Cusco Altitude Sickness and Coca Leaves

Cusco Altitude Sickness

Cusco Altitude Sickness

Upon purchasing a ticket to come to Peru, I would say 90% of people will follow the same route. Fly into Cusco Peru, before heading to Machu Picchu. Both are considered to be at altitude and most likely you will be breathing a little faster and heavier than you are used to.

Cusco is around 3,399 meters or 11,152 ft, while Machu Picchu is a little lower at 2,430 meters or 7,972 feet.   It takes a few days usually to become totally acclimated to the altitude, however some may go through what is known as Cusco altitude sickness.  Symptoms may include, heavy and faster breathing like I mentioned, headaches, and sometimes dizziness or light headedness.  You may not feel anything at all.  Altitude sickness is impossible to predict and varies between age and overall fitness level.

Do not let the fear of altitude sickness prevent you from coming to Cusco , or Peru in general.  This is one of the most beautiful places in the world and probably a once in a lifetime oppurtunity to see one of the last pockets of humanity still living by their traditional customs and practices.  If however, you are one of the many people who come here and go through what the locals call Soroche, or altitude sickness, I have some suggestions for you.

First and foremost I must tell you one very improtant detail.  I AM NOT A DOCTOR.  These are simple and practical suggestions based on experience and spending significant time in Peru, particularly at elevation.

  1. Altitude means less air.  Less air means your body is naturally attempting to compensate for the thinner and lack of air at altitude.  You can assist with your bodily functions by taking it VERY SLOW upon your arrival.  No joke.  Take it easy.  I know its exciting being in Cusco , but do yourself a favor and act like an old lady, or old man, and no offense to the elderly of course, but just do it.
  2. Drink lots of WATER and avoid drinking ALCOHOL. Of course you are free to do whatever you want, but trust me on this.  Alcohol will do you no favors, thinner air at altitude means you will get drunk faster and dehydrate yourself faster, Water will be your best friend.  So drink lots of it.  The more you pee the more Co2 your body releases.  It will help if you are having headaches.
  3. There are to many prescription drugs you can get either here in Cusco, or in your home country. There are  too many to list, and I have literally taken none, however Diamox is probably your best bet.  It has the same effect as drinking lots of water.  It will make you have to pee.  If you pee you are getting rid of Co2 which is the cause of your headache.  Pee and pee some more!
  4. COCA tea & COCA leaves

Alright, let me first start off by saying yes.

Coca leaves are used to make the drug cocaine.  There is a very complicated process of extracting alkaloids chemically and unnaturally from the Coca leaves and you get cocaine.  The Coca leaves themselves are NOT cocaine.  Comparing coca leaves to cocaine, is like comparing the flame you get from striking a match, to the flames coming from a rocket headed for outerspace.  In many places in the world, including where I grew up in America, California to be exact, the mention of Coca leaves is an automatic misconception that chewing the leaves like the locals, or using the coca for a tea is somehow doing drugs.  This is a frustrating and an uneducated response to one of the most sacred plants not just in Peru, but Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile as well.  For preventing altitude sickness, Coca leaves come highley recommended by the locals.  I mean they have lived here for generations.  I would trust them on this.

I enjoy drinking the Coca tea myself, however there is the option to chew them like the locals do.  This is also enjoyable but a little messy.  No one will look at you funny, and you will not being doing drugs.  Really, coffee and normal tea will alter your consciousness more than Coca leaves will.

So take a deep breath, stop thinking about everything you think Coca tea is, and just enjoy.  You might be surprised at how good you feel afterward.

If you are looking for details about tours and treks all around Cusco, or Machu Picchu Travel check out PERU PATHs website: