Everything you need to know about altitude sickness

Are you planning a trip to South America soon?  Are you nervous about trekking up in the mountains of Peru and Chile because of the high altitude?  Are you nervous about going to Cusco, Puno, or Machu Picchu? Well don’t be! I can assure you if you take the proper precautions, you will not die!

I was super nervous hearing all these horror stories about altitude sickness, and to be honest, at the time I had no idea it was even a thing or something to worry about while traveling through Peru or Chile.  I starting reading all these blogs and posts about people getting severely sick and hearing stories about people dying while trying to get to Machu Picchu and it scared to sh*t out me!  I did so much research on altitude sickness and how it can affect you, the signs, and what to do if you do get sick.  For some reason this scared me more than any of my travels because it was something that I couldn’t control.  Going up to a such high altitude knowing that something severe could happen to my health.  Well I’ll just say this…..I had no issues traveling throughout South America with altitude sickness.  I did it the right way, and below I will explain how I accomplished this without fearing for my life!

Like I said, altitude sickness is real, and can be very dangerous.  They say once your above 8000 ft (2438 m) is when it can start taking effect to those that aren’t use to it. Because you are so high up, your body isn’t getting enough oxygen from the air because the air is thinner.  This can cause you to have headaches, loss of appetite, stomach sickness, and feeling weak and tired.  It doesn’t matter if you are a male or female, or athletic or not, you can never tell who will end up getting it.

If you are heading to Cusco to do the famous trek to Machu Picchu I would advise you to take the bus to avoid any altitude sickness if you are worried.  What I did was, I took a bus from Ica to Arequipa (12 hours)  and had a two night stay there.  Arequipa sets at about 7,600 ft ( 2,300) high and is a good resting stop to let your body adjust to the altitude as you are moving up the mountains.  There are other routes to take from sea level in Peru, for example you can head Northeast of Lima to Huancayo and then to Ayacucho, but that route isn’t as popular as the Ica to Arequipa to Cusco one.  I didn’t really feel any changes in my body once I arrived in Arequipa.  I felt a little drowsy but nothing out of the ordinary.  After a couple of days of letting my body adjust, I got on a bus and headed to Cusco. (12 hour bus ride)

I remember on the bus ride I woke up a couple of times to my ears popping as we were headed up the mountains.  It’s just like flying in plane.  This is why I advise you to take a bus up to Cusco because when you drive up to high altitude, you are letting your body adjust to the thinner air as you are casually heading to higher elevation.  Opposed to when you fly, you leave sea level and land at very high levels of altitude and its a big shock to your body.  The altitude might not hit your right away, but it might after a couple of days and effect your travel plans.

Cusco sets at 11,152 ft (3,399 m) above sea level. When I arrived, I didn’t notice anything off the bat.  After the fist day, I realized I got winded while walking around. and I couldn’t do a lot of walking like I was use to.  I allowed myself extra time in Cusco to make sure my body was adjusted before heading to Machu Picchu.  I met a couple of people who flew into Cusco from Lima and ended up getting pretty sick from the altitude after two days of feeling fine.  They had to drive one of the guys down the mountain for a couple of days to lower altitude so his body to adjust.

Tip: Drinking alcohol causes your blood to thin and when you are at high altitude.  This is something that you need to avoid until your body is fully adjusted the elevation.  

Remember to drink lots of water.  I caught myself drinking over 3 liters of water a day.  You don’t realize it at the time, but being at high elevation causes your body to become dehydrated.  Staying refreshed with water helps you from becoming sick.

Coco tea is everywhere in Cusco.  This is a myth from the locals.  They say that drinking coco tea helps you from getting altitude sickness.  And apparently it works.  Coco tea gives you energy and gets your blood flowing so you aren’t tired or drowsy.  It gives you a little boost of energy when you are getting a bit of altitude sickness.  Its nothing like the sounds though.  It doesn’t automatically give you this massive boost of energy.  It gradually does it.  Every single hotel and hostel will have coco tea available, usually for free, at all times of the day.  I would highly suggest drinking around 2-3 cups a day.  And not worry, it tastes good.  Other option that local do is they chew the leaves.  I found this to be rather disgusting because of the taste.  However, it doesn’t take as long to come into effect.  A lot of people will take some leaves with them will hiking up high hill or mountains and chew on them the entire way up.  They also make a couple different types of coco candy.  Sweet or non sweet.  I found these to be very helpful when trekking to Machu Picchu so I didn’t have to chew the nasty leaves.

After staying three days in Cusco I made my way to Machu Picchu for a couple of days.  Machu Picchu sets at 7,972 ft (2,430 m) above sea level.  So it’s actually lower than Cusco.  Which is a good thing for those of you that fear altitude sickness.  I didn’t feel anything while trekking Machu Picchu. Everything was pretty much a breeze.  Oh, and you won’t  to see anyone dying or passed out the ground like you have read in other posts! Theres no need to worry about that!

After my time in Cusco, I headed to Lake Titicaca in Puno, which is the worlds highest lake setting at 12,507 ft (3,812 m). I automatically assumed I would be fine with the elevation since was in Cusco for over a week.  Although, this is where I experienced my only minimal altitude sickness.  When I arrived, I immediately noticed I was having a hard time breathing.  I was really exhausted and just felt like I didn’t want to do anytime but lay down.  The hostel I stayed at had 6 floors and of course I was on floor 5, with no elevator.  I thought I had just ran 15 miles at a full sprint when I go to my room.  I remember one time had to stop half way to take a break because I thought I was going to have a heart attack!! After a day’s rest of not moving, tons of water, and coco tea I felt better.

If you do start to feel any sort of sickness while traveling at high elevation always remember not to push yourself.  Take the first day and just relax with minimal movement.  Drink lots of water and try to avoid alcohol at all costs.  The best advise I can give you is not to worry about it.  Don’t let this ruin your time in Peru or Chile, or wherever you may be going.  Take the precautions you need and enjoy your trip!


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