Peru is famous for its impressive altitude; many of its most popular destinations sit at 8,000 feet above sea level. Cusco, the hub for many treks including the Classic Inca Trail, is 11,600 ft above sea level.
Altitude sickness can begin to affect people at 6,500 feet above sea level. Symptoms will usually manifest after 6-10 hours of arrival and can take a day or two to subside.
The symptoms include a headache first, then you may experience a lack of appetite, nausea, or vomiting; fatigue; dizziness; light-headedness; and/or insomnia. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, rapid pulse, drowsiness, and swelling of the face, hands, or feet. Extreme altitude sickness can result in swelling of the brain and fluid accumulation in the lungs, which can be fatal. Keep in mind that these are extreme cases and not commonplace. The vast majority of folks feel lousy or suffer a headache for the first day or two at high altitude.
The best way to avoid altitude sickness is to ascend slowly. However, since most travelers are flying directly into Cusco, this isn’t an option. To avoid altitude sickness if you are flying into your destination, give yourself plenty of time to acclimatize to the formidable change in altitude. For instance, if you are trekking the Inca Trail, you should rest for at least the first day in Cusco. On your rest day (or days), you should avoid exerting yourself too heavily, eat lightly, avoid alcohol, and drink plenty of water. If you are trekking, make sure to stay hydrated, take it slowly, take frequent rest breaks, and let your guide know if you are feeling any of the symptoms listed above.
In Peru and Bolivia, the folk remedy for altitude sickness is chewing coca leaves or drinking a tea made from the leaves. The strength of the effect is equivalent to a cup of coffee, but it works wonders for most travelers. It is widely available and your hotel in Cusco will probably offer it as well. Additionally, some hotels, such as the Monasterio hotel in Cusco, have oxygen cannisters on hand to help guests cope with altitude sickness.
You should contact your primary care physician for recommendations if:
-You have a pre-existing respiratory condition
-You have had serious problems with altitude sickness in the past
-You have other health concerns that may be affected by altitude