This is it! The day you arrive at one of the most beautiful and mysterious places on the planet: Machu Picchu. You’ve done your research. You know that for for many years, Machu Picchu was thought to have been primarily a religious site, a place where the Incas worshiped their gods, yet today, modern archeologists have evidence that royal Incan families lived in these compounds, which makes sense, as a mountain top is highly defensible. Your camera is ready to take that Nat Geo-worthy shot. You’ve got water and snacks in your backpack. You’re really here at this bucket list destination and you can hardly believe you’ve finally arrived!
Oh no! As the Vistadome train you’re riding in pulls into the Aguas Calientes station where you will take a shuttle up to the famous peak, your head is still hurting and you feel nauseous. You’ve been waiting for the chance to see Machu Picchu for years, maybe for your whole life, and now you’re here and you feel terrible. You’re just not sure if you’re up to climbing the massive stone stairs of Machu Picchu to look out from what you know is that famous spectacular view. How could this experience of a lifetime have gone so wrong?
The traveler in this story is having a very common experience. Tour operators and travel planners who don’t understand altitude sickness, or perhaps who have never been to Peru themselves have organized a trip for a hapless traveler that took them too high too fast and ended in discomfort and disappointment. I shudder to think how many travelers have spent their one day at Machu Picchu in their hotel room in Aguas Calientes being sick and feeling nauseous.
Altitude sickness is real and when you’re planning a trip to Machu Picchu which usually includes Cusco at 11,000 feet (3,350 meters), it’s imperative that you take the rising altitude into account. For the beginning of their trip, many people blithely plan a couple days in Cusco, the town you fly into en route to Machu Picchu, and then they never fully recover from how awful they felt while they were there. A day or two later when they arrive at Machu Picchu, they still feel sick because their bodies haven’t had time to recover. I sorrow to think of the thousands of people who visit Machu Picchu in far less than perfect health.
Most travelers are coming from sea level or lower elevations, and a savvy travel planner knows you have to raise people slowly in altitude so their bodies have time to adjust. The most comfortable scenario for people not coming from the Swiss Alps or Denver, Colorado is to fly into Cusco and then get whisked away immediately to the Sacred Valley, a stunning region between Cusco and Machu Picchu that clocks in at around 8000 feet. The Sacred Valley with its green terraced fields reaching up the mountainsides, is one of the most beautiful and biodiverse regions on the planet. Two to three days' stay here will not only help you adjust to altitude, they will also delight you as you explore smaller Incan ruins, tiny Andean villages full of colorfully clad locals, and graceful Spanish Colonial haciendas.
The Sacred Valley is also host to many fantastic activities like river rafting, horseback riding, mountain biking and glorious hikes. The Inca Trail starts here, yet whether you prefer to hike the Inca Trail for 2-4 days or just relax in the green splendor of the Sacred Valley and do some casual touring, your stay here will be highly memorable as the extraordinary Sacred Valley is so much more than a place to adjust to the altitude.
No matter where you are in this region, it’s essential to stay hydrated and rest when you feel the need. Strenuous activity can be difficult, even in the Sacred Valley so be sure to take care of yourself. Altitude medication is helpful for some so you might want to ask your doctor to prescribe some for you before you go. The key is to start taking it 24 hours before you arrive at high altitude. As the medication might have side effects, I recommend only taking it only if you already know you have difficulty with altitude. Heading to the Sacred Valley first, exploring Machu Picchu at a relaxed pace, and then heading to Cusco at the end of your trip works well for most people.
Now that you know a stay in the Sacred Valley is crucial to your enjoyment of Machu Picchu, it’s time to plan your fantastic trip. At Wild Nectar, your safety and health are two of our prime concerns, and we’ll do everything we can to make sure you have a safe and comfortable trip. I invite you to explore our Immersive Machu Picchu program, a custom trip that we can revise to perfectly fit your interests. Foodies, hikers, history buffs–we have you covered. We also offer small group journeys like Discover the Amazon & Machu Picchu or the Inca Trail and the Amazon Rainforest program.
I hope you’ll contact us so we can create a dream Machu Picchu trip you’ll remember for the rest of your life.