By this point, you’ve likely scrolled past your fair share of social media pics backdropped by the mysterious Peruvian city in the sky—aunts and uncles communing with shaggy llamas, friends clambering up dirt paths, workmates teetering on a stone outcropping, peering down at the ancient city.
Machu Picchu is one of the most visited tourism destinations in the world. On average, it attracts close to 1.2 million visitors a year and was voted one of the new seven wonders of the world in 2007. The site has become so popular that the Peruvian Ministry of Culture, in an attempt to preserve the site, has had to set a limit of 2,500 tourists entering the citadel a day.
The site’s popularity, however, significantly underplays the effort it takes to get there. At nearly 8,000 ft. above sea level, Machu Picchu is perched amongst one of Peru’s highest mountain ranges. Meaning whichever route you take to reach the Inca Citadel, you’ll have to deal with some major altitude adjustments.
Before embarking on your Inca adventure, check out these potential pitfalls to ensure you’re prepared for the trip.
The most pressing concern when ascending to high altitude—defined as any height above 8,000 ft.—is altitude sickness. This occurs when the body doesn’t have enough time to adapt to decreased air pressure and oxygen levels. Symptoms include dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, and loss of appetite.
While not everyone who hikes to Machu Picchu will be afflicted by altitude sickness, those who are may see their Inca adventure come to an abrupt end. To prevent this from happening, take Diamox one to two days before starting your hike. The medication helps reduce symptoms and eases the adjustment to altitude.
It’s also a good idea to take the hike slow. Your body needs time to acclimatize to the altitude. To help with the acclimatization process and to make sure you have enough energy, keep yourself well hydrated and fed throughout the hike. The porters cooking your meals should help with this, but it’s still a good idea to throw a hydration pack in your bag and some high calorie snacks.
If you do start to experience symptoms, stop and rest for at least a day. If they don’t go away, it might be time for you to turn around.
Choose a trail, any trail
There are many ways to get to Machu Picchu. The most popular is the Inca Trail, a four-day, three-night hike through lush cloud forests, ancient Inca ruins, and majestic Andean peaks. In 2002, however, the Peruvian Ministry of Culture introduced permits for the trail, limiting the number of people to 500 a day (approximately 300 of those permits are allocated to cooks, porters, and guides, leaving only 200 for tourists).
To hike the Inca Trail, you have to book it months in advance. It isn’t a particularly long hike, spanning only 40 kilometres, but it is straight up some steep Andean paths. The trail hits its peak at Dead Woman’s Pass (named after the crests that resemble a woman’s supine body) standing 13,828 ft. above sea level.
If you weren’t able to secure a permit, don’t worry. There are other options. The Salcantay Route is much easier to book and just as scenic. Taking anywhere between five to eight days, this mule-assisted hike passes by the 20,500 ft. Mount Salcanty, one of the most sacred peaks in Inca religion.
You pass Mount Salcanty at an altitude of 15,000 ft. before plunging into a subtropical cloud forest, eventually passing the ancient Incan ruins of Llactapata, nearly as rewarding a sight as Machu Picchu.
If you’re looking for a more moderate hike—one that involves a train—try The Lares Route. Taking between three to five days, this trek leads you through the Lares Valley, home to Peruvian locals who still practice Inca traditions like raising herds of llamas and weaving cloth. Along the way, you pass by the 18,000 ft. Mount Veronica and a number of high-altitude Lakes. The trail ends near the Ollantaytambo ruins, only a short train ride away from Machu Picchu.
Dress for the weather…all of it
The higher you ascend, the more the air pressure decreases and the further apart the air molecules spread, causing the temperature to drop. Yet, in the case of Machu Picchu, you may also experience a scorching midday sun that has you sweating through your jacket. To deal with the swings in temperature, wear layers. This way you can shed them as you hike.
When you book your trip, be wary of the time of year. End of November to beginning of April is Peru’s rainy season. Many of the trails are closed between these months, but in case you do manage to book a hike during this time of year, bring a waterproof rain jacket and tent fly. You never know when you might get caught in a downpour. Starting each morning’s hike soaking wet is a surefire way to catch a cold.
Get in shape!
This one should be obvious, but if you’re going to attempt a four-day hike at high altitude make sure you’re physically prepared. You don’t want to be the person gasping for breath after the first couple hours. Not only will it ruin the experience but it will hold back the group.
In order to prepare for the hike, focus on cardio exercises like running, walking, and swimming. Try to introduce these exercises into your daily routine a few months before your trip. And if you really want to be prepared, come in for a workout at Altitude. We have cardio classes operating at 6,000 ft., 9,000 ft., and 12,000 ft. Machu Picchu will feel like a walk in the park after working out with us.
If you are planning on taking your hikes to the next level, you have to be prepared. The effects of altitude can make your trek laboured and uncomfortable – at the very least. And at the very worst, they can ruin your trip.
Here are some things you can do to better prepare for attempting a high-altitude summit:
1. Build up your aerobic and anaerobic cardio systems
The goal here is to boost your VO2 max – which is a measure of the amount of oxygen your body can consume. Increased consumption allows more oxygen to be delivered to your muscles. This will allow you to generate more physical output for a given input, which will be especially key at higher altitudes – where it is more difficult for your body to absorb oxygen.
To increase your VO2 max, incorporate steady state cardio activities like running, cycling or swimming into your training regime. You can also try low-impact elliptical at the gym or the stair climber (higher impact – but does a really good job of mimicking the feel of trekking and adding power to your legs). For each of these activities, aim for at least 45 minutes of consistent work around 4 times a week.
