Information about Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness, also known as “Soroche”, is a condition that affects different people who wish to visit destinations with a high elevation, one of them being the Peruvian highlands.

It’s a good idea to prepare yourself properly to arrive at altitude. There is usually nothing to worry about, but taking proper precautionary steps can only benefit you.

What is the altitude of Cusco & Machu Picchu?

Cusco is a city located in the Peruvian Andes at an altitude of 3,400 meters / 11,200 feet above sea level. Now, what about Machu Picchu? One could believe, at least from the photos, that we must climb even more to reach the Inca citadel located on the Andean foothills.

However, this archaeological complex has an elevation of 2,430 meters / 7,972 feet above sea level. More than 950 meters/3116 feet lower than Cusco! Because of this, altitude sickness at Machu Picchu is not very common, as you need to go to a higher elevation to get there in the first place.

What is the altitude of the Sacred Valley?

The Sacred Valley of the Incas is located 35 km from Cusco and about 600 meters below the level of the Imperial City of Cusco. These are the exact altitudes of the towns that make up the valley:

  • Pisac: 2,980 meters / 9776 feet above sea level.
  • Calca: 2,929 meters / 9609 feet above sea level.
  • Urubamba: 2,870 meters / 9416 feet above sea level.
  • Ollantaytambo: 2,850 meters / 9350 feet above sea level.

It should be noted that not all places in the same province will have the same elevation. For example: the district of Chinchero, located in the province of Urubamba, has an average altitude of 3,754 meters / 12,316 feet above sea level.

Let’s start by looking at what high altitude means. High altitude starts to have an effect on our bodies at around 2,000m (6561ft) when our bodies start to react differently to make up for the changes in oxygen levels.

So, as you go higher the air pressure gets lower (the air gets ‘thinner’). This means that for every breath you take there will be less oxygen for your body than at sea level.

Your body gradually adapts to getting less oxygen – you breathe faster and deeper and the body produces more red blood cells to carry oxygen molecules. This takes time, so this is why if you go from low to high altitude too quickly, you may feel symptoms (also known as altitude sickness) until your body acclimatizes.

Cusco is located at an altitude of 3,400 meters (11,200ft) and it is common for many visitors to experience some mild symptoms of altitude sickness or ‘soroche’ as it is known locally. It’s hard to tell if you will be affected by altitude sickness as some people can be more susceptible than others regardless of age, sex or physical condition.

Mild altitude sickness should not interfere too much with your normal activity. Symptoms are usually felt within 12 – 24 hours of arrival and tend to subside within 3 days. It is recommended to give yourself 2 to 3 days to adjust to the altitude before doing a trek!

Common mild symptoms of altitude sickness may include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Poor appetite
  • Dizziness
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Relax and take it easy! Take a few days at the start of your trip to acclimatize to the altitude before attempting any treks or strenuous activity. This is the best advice we can give. Take it easy for the first few days and your body will thank you later.
  • Get lots of sleep. Sleep is the best remedy of all! Do not be afraid to just sleep it off as your body adjusts.
  • Avoid alcohol & drugs. This includes sleeping tablets and tranquilizers as these can all make the symptoms worse.
  • Drink lots of water. Staying hydrated prior to and throughout your trip is crucial to avoiding unpleasant altitude sickness symptoms.
  • Drink coca tea. Nearly every hotel in Cusco and the Sacred Valley offers fresh coca tea to guests and for a good reason too! Coca tea is completely safe to drink and a cup or two each day can ease altitude symptoms.
  • Go lower to acclimatize. Head straight to the lower altitude of the Sacred Valley or Machu Picchu. Believe it or not, Cusco is at an altitude of 3400m (11,154ft) so heading to Ollantaytambo at 2,900m (9,514ft) or Machu Picchu at 2,400m (7,874ft) can make a huge difference
  • Get an Oxishot. Oxishot is a small dischargeable can that contains 8 litres of oxygen that you can take when you arrive in Cusco and anytime you need a boost. It can help reduce headaches and fatigue associated with altitude sickness.
  • Visit your doctor. If you are still worried before you to travel, head to your doctor and ask for an acetazolamide prescription (also known as brand name Diamox) which can be taken to help avoid altitude sickness symptoms. Regardless of altitude worries, you should always visit your doctor or a travel clinic prior to travel to Peru.
  • Medical practitioners and hospitals in Cusco are quite used to treating altitude sickness, so if something does go wrong there are medical facilities available here. There are several private clinics who offer doctors fluent in English.