Altitude sickness in Peru is a topic that every traveller should read up on before travelling to the Andes in order to avoid unpleasant surprises. This post will show you how to prevent altitude sickness and what to do when you start to feel even slight signs of it!
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Some time ago, a Peruvian said to me jokingly: „Peruvians speak Spanish really slowly because of the altitude in the Andes … our brains don’t get enough oxygen up here.“ 😉 You probably won’t speak any slower upwards of 3000 meters, but the altitude can be quite demanding, especially while you’re physically active. Some people are very susceptible to this change, while others don’t notice anything.
Altitude Sickness in Peru – How to Prevent It:
Altitude sickness is usually difficult to shake off once it gets hold of you. Consider the following points to prevent it from happening:
Highlight Altitude Changes in Your Itinerary
Plan your itinerary so that you move higher gradually and slowly. Flying directly from Lima to Cusco to see Machu Picchu can quickly get you into trouble, for example. Take a bus and gradually drive higher, however, and your body will have the time to get used to the difference in pressure. You’ll find various itineraries in the ebook that will prepare you for the altitude with a slow and steady increase.
Allocate Time to Acclimatize
Plan to use the first one or two days for resting. Even in cities like Cusco it’s possible to walk up and down a lot. Don’t overburden yourself. You’ll notice that even a few steps can be harder than usual. Sit in a café, drink lots of water and Mate de Coca (tea from coca leaves), and relax.
Be Fit and Well-Trained
Anyone who is well-trained and used to physical exertion will be able to deal with the exertion at a higher altitude better than someone who doesn’t exercise regularly. You should, however, always keep in mind that altitude sickness can affect athletes and couch potatoes alike. The probability of occurrence is completely independent of physical fitness. It certainly helps to be healthy and fit to handle the higher effort at altitude, but don’t panic: You really don’t need to be an athlete. A normal, healthy fitness is enough for most treks. It should be clear, however, that this is the minimum: You should only go on a hike if you are physically healthy.
Drink Plenty of Water
Several liters of water are recommended. Excessive fluid intake can, however, also lead to a decrease in the sodium level of the blood (which can lead to impairments of consciousness, gait, and vision). It’s a good idea to drink some electrolyte solutions from time to time to make sure you retain important minerals and nutrients. By the way, water means „Yaku“ in Quechua… Might come in handy 😉
Eat Light Foods
Ideally, take one or two sandwiches with you for a day’s hike, as well as some fruit and cereal bars. Nuts are also always a good snack for in-between. Remember that your body will weaken without food. So if you notice mild symptoms of altitude sickness, try eating a light snack like a banana to regain your energy.
Wear Headgear and Protect Yourself against the Sun
It’s important to keep in mind that 4000 meters above sea level also means 4000 meters closer to the sun. The radiation of the sun is incredibly intense and you should definitely protect yourself from it, especially your skin and your head. You really don’t want to add a sunstroke to your altitude sickness.
Coca Tea and Coca Leaves
Coca has a rather scandalous reputation for us Europeans since many immediately link it to cocaine. The plant, however, needs to undergo various elaborate chemical processes before the drug can finally be extracted from the coca paste. First and foremost, it’s just a normal leaf of the coca plant, a bush that grows in the Andes and has been used by the Incas for centuries.
When you’re in a foreign country, it’s generally a good idea to do as the locals do. Coca is even a sacred plant in Peru. The leaves are used in ceremonies as an offering and are believed to connect humans with the gods. But how does coca help with altitude sickness? Coca contains a lot of carbohydrates, calcium, proteins, iron, and vitamins A and B. That’s a lot of minerals and vitamins to help your body cope with the pressure difference.
Coca can either be chewed or kept in your cheek to suck on, but a much tastier alternative is the so-called „Mate de Coca“, a tea made from coca.
Unfortunately, even the best advice is futile if it’s too late. So how do you know if you’re experiencing altitude sickness?
Signs of Altitude Sickness Are:
– Shortness of breath
– Rapid Heartbeat
– A pulsating feeling in the head (like your heartbeat)
– Vision disorders (sensitivity to sunlight, in the worst case short-term blindness)
No matter how much you have acclimatized, altitude sickness can creep up on anyone, especially during great physical exertion. You can read as many tips for prevention as you want, the good advice will come too late if you don’t follow it. Altitude sickness should not be taken lightly, in extreme heights the worst case scenarios include deadly lung or cerebral oedemas. Remember the following tips at the first signs of altitude sickness (especially breathlessness, headaches, etc.).
Tips in Case of Emergency:
– You should definitely take a break at even the smallest signs during the ascent and acclimatize to the height.
– Take a lot of breaks in general
– Stay standing up during the breaks: While doing so, slowly lean forward a little with your hands on your hips and breathe in and out deeply 3 times, then straighten up slowly (important, otherwise the blood won’t flow back into your head fast enough and you’ll feel dizzy), then continue to breathe normally (inhale through the nose, exhale through the mouth). If you sit down during many breaks, your body will rest too much and will start shutting down. Getting up and continuing to walk will be much harder afterwards. It might be tempting to sit, but a break while standing is actually much more relaxing for your body.
– If nothing works and you feel no improvement: Definitely descend!
But don’t let all of this put you off. Just be prepared as much as you can, relax, and take your trek nice and slow. „Higher, faster, farther“ doesn’t count here, the only important thing is that you can experience a beautiful hike through a unique landscape and enjoy your journey to the fullest.
Who is writing?
Hola! I’m Anne, Co-founder of ALL ACROSS PERU. In 2011 I travelled to Peru for the first time: I had planned to stay for 6 month that turned out to become 2 years! Since then, I regularly keep coming back to the most beautiful country in the world.