7 Steps to Avoid Altitude Sickness on Machu Picchu

Published

1 Jul 2024

Whether you’re someone who ascends mountains often, or planning to ascend for the first time – altitude sickness is a major concern. This includes Machu Picchu.

This mountain sits at an elevation of 7,972 feet – and nearby Cusco, where many travelers venture to as well, is even higher at 11,152 feet. 

And altitude sickness can hit anyone, regardless of fitness level. 

So, how do you prepare for it? Here’s everything you need to know before departing.

1. Know The Difference Between Regular Fatigue and Altitude Sickness

The vast majority of fatigue you experience is normal when climbing Machu Picchu. There’s no way to avoid the stress and work on your muscles.

However, altitude sickness – also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS) – occurs when you ascend to high elevations (and often too quickly). Your body struggles to adjust to the lower oxygen levels.

Signs include:

  • Headache: One of the first signs of altitude sickness.
  • Nausea and vomiting: A common symptom when AMS kicks in.
  • Dizziness: You may feel lightheaded or unsteady.
  • Fatigue while resting: Simple tasks can make you feel unusually tired.
  • Shortness of breath while resting: You might find it hard to catch your breath, even at rest.

Before your trip, prepping to avoid these symptoms should be a top priority – as it can be difficult to manage during ascension. 

2. Prepare for Acclimatization

Acclimatization is the process of allowing your body to adjust to high altitudes. The key is to ascend slowly. 

Planning your trip to allow for a gradual ascent can help:

  • Spend a few days in a lower-altitude area before heading to Machu Picchu or Cusco. 
  • Include rest days in your itinerary to give your body time to adjust. 
  • Hydration is also crucial when dealing with altitude. Aim to drink 2-3 liters of water daily, starting a few days before you ascend. 
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine as they can dehydrate you.

Eating the right foods can help your body adjust as well. A high-carb diet provides easy energy for your body to use. Eating smaller, more frequent meals helps keep your energy levels stable and aids digestion.

3. Consult a Doctor for Altitude Sickness Medication

For many travelers, doctors will highly recommend medication before departing, to prevent and reduce symptoms of altitude sickness (or simply have it on hand, just in case).

Diamox (Acetazolamide) helps your body adjust to high altitudes – a common traveler favorite.

Diamox Price

For most people, it’s generally recommended to start dosing 24-48 hours before your ascent and continue for a few days after reaching your highest point. Always check with your healthcare provider before taking any medication. 

4. Know How to Identify and Respond to Symptoms

Being able to identify symptoms early can make a big difference. 

If you or someone with you starts showing signs of altitude sickness, take action immediately. 

The best remedy is to descend to a lower elevation. Avoid physical activity and rest as much as possible. Drink plenty of fluids and take any prescribed medications. Severe symptoms require immediate medical attention. If symptoms persist or worsen, seek medical help right away.

5. Create a Gradual Acclimatization Schedule

A well-planned itinerary can help you acclimate properly. Spend a few days in Cusco before heading to Machu Picchu. If you’re hiking, such as on the Inca Trail, plan for gradual increases in altitude. 

Incorporate rest days into your travel plans to monitor your health. Keep an eye on how you’re feeling throughout your trip. Take a moment each day to assess how you feel. Let your travel companions know if you’re feeling off.

6. Adjust Your Exercise Routine

Your exercise routine needs to be adjusted for high altitudes. Start with light activities such as walking or gentle hiking. If you feel short of breath or unusually tired, take a break. Gradually increase the intensity and duration of your activities as you acclimate. Move at a steady, comfortable pace and listen to your body.

7. Pack the Essentials

Packing the right gear can make a big difference in how well you cope with altitude:

  • Bring a durable water bottle to stay hydrated. 
  • The air at high altitudes can be dry, so pack moisturizer and lip balm to keep your skin and lips hydrated. 
  • Weather can change rapidly, so pack layered clothing to adjust to varying temperatures. 
  • Include basic supplies in a first-aid kit, along with any personal medications. 
  • High-energy, nutritious snacks can help maintain your energy levels while you acclimate.

8. Listen to Local Advice

Locals have been living at high altitudes for generations. Their advice can be invaluable. Coca leaves and tea are often used by locals for relief. 

Notice how locals move more slowly? It helps with breathing and conserving energy. Consider hiring a local guide. They can offer tips and tricks to help you manage the altitude and assist if you start feeling sick. They also have plans in place for emergencies, which can be reassuring.

9. Emergency Plans

In case of severe altitude sickness, you need to know what to do. A few things to keep in mind:

  • Keep the contact information for local medical facilities handy. 
  • Be aware of the signs of severe altitude sickness, such as confusion, inability to walk straight, shortness of breath at rest, and coughing up froth. 
  • If symptoms are severe, descend to a lower altitude as quickly and safely as possible. 
  • Familiarize yourself with the nearest medical facilities. Know where the nearest hospital or clinic is located and how to contact local emergency services.

Machu Picchu is one of the most incredible places on Earth. Take the time to enjoy it. Don’t rush through your visit. 

If needed, move slowly – so you can enjoy the experience. Capture the moments, take photos, journal your experiences, and make memories. 

Remember, you’re visiting a place with deep historical and cultural significance (more from the UNESCO World Heritage Convention). Follow all guidelines to help preserve this wonder and take time to reflect on your journey and what you’ve learned.

FAQs

1) How long does it take for altitude sickness symptoms to appear?

Symptoms of altitude sickness can appear within 6 to 24 hours of arriving at a high altitude. However, they can also develop gradually over several days, depending on how quickly you ascend and how well you acclimate.

2) Can I take Diamox as a preventive measure even if I’ve never experienced it before?

Yes, you can take preventive medication like Diamox if you’re concerned about altitude sickness, even if you’ve never had it before (start here). However, it’s crucial to consult with your healthcare provider to ensure it’s safe for you.

3) Is it safe to drink the tap water in Cusco and Machu Picchu?

It’s generally not recommended to drink tap water in Cusco and Machu Picchu. Stick to bottled or purified water to avoid gastrointestinal issues that can exacerbate the effects of altitude sickness.

4) Can I bring my own oxygen canister to Machu Picchu?

Yes, you can bring a small portable oxygen canister with you. These can be purchased at pharmacies in Cusco or even online before your trip. They can provide quick relief if you experience severe symptoms.

5) Are there any local foods or drinks that can help with altitude sickness?

Besides coca leaves and coca tea, local foods rich in carbohydrates, such as potatoes and quinoa, can help provide energy and aid in acclimatization. Staying hydrated with herbal teas and water is also beneficial.

Last Word: Prepping for Elevation Sickness Before Ascending Machu Picchu

Surviving altitude sickness on Machu Picchu requires preparation and awareness. 

By understanding the symptoms, preparing for acclimatization, and knowing how to respond to issues, you can ensure a safe and enjoyable trip. Follow this guide, and you’ll be well-equipped to handle the challenges of high altitude. Enjoy your adventure at one of the world’s most awe-inspiring sites!

Whether it’s having Diamox on hand, staying hydrated, eating a nutritious diet 1-3 days before ascension, or listening to local advice – these tips will help you have a safe and memorable experience. So, are you ready for the adventure of a lifetime? Let’s go!

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