How High is Cusco? Important Facts About Altitude Sickness

How high is Cusco? Many tourists planning a trip to Peru will wonder if the altitude of this ancient city will affect their trip.  We’re here to cover all the ins and outs of altitude sickness in Cusco so you can be prepared and have a stress-free vacation. 

Kendall and I visited Cusco on our 7-day trip to Peru.  While we didn’t experience ‘real’ altitude sickness, we could definitely feel the difference in oxygen levels as we walked around the city.  

We were so glad we decided to spend a few days in Cusco before trekking to Machu Picchu.  In this guide, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about the symptoms of altitude sickness, ways to prevent it, and what to do if you experience it on your trip.  

Learning about altitude is one of the most important parts of staying safe in Cusco so you can have an incredible trip.

cloud-covered view from Dead Woman's Pass, the highest point on the Inca Trail
Our view from Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point on the Inca Trail. Staying in Cusco is a great way to acclimate to the altitude before hiking the Inca Trail.

Cusco Altitude Sickness: What You Need to Know

Cusco is a high-altitude city (part of its charm) and is an incredible place to visit. There are so many things to do in Cusco that we could have spent weeks here.

However, the altitude brings up some additional considerations for travel.  We were trying to decide between traveling to Peru vs Costa Rica for that year, so we definitely looked it up!

While we don’t think you need to be overly anxious about altitude sickness, we do think it is important to know the facts and come prepared. 

What Causes Altitude Sickness?

What exactly is altitude sickness?  Also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), it is a condition that can affect individuals when they ascend to high altitudes too quickly. 

In short, the body doesn’t have enough time to adapt to the reduced oxygen content in the air.  Because of this, less oxygen ends up in the body’s red blood cells to be carried to tissues/organs.

Severe symptoms are more common at elevations above 2,500 meters (Cusco fits into this category), but people can experience symptoms at any altitude above 1,500 meters. 

Men are more likely to experience altitude sickness than women. 

How High is Cusco and Its Impact on Your Adventure

So, how high is Cusco in feet? Cusco sits at an impressive altitude of approximately 11.200 feet or 3,400 meters above sea level. That’s higher than most major cities around the world! 

The high altitude can affect your body, many people (us included) feel slightly more short of breath or feel that their heart is beating faster (it probably is). 

tourist standing in front of the giant stones of Sacsayhuamán | How high is Cusco?
We could feel the altitude difference while hiking up to Sacsayhuamán and had to take frequent rest stops

Altitude of Machu Picchu, the Inca Trail, and other Cities in Peru

How does Cusco’s altitude compare to other popular sites and nearby cities?  Cusco is higher than Machu Picchu (why we recommend staying in Cusco before visiting this famous site) but lower than places like Dead Woman’s Pass (the highest point on the Inca Trail).

Machu Picchu Elevation:  Machu Picchu sits at 7,972 feet, 3,300 feet lower than Cusco. Making sure you are acclimating before visiting (especially if hiking) will help make sure your trip to Machu Picchu worth it for you.  

Lake Titicaca: another popular tourist destination, Lake Titicaca sits at an elevation of 12,507 feet or 3,812 meters.  

Highest Point of Inca Trail (Dead Woman’s Pass): You’ll reach an altitude of 13,780 feet, or 4,200 meters if you decide to hike the classic Inca Trail route.  

Huayna Picchu (the pointed mountain behind Machu Picchu): 8,835 feet (2,693 meters).

Wiñay Wayna (along the Inca trail): has an elevation of 8,900 feet (2,700 meters 

Rainbow Mountain Elevation: 17,060 feet (5,200 meters).  This is by far the ‘highest altitude’ popular tourist destination in Peru. 

Sacred Valley Peru Elevation: The Sacred Valley, which includes a range of towns, varies in elevation.  The town of Pisac sits at 9,800 feet (3,000 meters), while the Urubamba River is just 6,730 feet (2050 meters) above sea level. 

Lima Altitude: Lima is right next to the coast, and has an elevation of only 528 feet above sea level.  A trip to Lima will not cause altitude sickness and is a great alternative for those who are sensitive to elevation changes. 

Puno Elevation: Puno, located on the west side of Lake Titicaca, sits at 12,556 feet (or 3,826 meters), just below the highest point of the Inca Trail.  

Highest Altitude in Peru (fun fact): is the top of the mountain Nevado Huascarán in northern Peru.  The peak reaches a whopping 22,132 feet (6,746 meters). 

front view of the impressive terraces of Wiñay Wayna
Wiñay Wayna sits at 8,900 feet (2,700 meters)

How Common is Altitude Sickness in Cusco?

Some sources report that up to 50% of travelers will experience symptoms of altitude sickness during their visit to Peru.  However, many altitude sickness symptoms are mild and will resolve with proper precautions and treatment. 

When Kendall and I visited, we could feel the difference in oxygen levels and had to take frequent breaks during our hike up to Sacsayhuamán.  However, we were careful, stopped often, drank plenty of water, and didn’t have further issues. 

During our Inca Trail trek, we had an amazing experience with Alpaca Expeditions. They were great about offering us coca tea each morning, taking frequent breaks during our trek, and monitoring the group in general.

Can You Die From Altitude Sickness?

Yes, although it is very uncommon, especially if recognized early.  

