Altitude sickness can be a real buzz kill. Don’t let dizzying heights ruin your well-earned vacation! Check out some classic, offbeat and full proof ways to avoid altitude sickness in Peru!
Like many people, Peru has been on my bucket list for a very long time. And when I found out that the Machu Picchu entrance guidelines were going to be more challenging, I wanted to get there fast!
Research about Machu Picchu took me down a rabbit hole of information. From Rainbow Mountain to Cusco to the Amazon, I learned that there was a lot more to Peru than just Machu Picchu! Especially altitude sickness.
Travelers wrote warily about the woes of altitude sickness when visiting Cusco (which sits at 11,152 ft), the Salkantay Trek (15,026 ft) and Rainbow Mountain (17,060 ft—over HALF the height of Mt. Everest!). To be honest, I hadn’t even thought about altitude sickness before booking Peru; it wasn’t even on my radar. But after hearing some gnarly travel stories, I had decided to pay a little bit more attention to this vacation-ruining illness.
First of all, how does one get altitude sickness?
Altitude sickness occurs when you cannot get enough oxygen from the air at high altitudes. Your heart starts to work harder to get blood pumping (which carries oxygen to the rest of your body) and takes your body a few days to adjust. Some people feel nothing at all. But many can feel symptoms like these for 3-7 days:
Headache (from mild to severe)
Loss of appetite
Nausea and or vomiting
Weakness, fatigue and low-energy
Poor sleep or not being able to fall asleep at all
Feeling out of breath
Your body is a well-oiled, perfectly crafted machine. It can take just about anything life throws at it. But it still requires an adjustment period, which is why switching altitudes so drastically takes your body about a week or less to get back to normal.
“So how the hell can I avoid altitude sickness when traveling to high altitudes?”
I’m glad you asked! Being ‘The Clumsy Traveler’ means I’ve had a lot of messy travel stories (like this time, this time and this time). Some of this is a lack of luck. Some, because I am incredibly sensitive. Also, I’m a bit of a carefree rebel. I like to let chaos ensue and let the chips fall where they may.
But I wasn’t about to save a bunch of money, work hard to get to Peru and have it all fall by the wayside because of stupid altitude sickness.
I relied on some of my friends in the adaptogenic herb community for help, I researched multiple blogs and read plenty of medical information. I’m basically a walking altitude sickness encyclopedia at this point. *Please note: I am not a medical professional, nutritionist or health person. These are tips I have learned throughout my travels and research and you should always consult a doctor before taking these supplements, herbs and vitamins.
After all of the research, here are the best methods to avoid altitude sickness in Peru (or anywhere for that matter):
One of the most widely shared altitude sickness remedies is chlorophyll. This green liquid promotes healthy levels of red blood cells by raising red blood cell count. Due to the increase in red blood cells, chlorophyll helps the cells capture more oxygen with each breath and boosts energy levels by saturating body tissues with oxygen.
At the beginning or end of your day, drop 15-30 drops of this green gold into an 8-ounce water bottle. The aftertaste is a little funky, so I suggest you chug it!
You can buy liquid chlorophyll brand that I used, here!
Maca root is the highest altitude crop in the world and found primarily in the Andean mountains. You’re probably used to seeing it in health food stores now, but for years this staple food helped Peruvians with endurance, strength training and hormonal issues. Studies show that this high altitude root can actually help you up there, too!
According to nutritionists and health experts, it’s best to ingest maca well before your trip. At least a few weeks if not a month.
If you go to the San Pedro Market in Cusco, you’ll find tons of maca here! The only issue is that they sell large quantities in unlabeled bags. This makes it very difficult to bring it back home on the plane. If you’re worried about customs back to the United States, just bring a labeled bag of crushed maca root.
You can buy the maca powder I use, here!
3. Coca Tea
To answer the question I’m sure you’re secretly thinking: yes, these are the same coca leaves that create cocaine. And yeah, it’s legal in Peru.
Coca leaves are sacred to the Incans and Quechuan people of Peru. So sacred in fact, that I actually had my coca tea leaves read my a Peruvian shaman during my stay in Cusco! But I digress…
Due to the alkaloid and stimulating properties in coca leaves, Andeans believe that coca tea and chewing on the actual leaves can prevent altitude sickness. There hasn’t been sufficient testing to prove if this is true, but when in Peru!
By the way, having a ton of coca tea isn’t ANYTHING like cocaine. You need 1 ton of coca tea leaves (and other scary ingredients) to create 5 grams of cocaine. Some people claim to feel a high or buzz, but it’s probably a placebo effect or you’re super sensitive.
Try not to have more than 6 cups of tea a day if you’re not used to stimulants. Also, don’t even try bringing it back to the United States, packaged or not.
