Where to Go Before and After Machu Picchu to Prevent Altitude Sickness (Video)
A journey to Machu Picchu is a memory that lasts a lifetime, but there is lots of planning that happens in order to get there. You can take a bus, train, or hike the Inca Trail. But another challenge many people don’t think about is the vast differences in elevation that happen between Machu Picchu and its surrounding cities, the Sacred Valley, and Peru’s capital city, Lima, where most fly in.
Cusco, a city with one of the highest elevations in Peru, sits just above 11,000 feet. The Sacred Valley is at roughly 8,000 feet, and Lima is just above sea level at about 500 feet. Heading straight to Machu Picchu from a large city like Lima or Cusco can cause serious altitude sickness, so travelers need some time to adjust. Here, tips for how to acclimate yourself to Machu Picchu.
The country’s capital is where most travelers first land in Peru. Since Lima is at sea level, it often requires no acclimation. Spend a couple days here to settle in and prepare yourself for your Machu Picchu journey. Lima is one of the world’s best food cities, so take advantage of the numerous great restaurants while you’re here. Rest up for the journey ahead at the Westin Lima, where you can experience an introduction to Peruvian gastronomy at Maras, the hotel’s fine dining restaurant with modern Peruvian dishes and cocktails. The hotel also has an incredible spa, complete with an indoor pool, a thermal circuit, and a fitness center for those wanting to relax before heading towards Machu Picchu.
From Lima, fly into Cusco, the closest airport to Machu Picchu. Since Cusco sits at a higher altitude than Machu Picchu, it’s recommended to transfer down into the Sacred Valley to acclimate to the altitude. Take a leisurely bike ride through the Andean highlands to see the beauty of the Valley, or grab a drink at Sacred Valley Brewing — just don’t have too many or you risk altitude sickness. For a taste of something special, look for a chicheria — an establishment that sells chicha — a fermented drink made from maize. Usually served in an oversized glass, the smoothie-like chicha also comes in a strawberry flavor. If you don’t see signs advertising chicheria establishments, look for places that have a red bag hanging off of a pole out front, which is the typical signage for a chicheria. A fabulous hotel option in the Sacred Valley is Tambo del Inka, which sits right along the Urubamba River and is the only hotel in town with a private train station to Machu Picchu. The tracks are a five-minute walk through the hotel property, where the luxurious, 1920s-style train from PeruRail awaits, complete with an observation car that provides sweeping Andes views and gourmet meals. The train will also deliver you back to Tambo del Inka, where you can hit the spa and ease sore muscles after a day of trekking Machu Picchu.
After tackling Machu Picchu and adjusting to the higher altitude, head back up to Cusco. Once the capital of the Inca Empire, Cusco is full of ancient history, vibrant colors, and excellent markets. In the heart of Cusco is the Palacio del Inka hotel, a 500-year-old mansion complete with an original Inca wall and 195 pieces of art from the pre-Inca, Inca, Colonial, and Republican periods on display. Take it easy with a pisco sour lesson, or enjoy a delicious meal at the hotel restaurant, Inti Raymi, which serves epicurean cuisine and wines curated by the master sommelier. Don’t forget to check out the markets of Cusco, where you’ll find some of the most authentic Peruvian wares to bring back home.