Elevation in Machu Picchu: Combating Altitude Sickness

If you’re heading to Peru, a trip to Machu Picchu is likely on your bucket list. And if you’ve done a wee bit of research, you’ve probably encountered horror stories of people experiencing altitude sickness. Also called acute mountain sickness, altitude sickness can cause an array of symptoms. So, you might be wondering—is the elevation in Machu Picchu high enough to cause altitude sickness?

Yes and no.

I lived in Peru for two years and have visited Machu Picchu three times. I’ll share with you everything I know about the high altitude in Peru’s beautiful Machu Picchu region.

What is the Altitude of Machu Picchu?

Machu Picchu is just shy of 8,000 feet. Of course, the exact altitude will depend on exactly where in Machu Picchu you’re at. For example, if you hike up to Huayna Picchu, you’ll be at around a 9,000-foot elevation.

Climbing down Huayna Picchu's staircase, which is steep because of the elevation in Machu Picchu.
Don’t let that smile fool you—I was scared silly climbing down Huayna Picchu’s steps.

On the other hand, Aguas Calientes, which is the town directly beneath the mountain that Machu Picchu sits on, is about 6,700 feet.

If you’re new to the high altitude realm, let me put these numbers into perspective for you: altitude sickness typically starts at around 8,000 feet.

So, yes, you can experience altitude sickness in Machu Picchu.

However, since there’s still a decent amount of oxygen in the air compared to destinations like Cusco and the Sacred Valley, any altitude sickness symptoms you may experience in Machu Picchu will likely be less pronounced than when you visit these other destinations.

Psst! Want tips on which destination to visit first? Take a look at my guide on starting in Cusco vs. the Sacred Valley.

A llama grazing at Machu Picchu.
Llamas don’t mind the high altitude at Machu Picchu!

Should I visit Machu Picchu Before Cusco and the Sacred Valley?

It’s a valid question, given the numbers I shared above. And luckily, the answer is easy—no, you shouldn’t visit Machu Picchu before visiting Cusco and/or the Sacred Valley.

If you haven’t already, I recommend pulling out a map of the Cusco region. You’ll quickly realize that you’ll need to pass through both Cusco and the Sacred Valley before arriving in Machu Picchu.

While it’s possible to fly or take a bus into Cusco, drive into the Sacred Valley, and hop on a train to Aguas Calientes in the same day, the chances of you being able to fit all these travel logistics in and have enough time to explore Machu Picchu are slim.

Winding road in the Sacred Valley.
Road in the Sacred Valley.

So, some people choose to spend the night in Aguas Calientes and then head up to Machu Picchu the next morning.

Let me be clear—there’s no wrong way to visit Machu Picchu since it depends on the person, the amount of time they have, and their tolerance (or lack thereof) for jam-packed travel.

However, the notion that it’s best to skip Cusco and/or the Sacred Valley at the beginning of your trip since the elevation in Machu Picchu is lower is, in my opinion, skewed.

The better question to ask yourself is this: Is it better to visit Cusco or the Sacred Valley before visiting Machu Picchu?

Go ahead and click on the link above once you finish reading this article. It’ll clear up the most common questions people have about these two destinations.

Altitude Sickness Symptoms

A view of Machu Picchu with green grass.

If you’re concerned about the high altitude in Machu Picchu, I feel you. The first time I visited there, I was blissfully unaware of what altitude sickness is. It hit me on the bus from Lima, before we even arrived in Cusco.

Ugh!

Altitude sickness symptoms in the Andes can vary from mild to severe. Let’s cover what they look like.

Mild Altitude Sickness Symptoms

  • Shortness of breath
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of apetite

Severe Altitude Sickness Symptoms

  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Loss of coordination
  • Skin turns blue

The symptoms above are an indicator that a person has High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACE), which a life-threatening condition. Immediate medical attention is needed in these cases.

Although it seems counter intuitive, if you experience severe altitude sickness symptoms during your time in the Machu Picchu region, you’ll need to travel back to Cusco. Cusco sits at a higher altitude than Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, but it also has better equipped hospitals.

My post on whether to start your trip in Cusco or the Sacred Valley delves into this topic in more detail.

How Long Does Altitude Sickness Usually Last?

An areal view showing the elevation in Machu Picchu.

It depends on the person, but altitude sickness usually lasts for 2 – 3 days. Oftentimes, symptoms are worse at night.

