Conquering Elevation (3/12)

NOTE: This article is part of a series of 12 articles on Peru and the many beautiful aspects of this country. There is a post for each day I spent there, although some may not be relative to that particular day. I intend to post two articles a week for this series, on Thursdays and Mondays.

For people that live up high in the clouds, it is easy to reach a lower elevation and breathe with ease. However, for those of us who live lower down, going upwards a few thousand feet can make a difference. This was especially true on my trip to Peru, where we went from living at 8,000 feet to hiking, sleeping, and eating at up to 13,000 feet.

In brief, adjusting to high altitude can harm your body because it does not receive as much oxygen as usual because there is lower air pressure and less oxygen. Because of this, your entire body shifts to be able to be creating more blood cells, readjusting placement of fluids, and breathing more. All of these adjustments take a toll on your body and can cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, motion sickness, and dehydration (given this is for elevations similar to places in Peru, not extremely high elevation such as Everest, where symptoms are more severe).

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Taquile Island, around 13,000 ft

Hence, there were a couple nights that I was a bit sick. The first night I was sick was with an intense headache that made me feel dizzy any time I stood. The second and third nights of being sick were intense stomach cramps, a bit of a fever, and a complete loss of appetite (a pity really, the squash soup was so good that night). I was miserable but happy because I was with some of the best people in my life. However, I could have done a bit more to help my body to be at its best. Here are three important methods to keeping the altitude sickness at bay:

1. Altitude Pills:

There are many variations of these but the ones I used were an all natural way (good for people with allergies to food dye, like me) to help your system retrieve the nutrients it needs to create more blood at that high up. I had no side effects from these, and quite frankly, I don’t think I would have been as sick if I had remembered to take them (oops). However, the days I did remember, I was able to travel without any issue, even if we had a solid hike that day. There are many ways to get these, but I would recommend some from Amazon for the convenience.

2. Coca Leaves

These leaves are awesome for helping with the altitude and not half bad. There is some stigma around them in the States because, yes, these leaves can be the source of cocaine. However, simply chewing them is not even close to the same as using cocaine and will merely act as a stimulant, prevent dehydration, hunger, and headaches. I used these on several days and it was a nice added boost to the altitude sickness pills. They taste alike to hay or alfalfa, but many people make tea out of the leaves too. You can easily get them anywhere in Cuzco, Aguas Calientes, or other high elevation towns in shops, hotel, or even the airport.

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The dried Coca leaf, which is chewed to help with elevation

3. Water

Staying hydrated is the easiest way to stay safe from altitude sickness. As your body needs more air, you breath more which can quickly dehydrate you, which is easy to fix with water. Keeping a water bottle with you is key, especially on hikes such as Machu Picchu’s Sun Gate or to the top of Taquile. You won’t regret it. However, do keep in mind that while Peru’s water is clean, it is heavily chlorinated and might be hard on your stomach depending on where you are from. If you are from the US, I would strongly advise drinking bottled water, although tap water is totally fine for showers and brushing your teeth.

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Taking water breaks is key to preventing altitude sickness!

Hopefully these tips can help you conquer elevation gain! Making sure you are prepared is important and taking care of your body is necessary to having a great experience!

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