day. Alcoholic beverages should be avoided and instead replaced with ‘mate de coca’, an infusion of coca leaves which help with the altitude and is also a great way to relax and take in your surroundings of this stunning town. Coca leaves, Coca candy and Coca tea can be found everywhere in Cusco and help to alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness. At mealtimes, you should eat carbohydrates such as pasta, bread and potato-based dishes but make sure not to overeat as your digestion system functions a bit slower than normal at high altitudes. Some of the hotels we offer in our Cusco travel packages may offer oxygen supplementation in the form of bottled oxygen. Don’t worry, you won’t be the only one taking supplementary oxygen and you will often see in local stores and at the airport stores selling these personal oxygen canisters to help with altitude sickness, but as with anything make sure to read the instructions and advised use.
Before making your much anticipated trip to Peru and Cusco, you should make an appointment with your doctor in order to get medical advice before you travel as they know your medical history and can give you the best information related to your needs. You should also consult with them over altitude sickness medication such as Diamox and Acetazolamide which is available at pharmacies in Cusco. Of course medication should be your last option, as the more natural methods of letting your body acclimatize itself, by taking it easy, drinking water and trying the local coca leaves.
How Encounter Latin America Can Help
Our Encounter Latin America Consultants are experts in Cusco and Peru and have not only been sending travelers to this destination for the last 15 years but have traveled and experienced it themselves. They can therefore provide you with helpful information and tips on being prepared for Cusco and helping you to avoid altitude sickness. If you are looking for more information on Cusco you can also read previous traveler testimonials which will not only help you get a feel for the destination but provide you with advice on experiences you are likely to encounter.