Popular bucket list destination Machu Picchu lies high in The Andes, over eight thousand feet above sea level. At that height lack of oxygen can cause nausea and headaches that will keep even the hardiest traveler bed bound with a bout of altitude sickness and needing a bucket for something much less appealing than scratching it off a list.
By far the most effective way to avoid these symptoms is to let your body acclimate to the lower oxygen content of the alpine atmosphere, so if possible try to reach the high country at least a few days before attempting to climb around the mountains of Machu Picchu. To fully acclimate takes over a week though, and few have that extra time, so here are a few tips we gathered on our recent expedition to Peru.
NOTE: We are not doctors and are not giving medical advice here. We are simply providing info and letting you know what worked for us. Ask your doctor before trying anything new.
The most common way to prepare coca is in a tea. It's served everywhere.
Without a doubt the most popular remedy is tea made from the leaves of the coca plant. It is served almost everywhere, hotel lobbies, restaurants, and generally anywhere tourists congregate.
We had read that coco tea has about the same amount of boost as a cup of coffee, but were hesitant, could we like it too much? Coca is after all the plant that cocaine is made from. We might end up babbling on and on like some self-important idiot. We've seen Charlie Sheen on talk shows and don't need any help in the babbling department.
Coca leaves available for the guests at our hotel.
Luckily that was not the case. We even started making iced tea to take along with us sightseeing. Next thing we knew we were chewing the leaves, just like a local. We even tried the candy made from the medicinal plant. All of it was effective for clearing the head and staying awake, and there were no weird side effects or addictive qualities. Once we were back down into breathable air we didn't think of coca again.
Coca candy is another way to get your coca fix. We're convinced it and the tea helped.
Whether you are comfortable with consuming coca or not, here are more DOs and DON'Ts for high altitude management while visiting Machu Picchu:
Inca Kola is popular, yellow, sweet, caffeinated soda in Peru
DO - Stay hydrated. Drink 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.
A pensive llama at Machu Picchu
DON'T - Immediately start hiking or other strenuous activities. Wait twenty-four 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?
-Suck on 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 some prescription and over-the-counter remedies available, so if you feel the need for drugs, talk to your doctor.
Remember, there is no need for any macho mountain climbing at Machu Picchu, especially if you are post-50 like us. While it is possible to hike four days in on The Inca Trail, a train is also available.
WATCH: The train to Machu Picchu is an adventure on its own!
We went with the train, and an adventure put together by Road Scholar, an outfit geared toward lifelong learning, so our fellow travelers were all in our age and ability range. We never felt the need to overexert to keep up with the youngsters.
Machu Picchu can be taken in at a leisurely pace, especially if you allow yourself two days. We thoroughly enjoyed our second day, including a spectacular sunrise, for further exploration without the feeling of time constraints.
YOUR TURN: Did we cover everything? Do you know of anything we missed? Were we helpful? Do you have further questions? Fire away!