Cusco altitude sickness deaths: Within the last five years, a handful of tourists have reportedly died from altitude sickness in Cusco or while visiting Machu Picchu.  

However, compared to other causes of death from those traveling in Peru, altitude sickness was among the least common (according to Oxford Academic, less common than drowning or accidental suffocation).   

We don’t think you need to be overly worried about it.  However, we do think it is important to understand the facts and take proper precautions.  

Altitude Sickness Symptoms

Initial symptoms of altitude sickness can include the following:

  • Headache
  • Feeling overly tired
  • Appetite loss
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

These are important early warning signs.  If you experience any of these symptoms during your travels in Cusco or Machu Picchu, it’s important to stop what you are doing, rest, drink water, and seek medical attention if necessary. 

How To Prevent Altitude Sickness: 6 Tips

Acclimatizing to the high altitude in Cusco is important, especially if you plan to do strenuous hiking or other adventure activities. Here are some tips to help you acclimate more effectively:

tourist as seen from behind hiking on Inca Trail at Dead Woman's Pass.  Llamas can be seen in the background.
Hiking up at Dead Woman’s Pass. We stayed in Cusco for two days before starting our trek
  • Spend at LEAST one day in Cusco (preferably 2 or 3) before doing any strenuous activities, such as hiking. 
  • Take it easy: Don’t push yourself too hard when exploring the city. Take frequent breaks, listen to your body, and rest whenever needed.  This is one of the best ways to avoid altitude sickness. 
  • Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of water is important, especially at high altitudes, and is one way to combat altitude sickness.  Most Peruvian tap water needs to be treated before it is safe to drink.  However, Kendall and I were always able to find plenty of nearby stores or street vendors selling bottled water. 
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine: Both alcohol and caffeine can increase your chances of experiencing altitude sickness. It’s best to avoid them or at least minimize your consumption during your time in Cusco.
  • Chew coca leaves: Coca leaves, commonly found in Cusco, have been used by locals for centuries to combat altitude sickness. Chewing on these leaves or drinking coca tea can help alleviate symptoms.
  • Eat light and avoid heavy meals: Opt for lighter meals that are easier to digest, as high altitude can affect your appetite and digestion. Avoid heavy, greasy foods that may make you feel uncomfortable.

Best time to visit Cusco Considering the Altitude

Does temperature affect altitude sickness?  According to one study, there is a slight correlation between lower temperatures and increased cardiovascular effects with altitude sickness

Therefore, the best time to visit Cusco, considering the altitude, is during the dry season from May to September. This is also considered by many to be the best time for visiting Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. 

The weather is generally clear, with mild temperatures and lower chances of rainfall.  Kendall and I visited in May and had incredible weather with thinner crowds compared to the summer months. 

Tourist with hiking poles on the Inca Trail
Kendall and I visited in May and had incredible, clear weather

Safety Precautions for High Altitude Activities in Cusco

Here are some additional safety trips for high-altitude activities in or near Cusco:

  • Choose a highly-rated Inca Trail tour company:  This is important, as reputable tour companies are better equipped to handle emergencies. 
  • Pack appropriate gear:  Pack layers (the weather can be unpredictable), sun protection(this helps prevent dehydration), and a good water bottle.
  • Listen to your body: Pay close attention to any symptoms of altitude sickness and don’t hesitate to seek medical assistance if needed. It’s better to be overly cautious.
  • If you experience symptoms of altitude sickness: Stop any strenuous activities, sit down, take some deep breaths, and stay hydrated.  

Alternative Destinations at Lower Altitudes Near Cusco

If you’re concerned about the high altitude of some of the most popular activities such as Rainbow Mountain but still want to explore Peru, there are other nearby destinations with lower altitudes. 

Consider visiting the Sacred Valley, which has an average altitude of around 2,800 meters (9,200 feet) above sea level.  One of our favorite tours was a Via Ferrata and zipline combo that we did over the Urubamba River.  

two tourists with via ferrata harnesses over the Urubamba River

The capital city of Lima is also a fantastic low-elevation alternative.  If you’re thinking about whether to spend time in Lima, be sure to check out our Peru travel guides on the differences between Lima and Cusco.  

How High is Cusco and its Effect on Your Travels? The Bottom Line

Cusco is an incredible city and one that we highly recommend visiting. However, because of its high elevation, it’s important to take into account some additional safety measures. 

Understanding the high altitude, preparing yourself accordingly, and taking necessary precautions will ensure that you have a safe experience.  We loved our time in Cusco and can’t wait to return. 

FAQ

Is Cusco Higher than Machu Picchu?

Yes, Cusco sits at 11,152 feet (3,399 meters) above sea level, while Machu Picchu is lower, at 7,972 feet (2,430 meters).

Is Altitude Sickness a Problem in Machu Picchu?

Some people can have symptoms of altitude sickness at elevations as low as 6,500 feet (2,000 meters). Because Machu Picchu sits at an altitude of 7,972 feet, some travelers may be at risk for altitude sickness. However, with proper preparation (such as acclimating in the city of Cusco before visiting Machu Picchu), these risks are greatly reduced.

Is Cusco Higher than Denver?

Yes, Cusco is higher than Denver. Cusco is at 11,152 feet (3,399 meters) above sea level, while Denver sits at only 5,280 feet.

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