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The colour and vibrancy of Peru's Cusco and the Sacred Valley are even more enjoyable if you've taken steps to avoid altitude sickness

Dealing with the highs and lows of Peru; How to cope with altitude sickness



CUSCO, Peru-Cusco, the golden city of the Incas, sprawls across the hillsides of the high Andes Mountains. Its historic architecture - from the colossal, Inca-built walls to the dazzling facades of the Spanish-colonial Plaza de Armas - makes it an archaeological dream.

With all this grandeur it's strange that the main topic of conversation among the travellers who crowd the narrow, cobbled lanes is how to cope with altitude sickness - at 3,500 metres Cusco is the sixth-highest city in the world.

Simply put, altitude or mountain sickness is caused by the low air pressure found at high altitudes (typically above 2,400 metres). As barometric pressure decreases, each breath contains fewer molecules of oxygen.

While not everyone suffers from the effects of being high up, many do. After flying to Cusco from Lima I suffered consequences that varied from shortness of breath to headaches to sleeplessness. Others mentioned nausea, dizziness and loss of appetite. Over my five days in Cuzco, then on to Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca, I heard of many remedies.

A well-travelled Dutch couple at my breakfast table at Hostal Marani swore chewing cocoa leaves helped them. Some people try breathing pure oxygen, which most Cusco hotels advertise they have available. I tried it one day, sitting in a sunny courtyard feeling headachy and slow. After 20 minutes I was still lethargic.

The more I toured, the more advice I heard. It's universally accepted that you should limit your physical activity (not easy in Cusco as it's very hilly), move slowly, drink plenty of water and eat less than usual. (Two other good pieces of advice were not to take sleeping aids and not to consume alcohol. Both have more potent effects in the thin air.)

The guide on a city tour advised sleeping with raised feet. I was also told to sleep with my head higher than usual. I tried to picture finding sleep nirvana in this hammock-like position. One local advised that upon arrival, I should lie down for six hours, which seemed a waste of time, having spent many hours and big bucks to get here.

An Englishman and I compared our sleeplessness each morning. When he occasionally did drop off he had frightful nightmares. Someone had told him to put eucalyptus leaves in boiling water in his room, but he said it hadn't helped. Another Brit swore the best ritual was a big shot of whisky before bed, his theory being that no matter how bad you felt, it would knock you out.

Aside from taking the prescription drug Diamox I found the best remedy was to get out of Cusco. A day trip to the Sacred Valley (some 800 metres lower) was therapeutic in every way.