Travel & Places Latin America

How to Avoid Altitude Sickness on Your Trip to Peru

Altitude sickness, known as soroche in Peru, can occur at heights of 8,000 feet (2,500m) above sea level. Due to Peru’s varied geography, you are likely to reach this height -- and beyond -- at some point during your stay.

Breathlessness is typical at these altitudes, but it’s hard to predict if, and to what extent, altitude sickness will affect you as an individual.

Risk of Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness can strike even the fittest, healthiest traveler.

As soon as you pass the 8,000 feet mark, you are at risk from acute mountain sickness (AMS), the mildest and most common form of the condition.

More severe forms also exist: high altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral oedema (HACE). Both can occur near 8,000 feet, but are more common at heights of about 12,000 feet (3,600m) and over.

There is no way to know beforehand if you are susceptible to altitude sickness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “how a traveler has responded to high altitude previously is the most reliable guide for future trips, but is not infallible.”

Altitude Sickness Symptoms and Treatment

Symptoms of acute altitude sickness include:
  • headaches
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • dizziness
  • lethargy
  • poor sleep
  • loss of appetite

The website describes the symptoms as “very similar to a really bad hangover.” The two more severe forms of altitude sickness, HAPE and HACE, show similar, albeit heightened, symptoms, sometimes with additional symptoms such as a severe cough, blue lips or irrational behavior.

In all cases, the best treatment is descent. If heading to a lower altitude isn’t an option, stay where you are and rest for a day or two. Acetazolamide (diamox) tablets can also help. Whatever you do, don’t go any higher.

Altitude Sickness Prevention

Successful prevention is obviously preferable to treatment, so keep the following guidelines in mind before heading to high altitude locations:
  • A slow ascent is always the best option. Whenever possible, give your body time to adjust to the altitude. Proper acclimatization is the best defense against altitude sickness.
  • Take it easy for the first 24 hours at altitude -- don’t overexert yourself and don’t go any higher. This is particularly important if you’re arriving by plane.
  • Avoid alcohol, tobacco and sleeping pills. Keep yourself hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
  • Eat high-carbohydrate foods (such as pasta, potatoes and bread).
  • Drink coca tea or chew coca leaves upon arrival at altitude and during your stay. While largely unproven scientifically, the locals swear by it. Be aware that coca leaves, while legal in Peru, can make a drug test prove positive for cocaine.
  • Medication is also an option. Acetazolamide (diamox) is the most common type of “soroche pill.” Further options exist, but they are no substitute for proper acclimatization. Always consult your doctor before taking altitude sickness medication.

High Altitude Destinations in Peru

Altitude sickness won’t be an issue in towns and cities located along the coast and in the lowland jungle regions of Peru. In the highlands, however, you can soon find yourself at heights of 8,000 feet (2,500m) and above -- the point at which altitude sickness can occur.

Here are some notable destinations located close to 8,000 feet or above (for a more complete list of altitudes, see Altitude Table for Peruvian Cities and Tourist Attractions):

Cerro de Pasco14,200 feet (4,330m)
Puno and Lake Titicaca12,500 feet (3,811m)
Cusco11,152 feet (3,399m)
Huancayo10,692 feet (3,259m)
Huaraz10,013 feet (3,052m)
Ollantaytambo9,160 feet (2,792m)
Ayacucho9,058 feet (2,761m)
Machu Picchu7,972 feet (2,430m)

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