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Cusco, a captivating city nestled high in the Peruvian Andes, offers breathtaking landscapes, ancient ruins, and a vibrant cultural experience. However, its lofty location comes with a potential challenge: high altitude sickness in Cusco.

The combination of Cusco’s elevation, reaching over 11,000 feet (3,400 meters) above sea level, and its popularity as a gateway to Machu Picchu, makes it crucial for visitors to be aware of altitude-related risks and take necessary precautions.

Altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), can range from mild symptoms like headaches and fatigue to more severe manifestations, including nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath.

To ensure a smooth and enjoyable experience, we present you with 12 proven strategies to prevent altitude sickness in Cusco. By following these tips, you will be better equipped to adapt to the high altitude and fully immerse yourself in the wonders of this remarkable destination.

GOOD TO KNOW:  If you are starting your Peru adventure in Lima, then make sure to read 22 Expert Lima Tips for First-Time Visitors (Unlock Lima’s Treasures)

What is Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), is a condition that can occur when individuals ascend to high altitudes too quickly without giving their bodies enough time to adjust.

It is primarily caused by decreased oxygen levels and reduced air pressure at higher elevations.

Altitude sickness can affect anyone, regardless of age or physical fitness, and its severity varies from person to person.

At What Elevation Does Altitude Sickness Strike?

The onset of altitude sickness can vary among individuals, but it typically becomes noticeable at elevations above 8,000 feet (2,500 meters).

In Cusco, located at approximately 11,000 feet (3,400 meters) above sea level, many visitors are susceptible to experiencing altitude-related symptoms due to the significant change in elevation from lower regions.

Oxygen decreases as you ascent: 

  • Available oxygen at sea level= 100%
  • Available oxygen at 5000 feet = 80% (of sea level oxygen)
  • Available oxygen at 10,000 feet = 69% (of sea level oxygen)
  • Available oxygen at 15,000 feet = 56% (of sea level oxygen)

Why Does Altitude Sickness Affect Us?

Altitude sickness occurs because the air at high altitudes contains fewer oxygen molecules per breath compared to lower altitudes.

As you ascend to higher elevations, the air pressure decreases, making it harder for your body to obtain the necessary amount of oxygen. This decrease in oxygen can lead to various physiological changes and trigger altitude sickness symptoms.

GOOD TO KNOW: If you live in a place that is located at a high altitude, your body gets used to the air with less pressure and less oxygen. However, if you live in a relatively flat place and fly into a place located at a high altitude, you will be at risk for altitude sickness.

What Are the Types of Altitude Sickness?

There are three primary types of altitude sickness:

  • Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS): This is the mildest form of altitude sickness and is characterized by symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, and difficulty sleeping.
  • High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE): HAPE is a more severe form of altitude sickness that affects the lungs. Symptoms include breathlessness, persistent cough, chest tightness, pink or frothy sputum, and rapid heartbeat.
  • High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE): HACE is the most severe and life-threatening form of altitude sickness. It affects the brain and can lead to symptoms such as severe headaches, confusion, hallucinations, lack of coordination, seizures, and loss of consciousness.

What Are the Symptoms of Altitude Sickness?

Altitude sickness can manifest in various symptoms, which may include:

  • Headaches (typically throbbing and worsening with movement)
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Shortness of breath or rapid breathing
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Swelling of the hands, feet, or face (in severe cases)

It’s important to note that these symptoms can vary in intensity and may not necessarily occur in everyone who ascends to high altitudes. However, being aware of these potential signs allows for early recognition and appropriate measures to prevent further complications.

12 Proven Strategies to Prevent Altitude Sickness in Cusco


Acclimate Gradually

One of the most crucial steps in preventing altitude sickness is allowing your body to acclimate slowly to the higher elevation.

When you arrive in Cusco, take it easy for the first couple of days and avoid strenuous activities. This gradual adjustment gives your body time to adapt to the thinner air and reduced oxygen levels.


Cusco / Strategies to Prevent Altitude Sickness in Cusco 

Use the initial days to explore the city at a leisurely pace, visit nearby attractions, or indulge in the local cuisine. This gentle introduction to the altitude will aid in minimizing the risk of altitude sickness and ensure a more enjoyable experience throughout your stay.

Remember, patience is key when it comes to acclimating to high altitudes. Rushing into intense physical activities immediately after arrival significantly increases the chances of experiencing altitude-related symptoms.

