How to (and how NOT to) Deal with the Altitude in Peru

I’m a sea-level gal. I don’t do well with high altitude.

At about 5,000 feet above sea level I get sleepy, at 6,000 loopy and at 7,000 I’m out cold – like I’m in a coma.

So when I found out that our trip to Peru would mean being above 11,000 feet, I panicked. We were going to some real bucket list-worthyCONTINUE READING >>

Coca leaves
Coca leaves sit in a basket for the guests of our hotel

I’m a sea-level gal. I don’t do well with high altitude.

At about 5,000 feet above sea level I get sleepy, at 6,000 loopy and at 7,000 I’m out cold – like I’m in a coma.

So when I found out that our trip to Peru would mean being above 11,000 feet, I panicked. We were going to some real bucket list-worthy places and I didn’t want to miss a thing.

NOTE: I am not a doctor, nor am I giving any advice here. I am simply providing info and letting you know what worked for me. Ask your doctor before trying anything new.

The Peruvian locals swear by the leaves of the coca plant, the plant that produces cocaine, as an antidote to the thin air. They have been chewing the leaves for centuries.

Coca Tea in Peru at Posada del Inca in Yucay
The most common way to serve coca is in a tea. It’s served everywhere.

We had heard about this remedy prior to our trip and were hesitant about trying it. We had read that, when brewed in tea, it has the same amount of boost as a cup of coffee, but I was worried that I would end up addicted, or at the very least, babbling on and on like a self-important idiot.

I’ve seen Charlie Sheen on talk shows and I don’t need any help in the babbling department. I’m a champ at it without any chemical help.

Coca tea was offered to us at a weaving coop in Peru
In the Sacred Valley of the Incas, we were served coca tea during our visit to a weaving cooperative. That’s David in the background to the left, sipping away.

As soon as we arrived in Cusco, I started feeling dizzy and felt my brain was seriously muted. I fell asleep as soon as I sat down on the bus. BAM. Gone.

I slept though the entire ride to our hotel. I decided to override my reservations and took a chance, I tried a little tea.
My head immediately started clearing and instantly no longer felt that sleep was eminent.

Coca candy in Peru
Coca candy is another way to get your coca fix. We’re convinced it and the tea helped.

Pleased with the results, we started making iced tea for to take along for sightseeing, and we’d even taken to chewing the leaves, just like a local! The raw leaves were not tasty, and we learned to soak them first – otherwise the texture was awful.

Other than the head-clearing and staying-awake properties, I felt no weird side effects. Once we caught a plane to Argentina, I didn’t think of coca again. I had no withdrawal symptoms.

General DOs and DON’Ts for high altitude management:

Inca Kola
Inca Kola, popular yellow, sweet soda

DO
-Stay hydrated. Drink your water. Limit your coffee and Inca Kola intake. Caffeine dehydrates and can make acclimation more difficult.

DO
-Take big, deep, full breaths. Deep breathing increases oxygen in the blood.

Pensive llama at Machu Picchu
A pensive llama at Machu Picchu

DON’T
-Go crazy with hiking and other strenuous activities
. Wait 24 hours and see how you feel. Machu Picchu will still be there.

DON’T
-Drink a lot of alcohol. Booze dehydrates. The air is dry. All that extra breathing dries you out. Why pile on?

MORE OPTIONS:

-Suck on some oxygen. Many hotels offer it to guests upon request. If you want to bring your own oxygen system, be sure to check with your airline before bringing it along.

-Some hotels offer rooms where oxygen is pumped in. These are especially helpful for folks who don’t sleep well in high altitudes.

-There are both prescription and over-the-counter remedies, so if you feel the need for drugs, talk to your doctor.

a booth with something called Oxyshot. But wait, the clerk is out cold, must be the thin air.

-At the airport in Cusco we were introduced to another treatment to counteract the high altitude. Since the salesperson at the OxiShot booth was out cold, we opted to pass this option by.

Veronica, GypsyNester.com

YOUR TURN: Did we cover everything? Do you know of anything we missed? Were we helpful? Do you have further questions? Fire away!

