I did not feel any problem at all, but my sister had strong headaches After we left Cusco.
Don't be confused, it may be a ingredient of cocaine, but still Cocoa leaves is perfectly legal to buy in Peru. But it is illegal in most of the neighboring countries, so don't carry the cocoa bag with you while leaving Peru and entering another country.
Read below to know more on cocoa leaves
Cusco Tourists Tickets -Boleto
Boleto (Boleto Turístico General, or BTG) is the admission tickets to some sites in around Cusco. If included sites matches with your plan, it is wise to purchase the Cusco Tourist Ticket.
Inca Stone Wall
How do they lift those 15 tons stones? How they place those stones so neatly?
I know you are worried about this altitude sickness. You are thinking how far you can go up and how to acclimatize! You will find different people will suggest you differently. Even some people will say, ' nothing happened to me, so don't believe these rumors.' I remember when I was going to Machu Picchu some body told me not to climb 1000 ft a day to escape altitude sickness. Now Cusco is at an altitude of 11500 ft. I have to be in Cusco to reach Machu Picchu. And as I did not have much time I needed to reach Cusco by plane. If I move up only 1000 ft a day, then I have to wait 11 day before I reach Cusco. Which is not practical. Then there are lot of people who told me nothing happened to them, though they reach Cusco by plane, in few hours. So what to conclude from all these information above! Sorry don't reach any decision yet. Get some information from below, then plan your journey.
Every one may not be effected
Very first thing you need to know is, everybody is not effected by altitude sickness. You may not feel any symptoms at an altitude of 10,000 feet. That is not unusual because at that altitude 30% people never feel any sickness. Even if they are sick most of them feel mild sickness. So if you hear that someone had no problem while at Cusco, it doesn't mean you don't need to acclimatize. If you are in a group or in a big family, there is always a chance that one or more of the group members would be effected by this altitude sickness.
Height of Cities in Peru
What is Acclimatization!
Acclimatization is the process where body tries to adjust with the lower amount of oxygen available at high altitudes. It is certainly a slow process.
You need at least 3/4 days and some cases even weeks for this process to work. Actually this term is more appropriate for mountaineers, as they climb 15000 feet or more. In Peru Cusco is at 11500 feet and lake Titicaca is at 12,500 feet. So neither of them are really high compared to the high mountains. To the mountaineers heights below 12,000 feet do not mean much. Even for general people 8000/9000 feet may not have any effect. That is why most of the visitors at Peru remain not effected, though they don't really go through acclimatization process.
What are the symptoms
Ok, suppose you are effected by this sickness, now what will happen? How serious it can be? You are dying to know that, right?
Most cases you will find heart pounding and shortness of breath. Some time it can be worse. You may experience headaches, extreme tiredness, sleeplessness and loss of appetite or even nausea. This conditions is known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) or Soroche. In few cases situations can be worse than Soroche, then it is better to take advice of a doctor. But most case sickness is not that bad.
Usually if you don't climb too high (like if you are climbing Mt. Everest) AMS may be mild . And it does not interfere with normal day to day activity. Incase of mild AMS you can even continue ascent at a moderate rate and generally Mils AMS subside within few days as the body acclimatizes. As long as symptoms are mild, and only a nuisance, ascent can continue at a moderate rate.
Cusco is the city with an altitude of 11,500 feet
Why altitude sickness happens
Main problem with high altitude is the air is dry and thin there. So because of the thinness you have to breathe at short interval. And the dryness of air cause dehydration. Because you are losing lot of water exhaling than what you are gaining by inhaling. So just by breathing you will dehydrate yourself. So at high altitude you will feel thirsty. This dehydration will cause headaches.
How to fight with Altitude sickness
You may plan your tour from low altitude to high altitude places. Like if you have to go to Machu Picchu , you may start with visiting Sacred Valley. Sacred valley is at 9000 feet. You may stay one night there, then visit Cusco, which is at 11500 feet. Finally you may go to Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is only at 8000 feet, so may be you can finished the whole tour safely. It would be better if you could go to Machu Picchu without stepping in Cusco. But there is no direct road from Lima, Arequipa or Puno to Machu Picchu. You have to reach Cusco to reach Machu Picchu. So this is one way to fight against altitude sickness.
If you can plan your tour the way I just explained above, then you have to prepare yourself with other ways. First thing is take more water or other fluids. Dehydration is the main cause of altitude sickness. So try to get at least 4 quarts of water every day. You may drink mate de coca which is an infusion of coca leaves. Mate de coca is legal to drink in Peru. You should try to avoid alcohol and smoking, if you already feeling seek with altitude. It is also better to avoid caffeine and coffee.
Eat high carbohydrate diet during your stay at high altitude. Chewing Cocoa leaves is a good practice to avoid altitude sickness. Avoid tranquilizers, and sleeping pills. They further decrease the respiratory actions during sleep, so it will increase the sickness.
You may take Diamox (one kind of medicine, a tablet) to speed the acclimatization process. It will also reduce the symptoms of AMS. But be careful as it may result in increased urination. Read more about Diamox at bottom of this page.
To me cocoa leaves was a better solution than Diamox. It is easily available in Peru. It will cost you only 25 cents to buy a small bag of cocoa leaves, which may be sufficient for 3/4 days.
When you buy this bag, make sure the leaves are accompanied with a white (sometimes black) chalky mixing agent. Cut the the small green leaves in half first , then rip off the stems and stick a wad in your mouth. Some people miss the mixing agent, but without it, it tastes like grass. and it becomes less effective. But don't take the mixing compound too much. The first sensation is similar to the numb mouth feeling when going to the dentist after having a tooth pulled. Soon, the whole body will be slightly numb which is the idea. The body activity is slowed, which helps counteract the altitude.
Cocoa and Cocaine!
This cocoa leaves are not addictive. Chewing the plant or drinking cocoa leaves does not have any narcotic effect . Though these same leaves are used in the production of cocaine but they have to through a very complex and scientific process to convert cocoa leaves into the drug. It is legal to buy this product in Peru, but illegal in most of the neighboring countries. For a very short time, cocoa leaf "users" will test positive for cocaine. But as long as you are in Peru, there is nothing to worry about. But you must leave all the cocoa leaves in Peru before you leave the country to avoid any inconvenience. A further issue is carrying leaves in combination with objects used in the cocaine process, such as toilet paper and different types of lighter fluid.
Diamox (acetazolamide) is actually used for treating glaucoma (a dieses of eye). But Diamox is also very helpful for prevention of altitude sickness. You need to take two 250mg pill a day and need to start it one day in advance . Once started you need to take Diamox three days, even if you start to feel ok. Diamox actually restricts accumulation of bicarbonate and stimulates patients diuresis. because of its diuretic effect Diamox helps to achieve proper acclimatization. But still it not advisable to use Diamox. Since it has lot of side effects like altered taste, anorexia, urinary frequency and nausea.