How Bad Is Altitude Sickness In Cusco: Plus 6 Steps To Avoid It

How Bad Is Altitude Sickness In Cusco

Altitude sickness is a common condition that affects travelers visiting the high-altitude destination of Cusco, Peru. As a company with years of high-altitude experience, we'll share with you how bad is altitude sickness in Cusco and six steps to avoid it.

How Bad Is Altitude Sickness In Cusco

Altitude sickness in Cusco can be really bad and be a major setback to your trip if you're not prepared.

By exceeding 10,000 feet like in Cusco Peru, altitude sickness can be more severe than most destinations and effect up to 50% of people.²

With altitude sickness being this bad in Cusco, keep reading to get all the details on Cusco's altitude and how to avoid altitude sickness there.

Cusco Altitude

Cusco altitude is marked at 11,152 feet above sea level. Cusco is considered to be among some of the highest cities in the world over 10,000 feet including La Paz (Bolivia), Lhasa (Tibet), and Leadville (Colorado).

  • Cusco altitude - 11,152 feet (3,399 meters)

Located in the Andes Mountains of Peru, Cusco is just the starting point for many travelers who want to explore the high altitude destinations in the region. There are several popular destinations that offer stunning natural beauty, unique cultural experiences, and a chance to explore the Andean way of life.

One of the most popular high altitude destinations near Cusco is Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail that leads to it. This ancient Inca city offers breathtaking views, fascinating history and culture. Visitors can explore the ruins, and also hike to the Sun Gate or Huayna Picchu.

  • Machu Picchu altitude - 7,972 ft (2,430 m)
  • Inca Trail altitude - 13,780 ft (4,200 m)
  • Sun Gate altitude - 8,924 ft (2,720 m)
  • Huayna Picchu altitude - 8,835 ft (2,693 m)
  • Sacred Valley - 6,730 ft (2,050 m) to 9,800 ft 3,000 m) 

With the elevations of Cusco and its surrounding areas being so high, you'll want to take proper precautions when visiting.

How Common Is Altitude Sickness In Cusco?

50% of people visiting Cusco are reported to have altitude sickness.⁹ That gives you a 50/50 chance of getting altitude sickness on your Cusco trip.

How Long Does It Take To Acclimate To Altitude In Cusco?

Being based in Colorado with a lot of high-altitude experience, it takes usually at least 1-3 days to acclimate.

Technically, it can take a few weeks to fully acclimate. But for practical reasons being on vacation or during adventures in Cusco, you'll want to give yourself a few days minimum for acclimatization.

To take in account your visit to Cusco Peru, it takes on average 6-24 hours for altitude sickness symptoms to show. A good measurement is whether you feel any symptoms or not after a day upon arriving.

Is It Hard To Breathe In Cusco?

Yes, it can be hard for some people to breathe in Cusco.

Cusco has an estimated 9-10% less oxygen levels than at sea level.¹ With only around 13% oxygen in the air, this can make it substantially more difficult to breathe, especially if coming from sea level type of elevations.

Difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, and increased heart rate are all symptoms of altitude sickness which are at high risk in Cusco.

Cusco Altitude Sickness Symptoms

Cusco symptoms of altitude sickness can vary from person to person, but they often can include headache and nausea among many others.

These Cusco altitude sickness symptoms that may develop are:

  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Loss of appetite
  • Trouble sleeping or insomnia
  • Confusion
  • Feeling ill

Symptoms usually begin within 6-24 hours upon arrival, so be on the lookout of altitude sickness signs when you arrive in Cusco.

Do You Need Oxygen In Cusco?

No, you do not need oxygen in Cusco.

While oxygen could only be helpful, keep in mind that the science of canned oxygen is somewhat questionable. You would need supplemental oxygen, which is what comes from an oxygen tank.

Oxygen is typically used for extreme altitudes, which is elevations over 18,000 feet.¹⁰ Unless you're doing some intense climbing in altitudes between 11,500 and 18,000 feet, oxygen tanks are not commonly used.

How Do You Prevent Altitude Sickness Flying Into Cusco?

When you fly into the Cusco airport, you'll immediately land at 10,860 feet (3,310 m). You'll only go higher from there, with Cusco being 11,152 feet high. 

To prevent altitude sickness flying in can be hard, but one thing that visitors can do is visit Secret Valley first. With an elevation average around 9,000 feet and gets as low as 6,730 feet, you can stay in Secret Valley for your first few days to help acclimate.

Lowering your elevation can be the best way to prevent altitude sickness, so Secret Valley can help lessen the blow of altitude sickness to acclimate before heading to Cusco.

