Here’s the good news: the archaeological site of Machu Picchu is just below the minimum height at which altitude sickness can occur. The central point of Machu Picchu sits at about 2,430 meters (7,970 feet) above sea level, which is just below the risk zone – as defined by the CDC, NHS, Altitude.org and others – of 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) and higher.
So if you could magically teleport yourself to the central point of Machu Picchu and hang out there for a few days, the risk of suffering from altitude sickness would be very low indeed.
The bad news, however, is that you’ll almost certainly pass through — or more likely stay at — altitudes above 2,500 meters before visiting Machu Picchu. Most travelers heading to Machu Picchu stay in Cusco for at least a day or two before making their way to the Inca citadel, and Cusco is located at a lung-busting 3,399 meters (11,152 feet) above sea level.
Acclimatization, therefore, remains important for anyone heading to Cusco before going to Machu Picchu. You’ll ideally want at least a day to acclimatize in Cusco, following the standard advice for preventing altitude sickness in Peru.
One alternative is to stay in a town at a lower altitude, for example Ollantaytambo (2,792 m) or Pisac (2,715 m), both located in the Sacred Valley. Both are slightly above the 2,500-meter mark, but the risk of altitude sickness will be lower than it is in Cusco. Alternatively, you can head to these lower-altitude towns if you are struggling with the altitude in Cusco
Another alternative we strongly recommend is if travelling to Cusco from Lima try to follow Peru Hop’s route along the coast and up to Cusco from the beautiful city of Arequipa rather than a direct flight. Gradual increases in altitude via road transport are known to greatly reduce the effects of Soroche. Time at intermediate altitudes will give you a chance to acclimatise to the thinner air and help prevent, or at least diminish, any issues when visiting the UNESCO heritage site.
Altitude Sickness and the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
If you’ll be trekking the classic Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, altitude sickness is once again an issue.
The Inca Trail begins at an altitude of about 2,800 meters. It does dip below that on its way to Machu Picchu, but it also climbs to well above 3,000 meters. The first and highest of the mountain passes is Dead Woman’s Pass, which takes trekkers up to 4,200 meters above sea level. The second is Runkuraqay, at a height of about 3,900 meters.
Inca Trail trekkers should definitely take the time to acclimatize properly before Cusco in Arequipa and certainly before beginning the trek.
Firstly, it will make the trek slightly easier as your body will be better suited to the thin air.
Secondly, and more importantly, if you begin to show symptoms of altitude sickness during your trek, your guide will arrange for you to be taken back to Cusco for treatment. In most cases, refunds are not given to trekkers who fail to reach Machu Picchu for physical reasons.
And, of course, altitude sickness can pose a serious threat to your overall health and to your life – and there are certainly no refunds for the latter.
If you are (still?) interested in a trek to this epic site we suggest you check out FindLocalTrips.com a tour comparison website with heaps of info and all the different options for taking treks and tours from Cusco.