Give your body the time it needs to adjust, and you will be better prepared to embrace the wonders that await you in Cusco.


Stay Hydrated

Staying properly hydrated is essential in preventing altitude sickness. The dry mountain air can lead to increased fluid loss through respiration and sweating, making it crucial to replenish your body’s water levels.

Drink plenty of fluids, preferably water, throughout the day. Avoid excessive consumption of caffeine and alcohol as they can contribute to dehydration. Carry a water bottle with you and make a conscious effort to drink at regular intervals, even if you don’t feel excessively thirsty.

Aim to drink at least 2-3 liters of water per day while in Cusco. Adequate hydration supports your body’s adaptation to the altitude, improves blood circulation, and helps alleviate symptoms of altitude sickness.

It’s worth noting that urine color can be a good indicator of hydration levels. Clear to light yellow urine suggests proper hydration, while dark yellow urine may indicate dehydration. Monitor your urine color and adjust your fluid intake accordingly.

By prioritizing hydration, you provide your body with the necessary resources to cope with the challenges of high altitude, reducing the risk of altitude sickness.

Altitude Sickness in Cusco

Strategies to Prevent Altitude Sickness in Cusco 


Avoid Alcohol and Tobacco

While it may be tempting to indulge in a celebratory drink or enjoy a local tobacco product, both alcohol and tobacco can significantly worsen the symptoms of altitude sickness and hinder the acclimatization process.

Alcohol acts as a depressant on the central nervous system and can further impair your body’s ability to adjust to high altitudes. It can also lead to dehydration, which exacerbates the symptoms of altitude sickness. Therefore, it is best to abstain from consuming alcohol while in Cusco or limit your intake to very moderate amounts.

Tobacco, whether smoked or chewed, constricts blood vessels and reduces oxygen flow throughout the body. This can compound the effects of reduced oxygen availability at high altitudes and increase the likelihood of experiencing altitude sickness symptoms. It is advisable to avoid tobacco use altogether during your stay in Cusco.


Eat Light, Nutritious Meals

Choosing the right food during your time in Cusco can significantly contribute to preventing altitude sickness and supporting your overall well-being at high altitudes. Opt for light, nutritious meals that provide essential nutrients while being easy to digest.

Include foods that are rich in carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Carbohydrates provide a steady release of energy and can help combat fatigue, a common symptom of altitude sickness. Additionally, include sources of lean protein like chicken, fish, or legumes to support muscle function and recovery.

Altitude Sickness in Cusco

Strategies to Prevent Altitude Sickness in Cusco 

Avoid heavy, greasy, or spicy foods that can burden your digestive system, making it more difficult for your body to acclimatize. These types of foods may exacerbate symptoms such as nausea or indigestion. Instead, opt for meals that are well-balanced, low in fat, and contain moderate levels of salt to maintain electrolyte balance.

Furthermore, consider incorporating foods rich in potassium, such as bananas and leafy greens, as they can help regulate fluid balance in the body and mitigate the effects of altitude sickness.


Check out Available Medication

Consulting with a healthcare professional about the possibility of taking medication for altitude sickness prevention can be beneficial, especially if you have a history of altitude-related issues or if you are concerned about your susceptibility to altitude sickness.

One common medication used for altitude sickness prevention is acetazolamide, commonly known as Diamox. Acetazolamide helps to stimulate breathing and increase the amount of oxygen in your blood, assisting in the acclimatization process. It is typically taken a day or two before ascending to high altitudes and continued for a few days afterward.

However, it’s important to note that medication should be taken under the guidance of a healthcare professional, as they can provide personalized advice based on your medical history, allergies, and any other medications you may be taking.

Remember that medication is not a substitute for proper acclimatization and other preventive measures. It is just one component of a comprehensive strategy to prevent altitude sickness.


Streets of Cusco / Strategies to Prevent Altitude Sickness in Cusco 


Avoid Overexertion

Engaging in intense physical activities immediately after arriving in Cusco can increase the risk of altitude sickness. Your body needs time to acclimate to the high altitude before taking on strenuous exertion.

During the first few days of your stay, it is important to avoid pushing yourself too hard. Allow your body to adjust gradually and conserve your energy. Engage in light activities such as leisurely walks, sightseeing, or exploring the city at a relaxed pace.

