Cusco sits at 3,400 meters, and your main health concern should be altitude sickness. You will know if you’re suffering from this illness very soon after your arrival. Symptoms include shortness of breath, quickened heartbeats, fatigue, loss of appetite, headaches, and nausea. There is no way to prevent it, but you can minimize the effect by avoiding heavy exercise until you get acclimatized and drinking plenty of water and liquids in general.
Many travelers carry acetazolamide, commonly known as Diamox, usually prescribed by a doctor in doses of 125–250 milligrams, taken during the morning and evening with meals. In Cusco everybody will say that coca leaf tea or mate de coca, taken in plentiful amounts, is the best remedy for soroche, the Quechua word for altitude sickness. And it works. A 100-milligram dose of the Chinese herb ginkgo billoba, taken twice a day, seems to work efficiently, too.
If you feel sick, it’s good to know that all hospitals and clinics in Cusco have bottled oxygen. If you happen to be in a five-star hotel like Monasterio, Libertador, or Casa Andina Private Collection, they will provide oxygen in the rooms upon request. Have in mind that altitude sickness, if not taken care off appropriately, can develop into high-altitude pulmonary edema, with acute chest pain, coughs, and fluid buildup in the lungs, or high-altitude cerebral edema, involving severe headaches coupled with bizarre changes of personality. In both cases, these illnesses can lead to death if not treated immediately and adequately.
Hospital Regional (Av. de la Cultura, tel. 084/24-3240) and the Hospital Lorena (Plazoleta Belén 1358, Santiago district, tel. 084/22-1581) are the main health centers in Cusco. A bit more expensive, but faster and more reliable, is Clínica Pardo (Av. de la Cultura 710, tel. 084/24-0387). In an emergency situation try going to the hospital with a local if you’re not fluent in Spanish.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition