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A Guide to Altitude Sickness

They say that the best cure for altitude sickness is descent, but that becomes impossibly hard to do, when Cusco and its surrounding areas are the main cause of altitude sickness. Cusco, Peru, a large bustling town in the heart of Inca civilization is at 11,152 feet, which is for most travelers, like myself, a huge change for our bodies to adapt to. Altitude sickness, is something most travelers suffer from, whether it be mild cases to some of the more extreme. Either way it is important to understand what altitude sickness is and what to do in case altitude sickness heavily impacts you and your travels. In Cusco, altitude sickness is referred to as “soroche” and is very common for people whose bodies are not used to a higher elevation. In Peru, coca leaves are commonly sold in various markets and stores around Cusco, and they are mostly used as medicine to help relieve “soroche” or altitude sickness. Coca leaves are not hard to find and are primarily used in tea. It is encouraged that at least everyone suffering from some sort of elevation sickness drink a cup or two of coca tea, mostly because its medicinal value helps with altitude sickness, but it is also a good way to immerse yourself in Cusco culture.

Most people visiting Cusco are probably also visiting Machu Picchu or other famous areas of the Sacred Valley. Although the elevation of Machu Picchu is strikingly lower (at a 7,970 feet) it is encouraged that travelers who are suffering from altitude sickness take at least a day or two worth of rest, because hiking involves lots of uphill treks that may be difficult for some people suffering from altitude sickness.

There are many symptoms of altitude sickness, from mild to more severe. Many people who go to Cusco or surrounding areas suffer from some sort of altitude sickness. The degree of seriousness of altitude sickness is on a spectrum: for some it is mild, but for others it can be more serious. The symptoms of altitude sickness are as follows:

  • dizziness/lightheadedness
  • headaches
  • nausea
  • difficulty breathing
  • diarrhea or constipation
  • loss of appetite
  • drowsiness/confusion
  • increased heart rate
  • upset stomach
  • trouble sleeping

It is important to understand that if you are suffering from altitude sickness, to find where you lie on the spectrum, and to seek medical attention if necessary.

If you are traveling to Cusco, it is best to come prepared. It is suggested you visit your local clinic back at home, and doctors will usually prescribe an altitude sickness medicine to take on your travels. The most common prescription is Diamox, which you can easily ask your doctors for back at home. In Peru, you can purchase the “soroche pill” for altitude sickness that can be found in any local pharmacy.

Don’t let the thought of getting altitude sickness inhibit you from visiting Cusco, because visiting a city like Cusco and seeing the wonders of the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu are once in a lifetime opportunities. Mild or serious, making sure you take care of yourself when you travel is most important when traveling. Don’t let altitude sickness get in the way of seeing what you’d like to see. Simply remember to relax, drink lots of water (and coca tea), take the necessary prescribed medicine and visit a clinic in case of a serious emergency. Following these steps can help relieve a lot of the pain and irritation caused by altitude sickness and can make traveling a lot easier on the body.

Being in a foreign country, it’s difficult to know which clinics to go to and where to seek medical treatment. Here are some recommended clinics in Cusco:

  • Clinica Pardo Av. de la Cultura No. 710, Wanchaq. Telephone: +51 (084) 256976
  • 02 Medical Network, Sede Centro Historico Calle Puputi 148. Telephone: +51 (084) 221213
  • Clinica Paredes Calle Lechugal #405. Telephone: +51 (084) 225265

By Celestina Hendrickson