How to Cope with Altitude Sickness in Cusco, Peru

Cusco | © sharptoyou/Shutterstock
Manuel Orbegozo

Welcome to Cusco, the capital of the Inca Empire, located at 11,152 feet (3,399 meters) above sea level, where lack of oxygen is the only thing that can prevent you from enjoying your trip. Don’t waste one day feeling sick, prevent high altitude sickness before your trip to Cusco, read our guide.

For some visitors, the first hours in Cusco can be summarized as: shortness of breath, a discomfort in the body, dizziness, headaches, stomachaches, even vomiting. As great connoisseurs of natural medicine, the Incas used coca leaves to counteract soroche, quechua for high-altitude sickness. It is common to see locals chewing on coca leaves. But to help make the coca effect work, visitors should take certain precautions before and during their trip to Cusco.

Check with a doctor first

This is a good way to find out if you’re OK to travel to elevated places like Cusco. Also, a doctor can advise you which medicines you can take in case you feel sick. It is highly recommended that visitors with cardiac problems have a check up prior to their trip.

Don’t do anything other than rest

If you travel from Lima to Cusco, the effect can be immediate. This lack of oxygen, scientifically known as hypoxia, begins to manifest itself at 7,874 ft (2,399 m) above sea level. That’s why right after landing in Cusco, visitors can feel fatigued and have difficulty walking. Walking one block could feel like walking ten blocks carrying a backpack full of rocks. It is advisable to take it really easy on the first day and, if possible, rest the first few hours to help the body acclimatize to the altitude. If you’re planning on visiting attractions located at higher altitudes, say the Ausangate Mountain at 20,945 ft (6,384 m) above sea level, do it gradually; that is, climb 1,640 feet a day and rest, then next day climb 820 and so on until you’ve reached your destination. Cusco and its surroundings are more beautiful if you’re not passing out every five minutes!

Cusco streets can get very steep.

Hangover x2

To start out on the right foot, avoiding traveling to Cusco with a hangover (this is fundamental so that the body does not become even more dehydrated). Many of the symptoms one feels are the same as those of an almighty hangover, even if you did not drink the night before traveling. It’s also recommended that you abstain from drink alcohol on the first day in Cusco. A night without partying in this town can be hard, but it is important to remember that walks are long and demanding, especially if you plan to travel to Machu Picchu. Once acclimatized, go ahead, enjoy everything the spectacular city of Cusco has to offer.

Locals call high altitude sickness “Soroche”

Stay hydrated

How do people feel after a night of drinking? Thirsty. That’s how you’ll feel when you arrive in Cusco. As already stated, the body dehydrates quickly in high altitudes. It is recommended you drink lots of water before and during your trip to Cusco. Also, avoid heavy meals since your stomach takes longer to digest food at high altitudes. A diet of low proteins and high carbs is advisable.

Discovering coca

No one knew better the effects of high altitude than indigenous peoples. Coca is the best natural medicine to combat altitude sickness. It was even considered sacred because of its curative powers and is still used in the same way now as it was in the time of the Incas. It contains iron, vitamins A, B1, B2 and calcium, among other nutrients. Coca makes it easier for your bloodstream to absorb oxygen, suppresses hunger, combats fatigue, headaches and can ease your stomach. If you do not feel like chewing leaves (which can be bitter, apart from numbing your mouth), you can try drinking coca tea, which is most commonly found in the lobby of hotels in Cusco.

Dried coca leaves

Pills help

There’s one magic pill that will save you many of these troubles. It is called Sorojchi Pill and it contains acetylsalicylic acid, salophen and caffeine. This over-the-counter drug will help with your blood circulation and headache. If you’re feeling dizzy and nauseous, try Gravol, an over-the-counter pill to stop motion sickness. Take both pills an hour before landing in Cusco. Remember to consult your doctor about medicines you intend to take, and always read the labels.

Still feeling sick? Don’t worry, the body will eventually get used to the altitude and symptoms will gradually subside. Plus, if you’re traveling to Machu Picchu, remember it’s lower than Cusco, which means more oxygen!

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