How to mitigate Altitude Sickness in Cusco

How to mitigate Altitude Sickness in Cusco

Cusco - Peru

Sooner or later in Cusco, we feel the altitude. We are 3,400 meters above sea level, and the partial pressure of oxygen, that is, the availability of it for our breathing, is lower than what we’re used to.

Some hardly feel anything, while others always suffer a bit (like me). The most common symptoms of altitude sickness are headaches, shortness of breath, fatigue, digestive and sleep disturbances, and loss of appetite. For most tourists, this can significantly disrupt the trip. If you take a look at the blog, you’ll soon realize that I’m passionate about the Andean region, and I come whenever I can. I’m not a doctor, so what I’m doing here is sharing my personal experience with you, which helps me feel less unwell.

1 – Ascend gradually (if possible)

If your trip includes other destinations in Peru, why not save the higher ones for last? Arequipa, for example, is at 2300 meters above sea level and is a beautiful city. Besides, you’ll find that saving the best for last is worth it! Since not everyone plans to pass through Arequipa, and many will fly directly to Cusco, let’s move on to the next tip.

2 – Take it slow

Symptoms don’t always appear when you get off the plane. You might not feel anything at first. But trust me, that doesn’t mean you’re immune. Some people only feel symptoms a few hours later, and altitude sickness is not very kind in those cases.

Therefore, reserve the first day to rest at the hotel or take a brief, leisurely walk around the city. Take care of yourself. This tip also applies to the following days, although gradually you’ll feel like you can increase the pace.

3 – Eat lightly and wisely

One of the symptoms of altitude sickness is loss of appetite, so this tip shouldn’t be hard to follow. Digestion is more difficult at high altitudes, and eating too much can cause discomfort. When you eat, opt for light meals in small portions.

It’s also good to prefer fruits, vegetables, and carbohydrate-rich foods. This is because the body consumes sugar reserves more quickly with less oxygen. When these run out, discomfort sets in.

Anecdote: On my first trip to the Andes, I didn’t follow tips 2 and 3, and after climbing a mountain to watch the sunset, I descended relatively quickly and went to dinner. I ate a large portion of red meat (it was delicious).

Result: That night, I started feeling sick and felt like I was going to die. I vomited several times throughout the night, and the next day, I was bedridden in the hotel room, unable to move or even drink water. On the second day, I still didn’t feel well enough to go out, but at least I managed to hydrate myself with coca tea. I lost two days of the trip and still didn’t feel perfectly fine until the fifth day after the incident.

4 – Hydrate more than usual

As our bodies absorb less oxygen with each inspiration, we breathe more frequently and lose more water vapor. So, drink plenty of water, even before you start feeling unwell. This is important in Cusco because it’s a very dry city. I’ve seen recommendations to drink 4 to 5 liters of water a day. Even if you don’t reach that point, take it as a reference to drink more than you do at home.

5 – Avoid alcohol and smoking

We all know that alcohol dehydrates us and causes discomfort. The same goes for smoking. It’s better to avoid, or at least reduce, in the first few days so as not to mistreat your body beyond what it’s already suffering from due to altitude. I know Cusco is a very fun city, with nightlife options you don’t want to miss. But think of it this way, take it easy at first.

6 – Embrace Coca Tea

In some places there is a prejudice against coca tea, thinking it’s some narcotic beverage or that it could lead to dependency.

It’s a tea like any other, with some properties that help deal with altitude sickness. Coca helps in the absorption of oxygen by the blood, it’s digestive and stimulating – like coffee or a Coca-Cola, and these two are not recommended at high altitudes. The leaf has significant cultural, ritual, and religious importance for Andean peoples. So, besides helping to overcome the effects of altitude, it’s an immersion into the culture and daily life of Cusco.

Coca can be consumed by chewing the leaves, in tea, and in candies. Chewing is the most common form among peasants, but it can be strange and difficult for us, as we have to be careful to only suck the juice without swallowing the leaves.

Here, be careful to respect the culture, especially if you’re visiting a rural community. It’s considered disrespectful to throw away chewed coca. What they do is put it in the ground and cover it with stones while saying a prayer. Observe what others are doing and follow suit. Avoid treating coca disrespectfully, and if you don’t want to partake, decline politely.

7 – Altitude Sickness Pills

I don’t recommend taking these pills without consulting a doctor. Any self-medication is risky. But it’s an option. It seems they’re caffeine and aspirin, which “combat” fatigue and discomfort (I still prefer coca tea, as it has the same effect). One thing about altitude sickness pills: take them before you start feeling unwell. Once you have strong symptoms, they won’t be effective. Be careful if you’re allergic or can’t take aspirin!

8 – Oxygen Canisters

If none of the previous attempts work, you can resort to oxygen canisters available for purchase at pharmacies and small shops in Cusco. Some hotels also have them available, and you can request them if you feel unwell. They’re also available at the airport.

9 – Respect Your Body

Last but not least, respect your body! It’s not worth trying to be a tough guy (yes, poking fun at the guys) during the trip. It’s better to save yourself and ensure you’ll enjoy the trip. There’s a saying among altitude people that goes, “Drink before you’re thirsty, eat before you’re hungry, dress warmly before you’re cold, and rest before exhaustion sets in.” If they’re more accustomed to living here, it’s better to listen, right?

I’ve experienced and heard many cases of people who thought they were fit and decided to hike a trail, for example, at a fast pace. In all cases, they got very sick and had to be taken to the hospital or cared for by healers (if they were far from any city). Unnecessary, isn’t it?

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