Altitude Sickness in Peru

Soroche Prevention, Symptoms, Treatment and More

Machu Picchu at 7,972 feet altitude
••• Richard Collins/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Altitude sickness, known as soroche in Peru, can occur at heights of 8,000 feet (2,500m) above sea level. Due to Peru’s varied geography, you are likely to reach this height—and beyond—at some point during your stay.

Breathlessness is typical at these altitudes, but it’s hard to predict if, and to what extent, altitude sickness will affect you as an individual.

The Risk of Altitude Sickness in Peru

How at-risk you are to altitude sickness in Peru is an almost impossible question to answer, beyond the simple fact that the higher you go, the greater the potential risk.

Altitude sickness can strike even the fittest, healthiest traveler. As soon as you pass the 8,000 feet mark, you are at risk from acute mountain sickness (AMS), the mildest and most common form of the condition.

More severe forms also exist: high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE). Both can occur near 8,000 feet, but are more common at heights of about 12,000 feet (3,600m) and over.

There is no way to know beforehand if you are susceptible to altitude sickness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “how a traveler has responded to high altitude previously is the most reliable guide for future trips, but is not infallible.”

Altitude Sickness Symptoms and Treatment

Whenever you pass the 8,000 feet mark in Peru, you should always treat certain symptoms as possible signs of altitude sickness. Symptoms of acute altitude sickness include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Lethargy
  • Poor sleep
  • Loss of appetite

The website describes the symptoms as “very similar to a really bad hangover.” The two more severe forms of altitude sickness, HAPE and HACE, show similar, albeit heightened symptoms, sometimes with additional symptoms such as a severe cough, blue lips or irrational behavior.

In all cases, the best treatment is descent. If heading to a lower altitude isn’t an option, stay where you are and rest for a day or two. Acetazolamide (diamox) tablets can also help. Whatever you do, don’t go any higher.

Altitude Sickness Prevention

Successful prevention is always preferable to treatment, so keep the following guidelines in mind before heading to high altitude locations in Peru:

  • A slow ascent is always the best option. Whenever possible, give your body time to adjust to the altitude. Proper acclimatization is the best defense against altitude sickness.
  • Take it easy for the first 24 hours at altitude—don’t overexert yourself and don’t go any higher. This is particularly important if you’re arriving by plane.
  • Avoid alcohol, tobacco and sleeping pills. Keep yourself hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
  • Eat high-carbohydrate foods (such as pasta, potatoes, and bread).
  • Drink coca tea or chew coca leaves upon arrival at altitude and during your stay. While largely unproven scientifically, the locals swear by it. Be aware that coca leaves, while legal in Peru, can make a drug test prove positive for cocaine.
  • Medication is also an option. Acetazolamide is the most common type of “soroche pill.” Further options exist, but they are no substitute for proper acclimatization. Always consult your doctor before taking altitude sickness medication.

    High Altitude Destinations in Peru

    Altitude sickness won’t be an issue in towns and cities located along the coast and in the lowland jungle regions of Peru. In the highlands, however, you can soon find yourself at heights of 8,000 feet (2,500m) and above—the point at which altitude sickness can occur.

    Here are some notable destinations located close to 8,000 feet or above. For a more complete list of altitudes, see the Altitude Table for Peruvian Cities and Tourist Attractions.

    Cerro de Pasco14,200 feet (4,330m)
    Puno and Lake Titicaca12,500 feet (3,811m)
    Cusco11,152 feet (3,399m)
    Huancayo10,692 feet (3,259m)
    Huaraz10,013 feet (3,052m)
    Ollantaytambo9,160 feet (2,792m)
    Ayacucho9,058 feet (2,761m)
    Machu Picchu7,972 feet (2,430m)