Is One Day Enough To Acclimate In Cusco?

No, on average one day is not enough time to acclimate in Cusco.

It takes about one day to see signs of altitude sickness. We generally recommend 1-3 days to acclimate, and with Cusco's high altitude that could take even up to a week.

What Medication Is Used For Altitude Sickness In Cusco?

Diamox is the most popular medication for altitude sickness that you can use for Cusco. 

As a prescription drug, Diamox will have to be prescribed by a doctor. Dexamethasone is another altitude sickness medicine prescription drug.

For OTC drugs that are used for altitude sickness, Ibuprofen such as Advil and Motrin has been found in research to lessen the occurrence of altitude sickness symptoms like nausea and headache.¹¹

Do You Need Altitude Sickness Tablets For Cusco?

It is highly recommended to use altitude sickness tablets for Cusco. Tablets can be another reference to altitude sickness medicine such as Diamox, Dexamethasone, and  Ibuprofen.

There's also supplement tablets and pills that can useful for Cusco's high-altitude journeys like Zaca to support your body for oxidative stress.

6 Steps How To Avoid Altitude Sickness In Cusco

Altitude sickness is a common issue for people traveling to Cusco and surrounding areas including Machu Picchu.

As a company with over 10 years of high altitude experience, we'll share essential steps you can take to help avoid altitude sickness.

Here's our six steps how to avoid altitude sickness in Cusco:

1. Maximize Your Hydration

When you're at the high altitudes of Cusco, respiration can increase and it's be reported by the Wilderness Medical Society that fluid loss can happen twice as fast. This environment can quickly lead to dehydration.¹³

To maximize your hydration, drink plenty of water, at least half your weight in ounces of water a day is best.

TIP: To optimize your hydration, add sea salt (electrolytes) to your water or food, and take Zaca hydration chewable tablets to enhance water absorption.

2. Acclimate Gradually

Going straight to Cusco's elevation at 11,152 feet (3,399 m) is a lot for the body to adjust to. If you slowly and gradually increase your altitude, you better give your body the chance to acclimate.

If coming coming from sea level, visiting Secret Valley (at 6,730 feet) first is a great way to gradually acclimate.

3. Get Ample Sleep

Sleep and rest are key to your body's recovery. On top of repair and recovery, sleep has also been shown to help oxygen and blood flow.¹⁴

7-9 hours is recommended to get ample sleep. While high altitudes can impair your sleep, getting plenty of natural sunlight during the day can help your melatonin production to help sleeping cycles.

4. Avoid Alcohol

Not only dehydrating as a diuretic, alcohol has been shown to lower sleep quality and oxygen saturation.¹⁵ Alcohol and altitude sickness could lead to a debilitating experience.

Even if on vacation, avoiding or at least limiting alcohol your first few days can help your body's ability to rebound faster.

5. Limit Strenuous Exercise

Strenuous exercise or activity such as hiking or climbing at Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail will only put undue stress on the body.

Limit any plans to hike, climb or explore until you know you're acclimated, which can take a few days. Otherwise, you could make the altitude sickness much worse.

6. Supplement Antioxidants

Modern research shows that oxidative stress is an outcome from high altitude conditions,¹⁶ Cusco would be one of them. Glutathione, the body's master antioxidant, was specifically shown to be depleted in a study from India.¹⁸

Antioxidants have been proven to be beneficial to fight off high-altitude oxidative stress.¹⁷ You can supplement antioxidants or even glutathione to support your body in its combat of free radical damage.

In summary, these six steps will help you avoid Cusco altitude sickness — including maximizing your hydration, acclimating gradually, getting ample sleep, avoiding alcohol, limiting strenuous exercise, and supplementing antioxidants.

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1. Oxygen Levels at Altitude
2. High-altitude illness (including mountain sickness) (Beyond the Basics)
3. Cusco Elevation
4. Machu Picchu Elevation
5. Inca Trail to Machu Picchu Elevation
6. Sun Gate Altitude
7. Huayna Picchu Altitude
8. Sacred Valley Elevation
9. Cusco Altitude Sickness Prevention
10. Effects of high altitude on humans
11. Ibuprofen Can Prevent Altitude Sickness
12. Cusco Airport Elevation - Alejandro Velasco Astete International Airport
13. Why Do You Need to Drink a Lot of Water at a High Altitude?
14. Sleep: The Secret Ingredient of Injury Recovery
15. Effects of Alcohol
16. High altitude and oxidative stress
17. Oxidative Stress and Diseases Associated with High-Altitude Exposure
18. Effect of high altitude (7,620 m) exposure on glutathione