Altitude sickness, or Hypoxemia, is a very real thing. It happens when there is less oxygen in the air, thus reducing the amount of oxygen in your blood. Example of some cities high above sea level include La Paz, Quito, Cusco, and Lhasa. Symptoms include nausea, headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath, fatigue, and a fast heart rate. Sounds like the perfect hangover.
It’s no secret that I suffer from migraines, which made me a little hesitant about visiting Cusco and Machu Picchu in the first place. Cusco is over 11,000 feet above sea level, while Machu Picchu is around 8,000, though the Machu Picchu Mountain hike will get you over 10,000 feet.
For some people, altitude sickness can hit them immediately, and for others it might take a couple of hours to set in. My symptoms included a little nausea during the first hour, but mostly a fast heart rate and a pounding headache. I was hit with it the second I stepped off the plane, while Joel flew out of the hotel excitedly to take photos of Cusco, talk to locals and even had time to get spit on by a llama before his altitude sickness set in. Everyone takes altitude sickness differently. Some people aren’t even phased and others must use an oxygen tank until their blood oxygen is back at a sufficient level. And believe it or not, fitness really has little to do with how you will be affected.
How do you prepare for altitude sickness?
Well, there are two main ways. One, ask your doctor for a prescription. “Diamox” is usually the Rx of choice and you must begin taking it 48 hours before you even ascend to that altitude or you can acclimate naturally. However, if you know me, I try to do everything as organically as possible.
Recommendations to acclimate naturally:
The first day might be a little difficult, but if you follow these recommendations you will likely feel much better the next day. And worst case, many hotels in high altitude cities have oxygen tanks on hand!