Altitude Sickness – Prevention & Cure

Our eager tourists head off to start their Peru tour (also Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Ecuador), they decide to cram as much as possible into his traveling schedule despite the advice of the travel company.

Flying into Lima at sea level he catches a connecting flight to Cusco, jumping up 3400m in an hour. He’s got a headache when he wakes up in his hotel the next morning, but there’s no time to waste. Without delay, he straps on his walking boots and heads out on the Inca Trail, a route that takes him up to 4200m at times on the way to Machu Picchu. He’s not feeling too good as the trekking group reaches the first high pass; in fact, he can’t even find the strength to lift his feet. Sinking to his knees with his head throbbing, the veins in his forehead bulge and, BOOOOOM! His head explodes like a balloon full of jelly.

OK, that last bit never happened. Nevertheless, being aware of the effects of altitude can make the difference between the trip of a lifetime and an unpleasant struggle. Unfortunately, the might of modern medical research can still not fully determine the causes of altitude sickness. However, it is thought in general that the drop in density from the oxygen at higher altitudes means that the body can not get the supply it needs and proceeds to let you know about it.

Individuals can be affected at a range of different heights, but about 80% of people may feel effects at around 3000 meters above sea level. The first thing is to check the altitude of the region to which you will be traveling and ask your tour company for expert advice. Make sure the tour operator you choose is honest and responsible with regard to altitude. Your itinerary should not try to include too many drastic changes in altitude in a short time and should always leave a couple of days for acclimatization before starting trekking at over 3000m.

Example: We most often take people down to the Sacred Valley when they arrive at Cusco airport, giving them a reduction of several hundred meters, and bringing them back up to Cusco at the end, then Lake Titicaca after that.

Remember: The Sacred Valley AND Machu Picchu are lower than Cusco!

Competent travel companies will try to plan your Peru tour to gradually rise in altitude where possible; for example, in this land of the Incas, the optimum route would be Lima, Nazca, Arequipa, Cusco, Puno. This may not be possible due to time restrictions but your travel consultant will do their best.

In any case, if you are not above 2000m altitude sickness is very unlikely. The speed of ascent is the most important factor; heading uphill as slowly as possible reduces the risk. As we mentioned before it also helps to take it easy for at least a couple of days after making the ascent to altitude before launching yourself into anything too strenuous. Heavier breathing in the thinner air also causes dehydration, so drinking plenty of water and staying clear of alcohol-fuelled nights as you get higher will prevent problems.

Prevention is obviously the best measure, but if you get any of the following symptoms above 2400m including; lack of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, dizziness, insomnia, pins and needles, shortness of breath upon exertion, persistent rapid pulse, drowsiness or swelling of the hands, feet, and face, you could be experiencing altitude sickness. Rest and drinking water are the best way to recover at the same height (chewing coca leaves or drinking coca tea where available is also a well-recognized remedy) but if things get unbearable, descent is your only option. Painkillers won’t resolve the problem and sufferers should definitely not make a bid for higher altitudes. Don’t let the fear of possible altitude effects cloud your adventures; remember that wherever you go in the Andes mountains as long as you take things steady you should have the time of your life.