Admitting this kills me because I know I’m prone to altitude sickness and I took a lot of precautions to lessen the impact. But even though I did a lot of things right, I missed one important factor on how to acclimate to the Sacred Valley.
But let’s back up.
Altitude sickness is your body’s reaction to a fast change in elevation. All destinations at higher elevations have less oxygen, which is hard on the body unless you’ve gradually adjusted to it. Let’s just say that flying directly into Cusco — at 11,152 feet — isn’t exactly gradual.
Most travelers will feel out of breath, especially during physical activity (as little as climbing the stairs). Other symptoms include exhaustion, confusion, nausea, and headaches. For me, it’s all of the above, with a splitting headache that outdoes any migraine I’ve ever had.
Assuming you don’t want to suffer through that, here’s how to acclimate to the Sacred Valley…keeping in mind that I am NOT a medical professional, just a traveler who’s had some bad experiences.
Give Your Body Time
My #1 tip is the one I haven’t seen anywhere else: don’t try to adjust to jetlag and the altitude at the same time!
Think about how you felt after your last long-haul flight. You’re already tired, dehydrated, and thrown off-guard. Your body can recuperate quickly, but only if you don’t throw it another curveball like the altitude.
So, ideally spend a day or two in Lima before flying onward to Cusco. If that won’t fit into your itinerary, head directly to somewhere in the Sacred Valley with a lower elevation. Then, drink some tea, take a nap, and enjoy a leisurely walk, but DON’T pack your schedule full. Your body will thank you.
We smartly stayed in Ollantaytambo our first night and avoided strenuous activities, but in retrospect, I think our first stop should’ve been a nap instead of light sightseeing en-route from the airport.
Start in the Sacred Valley
I know, I’m repeating myself a little bit, but even after you’ve adjusted to jetlag, make it easier to acclimate by staying in the Sacred Valley instead of Cusco first. Just check out the differences in elevation.
Aguas Calientes has the lowest elevation, but I don’t recommend going to Machu Picchu itself on your first day because you’ll do a TON of walking or hiking, which stresses your body. If you have experience adjusting to altitude quickly (and/or live at higher elevation normally), you could potentially go to Machu Picchu safely on day 2, but for most travelers, I’d recommend day 3 or later.
Sleep Like a Three-Year-Old
Kids need more sleep because their bodies expend so much energy on growth. When you’re acclimating, your bodies are also working behind the scenes. So go ahead; sleep like a little kid. Spend 12 hours your first night dreaming and/or nap if you need it. Resting is an easy way to give your body the time it needs to acclimate to the Sacred Valley.
Your body dehydrates faster at higher elevations — seriously. Make a conscious effort to drink throughout the day (and to avoid alcohol and caffeine).
Plain water is always a solid choice (buy bottled water or use a filter since tap water isn’t safe to drink), but on cool, damp days, I also like tea. Most hotels and all restaurants will have tea available, but to-go cups are hit or miss, so bring a travel mug if you can.
Coca tea (or mate de coca) is the most well-known tea in this area. It’s thought to make it easier to acclimate because it increases circulation which in turn brings more precious oxygen to your cells. Lesser known is muña tea, an earthy mint flavor with similar effects (and unlike coca…no caffeine).
I have no idea how effective they really are, but as a tea lover, I drank plenty of both!
Lastly, if you’re drinking a lot between meals and/or during physical activities, throw in some Gatorade or Pedialyte packets every once in awhile to keep your electrolytes up.
If You’re Ill, Get Help
If it feels like a bad hangover, you’ve probably got acute mountain sickness. Headaches, nausea, and fatigue are usually the first symptoms to set in. Take it easy, drink fluids, and if you can, head to a lower elevation. The main key is to let your body recover while symptoms are mild and don’t try to push through it.
If your symptoms are getting worse after you take it easy, get help ASAP. Ask your hotel to point you toward oxygen and a doctor. And by all means, keep an eye on your travel companions, too.
Altitude Sickness Sucks
I’m young, healthy, and fit — but that doesn’t make me immune to altitude sickness. Do your best to mitigate the symptoms and watch for warning signs so you can enjoy your trip!
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I’ve gotten several emails, tweets, and other requests from people planning their trips. I’ll be compiling the FAQ into a “Reader’s Choice” list of questions. Have a Peru question? Send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. (I can only help on Cusco/Sacred Valley/Machu Picchu, Paracas, and Lima…sorry!)