If you're about to embark on the epic journey to Machu Picchu, you might be concerned about altitude sickness, which is totally understandable. This ancient Inca citadel sits at 2430 metres above sea level, while the city of Cusco (where many Machu Picchu tours begin), is located 3399 metres above sea level. Most people start to feel the effects of altitude once they are above 2000 m (6561 ft), and it can happen regardless of age or fitness level.
It's very important that you make yourself aware of the cause and effects of travelling at altitude so you can take all the necessary precautions, monitor your health, and seek assistance accordingly. If you’re hiking to Machu Picchu with Intrepid, you can also take comfort in knowing that all our trek leaders have been trained by medical specialists in handling altitude and are aware of the closest medical facilities. They also carry oxygen cylinders on all treks for emergency use.
What is altitude sickness?
Altitude sickness is what happens when the body struggles to cope with the reduction of oxygen at high altitude places. People's bodies may react differently to altitude, but common symptoms include fatigue, headache, nausea, dizziness and swelling. Symptoms usually subside or disappear after a couple of days, but may take longer in severe cases.
We recommend seeing your doctor if you have any health concerns before undertaking a trip to Machu Picchu, particularly if you have a pre-existing medical condition or are taking any medication.
Tips to prevent altitude sickness in Machu Picchu
While it might not be possible to avoid altitude sickness completely, there are some general recommendations to prevent it:
- Spend a few days in Cusco beforehand – Cusco is located at a higher altitude than Machu Picchu, and can be a good place to relax and acclimatise
- Take it easy on the days leading up to the trek
- Avoid alcohol before and during the trek – as tempting as those pisco sours may be, it’s not worth it
- Drink plenty of water while hiking – half a litre of water is recommended for every hour of hiking
- Don't forget to take long, slow and deep breaths every now and then to help increase blood oxygen levels
- Carry altitude sickness tablets with you
If you feel unwell, locals might offer you a cup of mate de coca (coca tea). Made with coca plant leaves, this herbal beverage tastes a bit like green tea and has a mild stimulating effect similar to coffee. It's drunk by locals all over the Andes region and is hailed for its healing properties.
If you’re really worried about altitude sickness, you could stay in Urubamba to acclimatise before the trek to Machu Picchu, which is lower than Cusco at 2871 metres above sea level.
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