PRO TIP: Drink Coca Tea in Cusco as it’s a natural remedy to prevent altitude sickness.
What is the Elevation of Machu Picchu?
Machu Picchu’s elevation is 7,972 feet or 2,430 meters. Now even though Machu Picchu sits higher than what you might be used to, Cusco City has a higher elevation at 11,152 feet or 3,399 meters. This makes even the normal task of walking to a restaurant a lot more difficult, especially if you live close to sea level. Your body needs time to adjust to this elevation and even then, it’s not guaranteed you won’t feel the effects of less oxygen.
How does elevation affect your ability to breathe? Well, the higher the altitude, the less dense the oxygen becomes. What this means is, the air that your body needs to survive and feed to your muscles, and other organs have less oxygen in it. You are essentially breathing air that’s more difficult to absorb than your body is used to as coming from lower elevations. Ironically enough, the percentage of oxygen levels at 2 miles high (10,560 feet or 3,218 meters) and at sea level, is basically the same. Roughly 21%.
Here’s where it gets wonky. The air pressure at the higher altitude is about 30% less than at sea level. This means that the molecules that make up the air is less dense and further apart as alluded to above. The atmospheric pressure of the air we breathe at sea level is about 14.7 pounds per square inch. This allows the oxygen molecules to easily pass through your alveoli, which are the little tiny air sacs at the end of your bronchioles in your lungs. At 2 miles high, the pressure drops to roughly 9.9 pounds per square inch. This allows the molecules to spread further apart, thus reducing the passing of oxygen through to alveoli.
The higher you climb, the more extreme the difference from sea level. This is why it can feel like you’re dragging a truck behind you when you’re just walking around Machu Picchu or any of the hiking trails to Machu Picchu. You’re probably starting to wonder, what’s the best way to prepare for this? Here’s how to acclimate to the elevation.
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PRO TIP: Spend roughly two days in Cusco getting acclimated before venturing on strenuous hikes or treks.
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Don’t be alarmed, just be informed of this next section. Altitude sickness can occur, but knowing what it is and the signs, you can be prepared. If you take the process to acclimate discussed below, you can minimize your chances of falling to altitude sickness. So how can altitude make you sick? Altitude sickness generally happens around 8,000 feet or higher and is caused by rapidly ascending to these altitudes. It can also occur for people at much lower altitudes, around 4,500 feet. Most cases are mild, but it can get serious.
Your body is adjusting to its new environment you have placed it in; the higher elevation. With this adjustment can come an onset of symptoms as your body is trying to get used to it. You can experience headache, nausea, shortness of breath, some swelling, loss of appetite, etc.
Symptoms of altitude sickness can vary from person to person. Altitude sickness is treatable and preventable. If you start feeling any symptoms, you can descend to a lower altitude, stop your ascent, and get plenty of rest. There is also medication that can be prescribed by your doctor. You can also take your time in acclimating to the new elevation before going on any activity.
PRO TIP: Schedule a doctor’s visit to see if they can prescribe you medication to lower your risk of altitude sickness. It can be a lifesaver when traveling.
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How to Acclimate
Take it easy. You’re on vacation after all! Most people will travel to Peru by first flying into Lima. From there, you’ll take a short flight to Cusco, where most of your tour hubs operate. Don’t immediately make your way to Machu Picchu or start the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu once you arrive in Cusco. It’s recommended to spend at least 2 days in Cusco getting used to the altitude. This is the process of acclimating.
Remember Cusco sits higher than Machu Picchu, therefore being patient and spending the two days in Cusco will only make your time visiting Machu Picchu even better. There’s so much to do in Cusco, there’s no sense in rushing it anyway. You can take a tour around Cusco City and visit famous Inca sites, hang out in Aguas Calientes, visit the cathedral, the beautiful plaza square, or even enjoy a nice spa day getting pampered for a really great price.
Another option is to visit the Inca ruins in the Sacred Valley, which is at a lower elevation of Cusco and Machu Picchu. Once you have leisurely spent two days in Cusco, you’ll be ready for any adventure you have your eyes set on in Peru!
Keep yourself hydrated. This is important. According to the Wilderness Medical Society, you lose water through respiration, or breathing, at high-altitude twice as quickly as you do at sea level. High-altitude can also make you need to urinate more often and can blunt your thirst response, putting you at even greater risk of dehydration. Stay away from beverages that can dehydrate you, like alcohol, sugar or sodium filled drinks. Water is the best way to avoid having headaches from dehydration.
You’re now ready for your Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu adventure! As mentioned before, it will literally take your breath away. I have the hardest time coming up with words for the sheer awe that I was struck by when I laid my eyes upon her. To fathom that this complex was built almost 600 years ago is nothing short of amazing. The layout, architecture, everything is simply unbelievable. This should be at the top of everyone’s bucket list! Remember to take it easy so that you can give your body time to adjust to the elevation and avoid altitude sickness. Happy travels!