Altitude sickness in Peru
Huayhuas trek altitud sickness in Peru

When people plan their tour to Peru they frequently ask us about the safety conditions in Peru. They are worried about getting robbed, or getting stuck in a protest. Although these risks exist, like almost everywhere in the world, most tourists in Peru will not encounter any of these problems. However, there is another risk, which is more likely to affect your holiday in a negative way if you don’t prepare well. This risk is called altitude sickness in Peru.

Altitude sickness

Rainbow Mountain altitude sickness
Rainbow Mountain in Peru at more than 5000 m altitude!

Altitude sickness is caused by there being less oxygen in the air at higher altitudes. And usually the air is also less humid. Our body needs to make more red blood cells to compensate the lesser amount of oxygen. For most people the process of acclimatizing to a higher altitude only takes a few days, but for some it takes longer and sometimes it doesn´t work out at all.
The first symptoms of altitude sickness include:
* Being short of breath
* Having a light headache (which can become a heavy one);
* Feeling dizzy after doing only a bit of exercise;
* Feeling more tired and unusually weak;
* Having nausea, feeling sick;
* Having sleeping-problems.
* Dehydration.
The symptoms written above are for the first and most common form of altitude sickness called: Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). More information about more severe, but less common forms of altitude sickness you can find in our article about altitude sickness.

Can altitude sickness be prevented?

No, you can’t prevent altitude sickness and it is a strange kind of disease that everyone can get; no matter your age or even physical condition. To complicate matters, even the effects of high altitude sickness aren’t always the same. Some people already feel weak at an altitude of 1000 meter above sea level, others only above 3000 meter altitude. In general most people feel the first symptoms of altitude sickness when they are higher than 2500 meter above sea level and/or ascending more than 300m a day and sleep at this higher altitude. If you ascend to an higher altitude during the day, but descend again before you’re going to sleep, this usually gives less problems.

Traveling at an higher altitude in Peru?

Colca Canyon Arequipa tour Peru
High pass at 4910 m altitude on Colca Canyon tour Peru

How to behave when you are traveling on an higher altitude in Peru and reduce the effect of altitude sickness in Peru; The most important advise if you travel to higher altitude is that you keep yourself calm, especially during the first days on higher altitude. Listen to your body, take your time and don´t rush things. Equally important is to drink enough and eat a bit saltier. Drink more than you usually do, because on higher altitude you don’t always notice on time that you don’t drink enough. Two things that can indicate that you don’t drink enough are; when your urine is darker than usual and your lips get dry. It is recommendable that for each 1000 meter you go up, you drink about one litre more than you drink usually. Of course this depends on the weather and the exercises you are doing. Do not drink only water, especially when you go often to the toilet, this indicates that your body doesn´t absorb the water well enough. In this case you can put a bit of salt and sugar in your water, drink some fruit juices, or Gatorade (or other sport-drinks). When you are dehydrated, either from high altitude, or diarrhoea, it is even better to not drink water yet, but first drink at least a litre of so called electrolytes. Alternatives to electrolytes can be Gatorade, ORS, fruit juices, or even soft drinks with sugar, but without gas. If it is a sunny day, keep in mind that on higher altitude (for example on Lake Titicaca at 3812 meter above sea level) the ultra violet light is much stronger. This strong sunlight in combination with a drier air increases the risk to get dehydrated.

How to deal with altitude sickness

Again, take it easy, slow down and keep drinking enough. If you need a bit more energy, you can try Dextrose tablets or Coromida, a stronger version of dextrose tablets (in Peru). They are no medicine but they do work a bit against headaches. If Dextrose doesn’t work, you can use Paracetamol against a small headache (aspirin has usually more side-effects, but can be used if you prefer). If the headache is too strong for Paracetamol, than it is best to descend and/or find medical attention.

How to prepare for altitude sickness in Peru?

Salkantay Trek altitude sickness in PeruBelow we will give some tips on how you can prepare your body before traveling to an higher altitude. These tips can lower the effects of getting altitude sickness in Peru:
– Avoid eating meat (or even dining heavily) just before you go to higher altitude, especially when you don´t know how you will react on this. It takes your stomach more energy to digest meat at higher altitude, which leaves your body with less energy for getting used to the higher altitude.
– Be more careful with alcohol, the effect is stronger on higher altitude, it also dehydrates and has influences on your capability in making decisions.
– If you smoke, try to smoke less. Smoking will cost you oxygen.
– Try to eat more iron rich food, like spinach and other green vegetables (only worth it if you are really going to do some exercises).

Medicines to lower the effects of altitude sickness in Peru

There is a medicine that´s called acetazolamide (brand name Diamox). This medicine can prevent the first symptoms of altitude sickness for example with lowering the sour level of your blood and it also work slightly positive on your breathing rhythm. Make sure you drink enough if you use this medications, because it will make you urinate more often. Ask your doctor about other side-effects before you use this medication. The general recommendation if you decide to use this medication is to take 2 times a day 250 mg, starting only one day before you ascend and to stop if you are one day at the highest altitude of your destination without problems.

Soroche Pills

In Peru they sell ‘Soroche Pills’ against altitude sickness in Peru. They are very popular, but contain the same working ingredients as aspirin, mixed with caffeine. It is understandable that they give you a short boost, but it is probably better just to take Paracetamol instead, because of the possible negative side-effects of aspirin and caffeine.

While traveling in Peru, always keep in mind: If you have too much trouble with altitude sickness, the only real medicine is to go back to lower altitude and give your body rest…