So you’ve finally managed to set aside the time and money needed for a visit to the long-lost Inca citadel. Congratulations! Machu Picchu is a magical place that is guaranteed to exceed all your expectations and be the experience of a lifetime. However, Machu Picchu is not just any ordinary tourist attraction you just simply go to. It is by far one of the hardest historical sites to reach and involves a great deal of planning and preparation.
One of the possibly biggest obstacles to overcome on your road to Machu Picchu is combating altitude sickness, or Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). The world-famous Inca citadel is situated at 2430 metres above sea level, which is more than enough to prompt symptoms in many people – at least those of us unaccustomed to high altitudes.
For comparison, here are the altitudes of some big capital cities of the world:
- Berlin: 34 metres
- Paris: 35 metres
- New York: 10 metres
- London: 11 metres
Not everyone will get affected and the extent to which you suffer from this condition will vary greatly. However, if it hits you hard you might be facing some pretty crippling symptoms, potentially even causing a severe medical emergency and naturally, thus even jeopardizing your much longed-for visit to the historical city.
What is altitude sickness and why does it occur?
The reason you might be experiencing some uncomfortable symptoms is that your body isn’t accustomed to being exposed to such “thin” air. The higher the altitude, the lower the air pressure, hence making the air less dense. This means that your body is able to absorb much smaller amounts of oxygen each breath you take.
As a result you will have to breathe at a faster pace and your body has to pump blood at a higher rate to compensate.
If you are unaccustomed to high altitudes you might start experiencing symptoms at around 1500 metres above sea level and above. The higher up you travel, the more severe the symptoms can become, even potentially becoming lethal. Altitudes of 8.000 metres above sea level are usually considered to be the limit for how high human beings can travel (the so-called death zone). Machu Picchu is in other words way under that limit, so try not to worry too much!
Symptoms usually start within 6-12 hours of reaching a high altitude and your body usually adjusts to this new environment in 1-2 days.
Photo: Drinking coca tea can help with the symptoms of altitude sickness.
What are the symptoms?
When our body isn’t able to absorb enough oxygen we might for example:
- Start to feel dizzy
- Experience shortness of breath
- Have trouble breathing
- Suffer from insomnia
- Experience weakness or fatigue
- Feel our heart racing uncomfortably
- Suffer from a headache
- Get stomach pain
- Feel constipated or suffer from diarrhea
- Have the sensation of “pins and needles”
Does everyone get affected?
Travelling to Machu Picchu and Cusco, not everyone will suffer from altitude sickness, but more or less anyone unaccustomed to high altitudes can get affected. Being physically fit is for example no guarantee you’ll avoid the symptoms. Neither is having travelled to high altitudes before – not even if you at that time remained unaffected.
In other words anyone can suffer from altitude sickness, but of course odds increase you’ll have problems if you for example suffer from heart or lung problems.
Tips for dealing with altitude sickness
Photo: Cusco is located at 3399 metres above sea level, which is high enough to cause symptoms of altitude sickness.
So what can you do to make sure you are as prepared as possible? Here are a few tips (I’m not a doctor! These are just some tips that helped me and fellow travellers).
1. A vast majority of Machu Picchu-bound travellers fly to Cusco en route to the world-famous Inca citadel. At 3399 metres above sea level, Cusco is located even higher than Machu Picchu. In other words Cusco is excellent preparation for Machu Picchu regarding altitude. Once you’ve acclimatized to Cusco, Machu Picchu will be a piece of cake.
2. When you plan your trip to Machu Picchu make sure to set aside enough time for acclimatization. You need at least 24 hours in Cusco to get used to the altitude. Allowing time for acclimatization is one of the most important things you can do to help make sure your visit to Machu Picchu is an enjoyable experience.
3. Take it easy! At least for the first 24 hours don’t rush. Try to keep the amount of walking around to a bare minimum and when you do walk keep a slow pace.
4. Avoid having a gigantic feast the first night in Cusco. Your metabolism is working really slowly at this unfamiliar height and a heavy meal will worsen your symptoms. This might sound like a very easy tip and you might be thinking “done!”. But just wait, once in Cusco, this will suddenly seem so much harder. The food is amazing and I must admit I myself failed miserably putting this tip into practice – I had appetizers, entrees the whole shebang!
5. You’ll get short of breath easily, so avoid doing several things that make you feel out of breath at the same time. For example talking and eating is a challenge, walking and talking, drinking water whilst moving and so on.
6. Drink lots of water and make sure you stay hydrated. In fact, if possible start your hydration before you’re even on the plane to Cusco. Drink water and sports drinks, like Gatorade for example. At high altitudes our bodies get dehydrated much easier and symptoms of dehydration will worsen your altitude sickness. So this is extra important.
7. Make sure to bring medicine for headache, for it’s very likely you’ll be suffering from this. I myself am used to severe migraines, so the headache I got from altitude sickness wasn’t too bad, just annoying at worst. It didn’t interfere with activities, but the first night I did take medicine to relieve the pain to make sure I could sleep.
8. Avoid cigarettes, drugs and alcohol! Your body is going through a lot so the last thing you want to do is add pressure. Nursing a hangover whilst simultaneously battling altitude sickness is definitely not something you want to give a go.
9. Drink coca tea, a special warm drink made of coca leaves. Alternatively have something sweet, since sugar will help you regain energy.
10. Worse comes to worse, you will also find plenty of stores in Cusco selling special local medicine for altitude sickness. I haven’t tested the medicine myself, since my body adjusted to the altitude pretty easily and medication would have been unnecessary, but have heard of plenty of people who thought the local medicines helped.
Photo: Trying to avoid eating a huge meal the first day at a high altitude is easier said than done and requires resisting culinary temptations in every corner.
Should I go or not?
So we’ve established that Machu Picchu isn’t your basic tourist attraction, I’ve scared you with lots of intimidating facts about altitude sickness and horrible symptoms, but have also given you tips on how to overcome the symptoms. In no way has this been the point of this blog post, but in case reading this made you reconsider your whole trip, here are a few words of encouragement.
You will probably be just fine! With the right preparation and making sure you plan your trip so you have enough time for acclimatization in Cusco before Machu Picchu it is highly probable you won’t have any problems and will be able to enjoy Machu Picchu to the fullest.
Having said all that, it is also important to remember that Machu Picchu isn’t suitable for every single person. It is located very remotely and is hard to reach. Not only for you as a visitor, but also for help, in case of a medical emergency. If you suffer from heart or lung problems, or other potential problems that might become an issue you will need to plan extra carefully and take all the risks involved into account.
Finally, for those of you who do go – remember that the symptoms will most likely pass in a day or two, maybe even sooner. So just hang in there! Once you reach Machu Picchu it’ll all be worth it, I promise!
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