You will also want to throw in 1 or 2 anaerobic (HIIT style) cardio sessions to challenge your max heart rate and get you used to that breathless feeling. The focus here is to do short intervals of timed work and rest (i.e 40 seconds on, 20 seconds off). During the work intervals, you want to be pushing yourself to an 8 or 9 out of 10 exertion level. Pick activities that allow you to reach this level in a short amount of time, like sprinting or plyometrics.
See if you can try some of these activities at altitude – whether it is a trip to the mountains to run some trails or doing finding access to simulated altitude training at home using masks, or even better, a high altitude training gym (Check out Tip 6 below).
2. Spend more time in the Weight Room
Expect it to be much harder for your muscles to power your body when there is less oxygen in the air. The more you can build up your strength beforehand, especially in your lower body, the more you will be able to endure. Focus on big muscle groups – quads (thigh muscles), glutes (butt muscles), back, chest and hamstrings. But also think about strengthening muscles that help with stabilization, like your core. When it comes to weight and reps – you want to think endurance based rather than sheer strength. This will mean lighter weights and more reps. See here for a sample 12-week workout plan that follows these guidelines.
Incorporate at least 3 strength training sessions into your weekly schedule. It’s especially important to work with good form – so get advice from a trainer or join a cross-training class for best results.
3. Learn some breathing techniques
We hardly ever think about our breath down here at sea level. At higher altitudes, however, the effects of decreased oxygen intake cause the breath to be laboured and shallow. So it’s not surprising to find breathing a focal point on the mountain. If you’ve ever been to a yoga class or tried meditation, you’ll know there are ways to control the depth, pace and frequency of the breath. Here are some breathing techniques that you can try on the mountain.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, pursed breathing has been shown to reduce how hard a person has to work to breath. It’s helpful to try during exercise. To do it: take two counts to breathe in slowly (doesn’t have to be a deep breath) through your nose with your mouth closed. As you breathe out, form your lips into a puckered or whistle position.
Since the diaphragm is the most efficient muscle when it comes to breathing – taking time to strengthen it through diaphragmatic breathing before your expedition will help you on the mountain. This technique has been found to “decrease oxygen demand” and allow you to “use less effort and energy to breathe”. To do it: sit in a comfortable position and place one hand on your chest and one hand below your rib cage. Inhale slowly, feeling your belly expand with your lower hand. Squeeze your stomach and purse your lips as you exhale feeling your belly contract. Note that your top hand should remain still the whole time.
4. Work on your diet
Certain foods contain dietary nitrates that support your cardiovascular system. According to the Journal of Applied Philosophy, beetroot juice was proven to help study participants exercise up to 16% longer. This stamina boost was attributed to physiological adaptations to blood vessels and muscle tissue caused by nitrates in beets. These favourable adaptations result in your muscles needing less oxygen to perform. You should be doing everything you can do to prepare your body for oxygen-deficient elevations – and if it’s as easy as drinking beetroot juice, all the better!
Humidity levels are lower at higher altitudes. According to the Wilderness Medical Society, you lose water through respiration at high altitude twice as quickly compared to sea level. In other words – you can expect to be needing to drink a lot more water up there than down here. Start increasing your fluid intake now to get your body accustomed to the feeling. Aim for 3-4 liters daily. Also be sure to drink before, during and after your workout. If you are looking for some good electrolytes to add try Nuun tablets!
6. Try Simulated High Altitude Training
Of course, the best thing you can do to prepare for your trip is to expose yourself to high altitude. Exercising, breathing or sleeping at hypoxia (an environment with reduced oxygen levels) will physiologically prepare you for these conditions (and reduce your risk of getting Acute Mountain Sickness) through simulated high altitude equipment. Examples would include personal-use equipment, such as altitude training masks (which would be worn during exercise) or altitude tents for sleeping. You can often order these pieces through companies that specialize in altitude training systems, such as Mile High Training or Hypoxico.
Alternatively, altitude training facilities are popping up in several parts of the globe, including London, Chicago and Dubai and especially in Australia, where they have been well established for a couple of years now in Sydney and Melbourne. These facilities are actual gyms with specialized hypoxic chambers or altitude training rooms containing various cardio machines and strength training equipment. Members can participate in group training classes or solo sessions to improve exercise capacity at altitude. Doing 2 classes or sessions per week for at least 6 weeks before your trip would be the ideal way to acclimatize and take advantage of the physiological benefits of intermittent hypoxic training.
7. Build your mental strength
In any situation where you find yourself under intense physical exertion, half the battle is against your mind. You’ll likely be telling yourself that you can’t do it, that you can’t even take another step. You’ll be feeling anxious – which will raise your heart rate and make your breathing even more shallow and laboured than it should be. Of course, sometimes it is physically unsafe for you to keep going. But sometimes it can be hard to tell whether it is your body or brain that is telling you to stop.
This is a skill to practice before your trip. Try some of these tips during your workouts:
· Listen to music (or have a song in your head) and focus on the lyrics or beat. This will distract your mind and lift your spirits
· Undermine the difficulty your workout. Even if you have set yourself a tough challenge, tell yourself things like “just one more hill”, “10 more minutes”, “I’m more than halfway through”, “today is an easier day”. Even if these things aren’t true or don’t feel true, they can go along way in relaxing your body and extending your threshold. Convince yourself it’s not that bad, and it won’t be that bad.
· Take intermittent, deep breathes – especially during long endurance-based sessions of work. These ‘cleansing’ breathes will act as a restart or refresh button to challenge cumulative mental and physical fatigue. Breathe in slowly and exhale fully every 20 or 30 minutes. Notice how your body feels after these breathes – clearer mind, oxygen going to your legs and an overall sense of regeneration.