This fungus grown on actual bugs may sound super gross, but it’s one of my favorite adaptogens! Cordyceps have been used for decades to increase strength training and endurance. According to Tibetan sherpas, cordyceps allow them to climb Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. Because the mushroom only grows at high altitudes, researchers have theorized that cordyceps have unique blood-oxygenating properties.
I have been using cordyceps long before my trip to Peru. It helps my work out, gives me energy without needing caffeine or coffee and boosts my mood! 1 teaspoon mixed with my favorite smoothie, tea or water is an amazing boost. I believe this herb was the best remedy when trying to avoid altitude sickness in Peru!
You can buy the cordyceps powder I use, here!
CoQ10, or Coenzyme Q10, is a great supplement for one’s heart. Did you know that it’s naturally orange and found in most cells in our bodies? CoQ10 helps support cellular energy production in the mitochondria. The highest concentrations of cellular mitochondria are found in the hardest working cells within the body, such as the heart. Moderate amounts of CoQ10 are found in foods, but the primary source of CoQ10 in the body is produced by the body itself.
Since your body, particularly your heart, is working a lot harder at higher altitudes, it’s important to give it the additional help that it needs. People who use COQ10 notice drastic results compared to people who travel without it.
For CoQ10 to work properly in Cusco and other high altitude destinations, you need to take the supplements at least 1 week before you arrive (preferably 2 weeks)! Make sure you take 200 mg before bed leading up to your trip and everyday that you’re there.
You can buy the CoQ10 capsules I used, here!
6. Ashwagandha Root and Reishi Mushroom
With your heart and body working on overtime, your sleep being disrupted and you constantly out of breath, it’s easy for your body to become stressed. Stress not only plagues your heart and mind, but can impact your immune system as well.
Ashwagandha and reishi are two herbs that together help reduce cortisol levels (the stress hormone that harms your health), treats adrenal fatigue, improves heart health, aids sleep disorders, helps your liver, reduces anxiety and depression, increases stamina and endurance, stabilizes blood sugar, boosts immunity and even helps prevent cancer!
Honestly, you should probably add these herbs in your daily regimn even if you’re not traveling at high altitudes!
7. Drink Lots of Water
Seriously, when does drinking a lot of water NOT help?
8. Don’t Eat Heavy Your First Day of Arrival
I didn’t read very much about this advice, but heard it a lot from local Peruvians. Kevin heard about this from a Lima local before our trip and we continued to hear about it once we touched the ground in Cusco.
It’s very important that you don’t go overboard and feast on your first day in Cusco! Think soups, bread, coca tea, crackers, a little bit of chicken and a ton of water. Nothing more. After this first day, feel free to eat all of the corn, ceviche and guinea pig (yup, that’s a thing) you desire!
If your body starts to focus its immediate efforts on digesting all of that food in your body, it won’t have time to adjust to the altitude. And you’ll feel the impact like a clap of thunder on your head.
9. Eating Healthy and/or Clean Before Your Trip
This one we concluded after our return from Peru.
I always get sick. Before a trip, during and after. Despite my immaculate health regimen, I’m a fucking stress case which leads to a tapped out immune system. So I was convinced I would get altitude sickness. Imagine my surprise when I felt almost no symptoms and my husband (who NEVER gets sick, mind you) was wrecked from the altitude.
We both took chlorophyll, both took adaptogens and both loaded up on COQ10. The only major difference between us (besides our genetics), is that I eat fairly clean and healthy. Up until the trip, I was having very limited sugar, almost no refined carbohydrates and no alcohol. My husband… not so much.
If you can manage to alter your diet before your trip, try eating as clean and healthy as possible for at least 2 weeks before your trip!
This is more of a response to the symptoms than anything else. However, if you take ibuprofen or Advil before you feel the symptoms, you might not even suffer the mind-numbing headaches. Always worth a try, right?
I would take 2 ibuprofen when I woke up in the morning and 2 before bed. Typically, I don’t take this much advil regularly, but it was only for a few days. Plus, I didn’t want any pain to interrupt my trip.
Buy some advil for your trip, here!
So in the end, what worked for me?
Honestly, I did just about all of these things and I only suffered from mild insomnia and running out of breath. So I can’t tell you which remedy worked best. I believe that the more remedies you have on your side, the better! Plus, most of these remedies have additional benefits outside of curing altitude sickness so it doesn’t hurt to try them all!
Based on my lifestyle and comparing my results with Kevin, it seems like the most effective treatments were the adaptogenic herbs, CoQ10, eating healthy and the chlorophyll drops. The rest seem like they only helped a little or were placebo effects.