32 thoughts on “How to (and how NOT to) Deal with the Altitude in Peru”

  1. Great tips from everybody thank you. My husband and I going to Lima and Cusco in July. I read all your tips. I am a little bit scared I hope I don’t get sick but in the same time excited. Thanks everyone!
    Stella

  2. Really good tips! Traveling at altitude is no joke. You need to take proper precautions or you can get very, very ill.

    I did some climbing in Peru a few years back and actually took a prescription drug called Diamox. I’m not a medical professional, but I do recommend talking to your doctor about this if you A) are prone to altitude sickness or B) plan on traveling above 14,000 ft for consecutive days. I swear by it.

    Regarding cocoa leaves, I dabbled with these, and lots of tea, in Peru and it worked for me too! Minimal headaches and more stamina. Although, one night at dinner, there were some leaves in my meal and not knowing so, I ingested them. Let’s just say I didn’t get much sleep that night!

  3. Very helpful. Been wondering how I might deal with this as Machu Picchu is on my list. The last pic of the woman at the oxygen booth is the best, lol!

  4. well all these posts have been wonderful for me as im off to peru in april, so im doing my homework so i know what to expect..the altitude sickness that im reading about is a bit of a worry!!…dont know how i’ll go with that, but think ill be dosing up on the coca leaves 4 sure and lotsa coca candy too..getting a little silly wont worry me too much, think it might be amusing actually…cant wait to do this trip,,ive been learning spanish now for months..this trip has been on my bucket list for a very long time…this is a great site..muy muy interestante!!

  5. hello, i am looking to go to peru to find a home, for i heard they were very cheap there. did you get any wind of that rumor? also, i have been digging online, but havent found a way of transport down there cheaper that a couple of thousand dollars. any route from california, usa, that you know of that is extremely affordable? i would much appreciate you help, i love that i found your blog!
    thank you for your precious time,
    Lauren

  6. Cocoa leaves are a lifesaver! So many people are hesitant because it’s what cocaine is made from. However, it’s just a plant, it’s natural. Cocaine is made with several different types of chemicals you don’t want to know about, that’s why people get addicted! There’s a reason they’re such an important part of the Incan culture. Great tips about the altitude change, but I found the high altitude made me get drunk faster, meaning less money I spent on alcohol 🙂

  7. Love your website I spent too much time on it LOL I should be working. Veronica you are a go girl. and good thing you have David to film it JK, I sure you do all the crazy stuff tooDavid. Fun to see you do what all of us here would love doing. Thanks for sharing.
    I will be back to see how Peru is going, God speed to you.

    Kymee

  8. We actually came from sea level (we were living on a boat) and our first experience with altitude was when we toured Colca Canyon in Peru and ended up at 16,000 feet. Major altitude sickness for my husband and I but the kids were fine. Felt better when we took the altitude sickness pills we bought at a pharmacia in Arequipa. Don’t know exactly what they were but they worked better than the tea!

  9. I’m usually OK at high altitudes (though I do sometimes have trouble sleeping). My biggest challenge is dealing with the dry air. This summer in Colorado, after 3 days of staying at high altitude (9,000+ feet) in the mountains, I got a nosebleed so bad that it kept re-starting for hours. It was a nightmare! I wish they made candy for that!

  10. I usually don’t have too much trouble with altitude, growing up in Colorado, but I guess you never know until you get to Peru! Just by seeing travelers in Colorado, I think the alcohol point is really important. So often people think they can drink the same amount at altitude when your body can’t handle it.

  11. Another great posting. Did you guys get any vaccines (yellow fever or maleria) before your trip? I did get some altitide meds and some seasickness patches just in case. Can’t wait!
    Rosalie

    1. We did get the yellow fever shot and a prescription for malaria before traveling to Peru only because we went to the Amazon jungle. We flew into Iquitos from the states and caught a boat that traveled 2 hours down the Amazon river into the jungle. Otherwise, nothing is required for Peru.

  12. Great photos, guys! Cusco has been one of my favorite places we’ve visited so far. We tried all the various coca options, too — glad we did! We got pretty sick one day. Lost a whole day of exploring. 🙁

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