If you plan to embark on hikes or more demanding physical activities, schedule them for a few days into your trip, once you have acclimated to the altitude. This approach allows your body to adapt and reduces the likelihood of experiencing altitude sickness symptoms.

PRO TIP: Listen to your body and take breaks as needed to maintain a comfortable level of exertion throughout your activities.

Altitude Sickness in Cusco

Strategies to Prevent Altitude Sickness in Cusco 


Keep Warm

Maintaining appropriate body temperature is crucial in high-altitude environments, as temperatures can fluctuate significantly throughout the day. Cold weather can put additional stress on your body and potentially exacerbate altitude sickness symptoms.

Layering your clothing is an effective strategy to regulate body temperature. Wear multiple lightweight, breathable layers that can be added or removed as needed. This allows you to adjust your clothing according to the temperature changes throughout the day.

Make sure to wear a warm hat or beanie to prevent heat loss from your head, as a significant amount of body heat can escape from there. Protect your hands and feet with gloves and thick socks to keep them warm and maintain good circulation.

Additionally, consider using a scarf or neck gaiter to cover your face and protect it from cold winds. Protecting exposed skin from harsh weather conditions can help reduce discomfort and potential cold-related symptoms.

By keeping warm, you support proper blood circulation, help your body conserve energy, and minimize the risk of altitude sickness symptoms associated with exposure to cold temperatures.

Altitude Sickness in Cusco

Strategies to Prevent Altitude Sickness in Cusco 


Stay Oxygenated

At high altitudes, the air contains less oxygen, which can lead to reduced oxygen saturation in your blood. To counteract this, it is important to focus on maximizing your oxygen intake to support your body’s functioning and minimize the risk of altitude sickness symptoms.

Practice deep and slow breathing to ensure you are taking in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. Take deliberate breaths, inhaling deeply through your nose and exhaling slowly through your mouth. This technique can help increase oxygenation and promote relaxation.

If available, portable oxygen canisters or supplemental oxygen provided by medical facilities can be used to temporarily alleviate severe altitude sickness symptoms. These canisters typically contain a concentrated supply of oxygen that you can inhale when needed. Consult with medical professionals or local guides to access and use them appropriately.

Additionally, it is beneficial to avoid situations or activities that can limit oxygen intake, such as being in enclosed spaces with poor ventilation or smoking. Prioritize open areas with fresh air to enhance oxygen flow.


Narrow Streets of Cusco / Strategies to Prevent Altitude Sickness in Cusco 


Drink Coca Tea

Coca tea is a traditional remedy in the Andean region and is believed to have properties that can help alleviate altitude sickness symptoms. Peruvians swear by coca tea as an antidote to thin air.

Coca tea is made from the leaves of the coca plant, which naturally contains a small amount of cocaine alkaloids. It is typically prepared by steeping coca leaves in hot water, similar to herbal tea.

Altitude Sickness in Cusco

Coca Leaves / Strategies to Prevent Altitude Sickness in Cusco 

Coca tea is commonly consumed in Cusco and other high-altitude areas as a way to combat the effects of altitude sickness. It is believed to provide mild stimulation, help with digestion, and promote hydration.

While coca tea is generally considered safe and widely consumed in the region, it is important to consume it in moderation and be aware of any personal sensitivities.

Coca Leaves Tea

Coca Tea / Strategies to Prevent Altitude Sickness in Cusco

If you have any concerns or medical conditions that may interact with coca tea, it is best to consult with a healthcare professional before consuming it.

If you choose to try coca tea, do so mindfully and consider it as one of several strategies to prevent altitude sickness. It should not be relied upon as the sole method of prevention, and it’s important to prioritize other preventive measures, such as gradual acclimatization and staying hydrated.


Rest Well

Getting adequate rest and quality sleep is essential for your body’s ability to adapt to the high altitude in Cusco. During sleep, your body undergoes important physiological processes that support recovery and acclimatization.

Ensure that you allocate enough time for sleep each night, aiming for 7 to 9 hours of uninterrupted rest.

Create a conducive sleep environment by keeping your room dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature. Consider using earplugs or an eye mask if necessary.

If you experience difficulty sleeping at high altitudes, you can try using a pillow or sleeping in a slightly elevated position to improve breathing and reduce the risk of sleep disturbances.