That being said, the mildest cases can improve within a few hours. Although altitude sickness typically hits a person shortly after arriving at a high elevation destination, it can sometimes take a few days for symptoms to appear.

How Can I Treat Altitude Sickness?

One of the best ways to feel immediate relief from altitude sickness is to take oxygen. A mere 5 – 10 minutes can do wonders to making you feel human again (speaking from experience here!).

Most hotels in Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and Aguas Calientes have an oxygen tank at the front desk. In many cases, they’ll administer the oxygen to you for free.

Additionally, nearly all tour operators carry small oxygen tanks in their vehicles. So, if you’re concerned about the elevation in Machu Picchu or elsewhere, double-check that they have quick access to oxygen.

Aside from oxygen, other ways to treat mild cases of altitude sickness include:

  • Drinking lots of water (Remember, water has oxygen and a lack of oxygen is what causes altitude sickness)
  • Drinking coca tea
  • Avoid intense activity until you feel better
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Avoid cigarettes
  • Avoid moving to a higher altitude until you feel better

Coca Tea for Altitude Sickness

Some people balk at the idea of drinking coca tea, since it’s composed of the leaves used to make cocaine.

Drinking coca tea and chewing coca leaves is completely safe. You’d have to consume way more leaves than humanly possible to begin experiencing the effects of cocaine.

If you want an even more powerful impact from coca leaves, chew on the leaves. It might feel funny keeping the rough, dried leaves wedged in your cheek, but it’s a more direct way of receiving its healing benefits.

How Can You Prevent Altitude Sickness?

Mountains and ruins in Machu Picchu.

Here’s the bad news—there’s not a whole lot you can do to prevent Altitude Sickness.

Altitude sickness affects each person differently and doesn’t discriminate against age, weight, or fitness. A 300-pound person could adjust to the elevation in Machu Picchu with ease, whereas a fit 120-pound person might make a trip to the hospital because of HACE.

I’m not saying this to scare you, though. Thankfully, severe altitude sickness symptoms are rare.

Before you travel to a high altitude area, consider asking your doctor to prescribe you a medicine such as Diamox. You’ll begin taking Diamox before arriving at a high altitude area and, should you have altitude sickness, it’ll help lessen or prevent the symptoms from occurring.

If you don’t get altitude sickness medication before arriving in Peru, you can purchase an over-the-counter drug called Sorojchi.

Sorojchi is available at almost all Peruvian pharmacies, including low elevation destinations like Lima.

Fun fact: Sorojchi is an Andean term for altitude sickness.

Best Way to Prepare for Altitude Sickness

A view of the Urubamba River from Huayna Picchu.
A view of the Urubamba River from Huayna Picchu.

The best way to prepare for the elevation in Machu Picchu is by mindfully designing your trip.

Build in free time upon your arrival to Cusco or the Sacred Valley. I recommend spending a minimum of two nights, but preferably three nights, in one of these destinations (or a combination of both) in order to give yourself time to acclimate to the high altitude.

When it comes down to it, the best way to mitigate altitude sickness is by giving yourself time to acclimate. Avoid scheduling activities the day you arrive in the Andes, and hold off on fitness-geared activities until a few days into your stay.

If I’ve Had Altitude Sickness in the Past, Will I Have it Again?

Maybe.

Or maybe not.

Just like altitude sickness doesn’t discriminate against age and fitness, it also doesn’t discriminate against people who have experience with the high altitude.

For example, you could have four visits to high elevation areas without experiencing altitude sickness only to be hit hard with acute mountain sickness on your fifth go.

Similarly, if you’ve had altitude sickness before, it’s not an indication that you’ll have it in Machu Picchu.

Ruins at Machu Picchu.

Questions?

I hope this post has helped shed some light on how altitude sickness works and the impact it could potentially have on your trip. While I know this topic can sound intimidating, if you plan your trip with a buffer relaxation day or more, you’ll more than likely acclimate just fine and be on your way to experiencing beautiful Machu Picchu.

Do you have questions about high altitude in the Andes? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to help. Alternatively, if you’ve been to a high altitude area, I’d love to hear about your experience.

Before You Go

I’ve put together a detailed guide comparing and contrasting whether to start your Machu Picchu trip in Cusco or the Sacred Valley.

The article is closely tied with the information here, so I highly recommend giving it a read so you have a more well-rounded understanding of everything that goes into altitude sickness and visiting Machu Picchu.