Prioritize relaxation techniques before bed, such as gentle stretching, reading, or practicing mindfulness meditation. These activities can help calm your mind, reduce stress, and promote better sleep quality.


Stay Aware of Your Body

Throughout your time in Cusco, it is important to stay attuned to your body and be mindful of any symptoms or changes you may experience. Recognizing the early signs of altitude sickness allows for timely intervention and proper management.

Common symptoms of altitude sickness include headache, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, shortness of breath, and difficulty sleeping. Pay attention to these indicators, as well as any other unusual sensations or discomfort.

If you notice mild symptoms, take it as a cue to slow down, rest, and allow your body to adjust further. Avoid pushing through discomfort or ignoring symptoms, as they can escalate and worsen if not addressed promptly.

Should you experience more severe symptoms, such as severe headache, persistent vomiting, confusion, or difficulty breathing, seek immediate medical attention. These symptoms may indicate a more severe form of altitude sickness, such as high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) or high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), which requires immediate medical intervention.


Stay Positive and Mindful

Maintaining a positive mindset and practicing mindfulness can have a significant impact on your overall well-being and ability to cope with altitude sickness.

Adjusting to high altitudes can be a unique experience, and it is normal to encounter some challenges along the way. Instead of focusing on any discomfort or limitations, try to shift your attention to the beauty of the surroundings, the cultural richness of the region, and the adventure that awaits you.

Engage in activities that bring you joy and relaxation, such as practicing yoga, meditation, or journaling. These practices can help reduce stress, promote emotional well-being, and enhance your ability to adapt to the altitude.

Remember to be patient with yourself and allow for adjustments and self-care as needed. Every person’s experience with altitude sickness is unique, and it is important to respect your own limits and pace of adaptation.

PRO TIP: By cultivating a positive mindset, practicing mindfulness, and embracing the journey, you can navigate altitude sickness with resilience and make the most of your time in Cusco. Focus on the present moment and appreciate the beauty around you.

Intrepid Scout's Tips to Prevent Altitude Sickness in Cusco

Here are a few additional tips to further support your efforts in preventing altitude sickness in Cusco:

  • Stay well-nourished: Consume a balanced diet with adequate calories to provide your body with the energy it needs to adapt to the high altitude. Include foods rich in iron, such as lean meats and leafy greens, to support oxygen-carrying capacity.
  • Avoid alcohol-based mouthwashes: Some mouthwashes contain alcohol, which can contribute to dehydration. Opt for alcohol-free mouthwash or consider using alternative oral hygiene products.
  • Use sunscreen: The higher altitude in Cusco means increased UV exposure. Protect your skin by applying sunscreen with a high SPF, wearing protective clothing, and using sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat.
  • Limit salt intake: While maintaining electrolyte balance is important, excessive salt intake can lead to fluid retention, which may worsen altitude sickness symptoms. Moderation is key when it comes to salt consumption.
  • Consider herbal remedies: Certain herbal supplements, such as ginkgo biloba or Rhodiola rosea, are believed to have adaptogenic properties that can potentially help the body adapt to altitude. Consult with a healthcare professional before using any herbal remedies.

PRO TIP: Familiarize yourself with the locations of medical facilities in Cusco and ensure you have adequate travel insurance coverage. Be mindful of any pre-existing health conditions and discuss your travel plans with a healthcare professional before your trip.

Read All the Posts About Peru in: 

Peru Travel Guide


Read All the Posts About South America in: 

South America Travel Guide

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2 thoughts on “12 Proven Strategies to Prevent Altitude Sickness in Cusco (Master the Heights!)

  1. 2019-04-08

    Hi Anna, so pleased to find your amazing travel site. I am a baby boomer who loves to travel too. I have never been to Machu Picchu but my good friends recently went and all of them got this high altitude sickness. Pity they didn’t know your handy tips. Not sure they would have complied with no alcohol though knowing them, I am enjoying looking at all your wonderful photographs. i have followed you on Instagram too.

    1. 2019-04-09

      Thank you Leeroy!
      And Hello to another Baby Boomer!
      I am so glad you like my website. I have worked hard on it learning everything from scratch!
      If you have never been to MP, then I want to encourage you to plan your trip. It was an unforgettable experience for me.
      The altitude sickness is a real thing. I ignored it and it got me.
      Thank you for following me on Instagram!

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