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Short Of Breath In Cusco, Peru


Modified: December 28, 2023

by Coreen Hawley



Welcome to Cusco, Peru – a city known for its rich history, vibrant culture, and breathtaking scenery. As you explore the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu and immerse yourself in the indigenous traditions, you may encounter a common challenge faced by many visitors to this high-altitude destination: shortness of breath.


Located at an elevation of 11,152 feet (3,399 meters), Cusco sits high in the Andes Mountains. The thin air at this altitude can have a profound impact on the way your body functions, particularly when it comes to breathing. Even the fittest individuals can find themselves feeling winded with minimal exertion.


So why does the high altitude in Cusco make it more difficult to breathe? The primary reason is the decrease in oxygen levels. As you ascend to higher altitudes, the concentration of oxygen in the air becomes significantly lower. In Cusco, the oxygen levels can be around 40% lower than at sea level. This reduction in oxygen can trigger a range of physiological responses in your body, including the sensation of shortness of breath.


It’s important to note that while shortness of breath is a common experience in Cusco, it can vary in intensity and duration from person to person. Some individuals may experience mild symptoms that subside after a few days, while others may struggle with more severe breathing difficulties that require medical intervention.


In the next sections of this article, we will explore the various factors that contribute to shortness of breath in Cusco, including the acclimatization process, common causes, and potential medical conditions. We will also provide recommendations for managing and alleviating shortness of breath so that you can fully enjoy your time in this beautiful city.


High altitude and its effects on breathing

When you find yourself in high-altitude destinations like Cusco, it’s crucial to understand the effects that the thin air can have on your breathing. As mentioned earlier, the primary concern at higher elevations is the decrease in oxygen levels.


At sea level, the atmosphere contains approximately 21% oxygen. However, in Cusco, that percentage drops to around 15%. With less oxygen available, your body may struggle to meet its oxygen demands, leading to shortness of breath.


In response to the lower oxygen levels, your body initiates a series of physiological adaptations. First, your breathing rate increases to compensate for the reduced oxygen intake. You may find yourself taking deeper and more frequent breaths in an attempt to supply your body with sufficient oxygen.


Additionally, your red blood cell production is stimulated to increase the oxygen-carrying capacity of your blood. Over time, these additional red blood cells help transport oxygen more efficiently throughout your body.


However, these adaptations take time. It typically takes several days for your body to adjust to the new altitude and fully acclimatize. During this adjustment period, you may experience symptoms of altitude sickness, including shortness of breath.


It’s important to note that certain factors can affect your susceptibility to altitude sickness and the severity of its symptoms. Factors such as age, overall fitness level, previous altitude experiences, and even individual genetic factors can influence how your body reacts to high altitudes.


To minimize the effects of high altitude on your breathing, it’s crucial to allow your body time to acclimate. Engaging in light activity, staying hydrated, and avoiding excessive alcohol and caffeine consumption can all aid in the acclimatization process. If your symptoms persist or worsen, it’s essential to seek medical advice.


In the next section, we’ll delve into the unique city of Cusco, Peru, and why it is particularly known for causing shortness of breath.


The city of Cusco, Peru

Cusco, often referred to as the “Navel of the World” or the “Historical Capital of Peru,” is a city steeped in history and culture. Once the capital of the Inca Empire, Cusco is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and a popular destination for travelers from around the globe.


Set amidst the stunning Andes Mountains, Cusco’s elevation of 11,152 feet (3,399 meters) above sea level makes it one of the highest cities in the world. This lofty location is one of the reasons why visitors may experience shortness of breath during their time in the city.


Aside from its breathtaking altitude, Cusco offers a myriad of attractions that draw visitors in. The city is renowned for its well-preserved Inca ruins, including the famous Sacsayhuaman fortress and the Qorikancha, once the Inca Empire’s most sacred temple.


Cusco’s historic center, with its cobblestone streets, colonial buildings, and lively plazas, is a delight to explore. The main square, Plaza de Armas, is the heart of the city and is lined with beautiful cathedrals, restaurants, and shops.


For those looking to immerse themselves in the local culture, Cusco offers a vibrant arts and crafts scene. The San Blas neighborhood is home to numerous artisan workshops and galleries, where visitors can witness traditional techniques and purchase unique handicrafts.


Furthermore, Cusco serves as the gateway to the iconic Machu Picchu, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Many visitors embark on the famous Inca Trail or opt for alternative trekking routes that lead them to this extraordinary archaeological marvel perched high in the mountains.


With its fascinating history, captivating architecture, and awe-inspiring landscapes, it’s no wonder that Cusco attracts travelers seeking adventure, culture, and a glimpse into the ancient past.


While exploring the wonders of Cusco, it’s important to be aware of the potential challenges that its high altitude presents. In the following section, we will discuss some common causes of shortness of breath that visitors may encounter in the city.


Common causes of shortness of breath in Cusco

Shortness of breath is a common occurrence in Cusco due to the high altitude and reduced oxygen levels. However, there are several factors that can exacerbate this symptom and contribute to breathing difficulties. Understanding these common causes can help you take necessary precautions and manage your experience in Cusco more effectively.


1. Altitude sickness: Also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), altitude sickness is a common cause of shortness of breath in Cusco. When ascending to high altitudes too quickly, your body may struggle to adapt to the thinner air, resulting in symptoms such as breathlessness, dizziness, and fatigue.


2. Physical exertion: Engaging in rigorous physical activities such as hiking, climbing, or even walking uphill can put additional strain on your body in high altitude environments. This increased exertion demands more oxygen, leading to a higher risk of experiencing shortness of breath.


3. Dehydration: The dry climate in Cusco, coupled with the high altitude, can lead to faster evaporation of moisture from your body. This can result in dehydration, which can worsen breathlessness. It’s crucial to stay well-hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids, especially water.


4. Poor air quality: Cusco’s growing popularity as a tourist destination has led to increased traffic and pollution, which can contribute to respiratory issues. The combination of high altitude and poor air quality can make breathing more challenging for some individuals.


5. Pre-existing respiratory conditions: If you already have respiratory conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the high altitude in Cusco can further exacerbate your symptoms. It’s essential to consult with your healthcare provider before traveling to high-altitude destinations.


6. Anxiety and stress: The anticipation and excitement of visiting a new destination can sometimes lead to increased anxiety and stress levels. These emotional factors can impact your breathing pattern and contribute to a feeling of breathlessness.


It’s important to be mindful of these common causes of shortness of breath in Cusco and take appropriate measures to mitigate their effects. In the next section, we will explore the acclimatization process and how it can help alleviate breathing difficulties at high altitudes.


Acclimatization process in high altitudes

When visiting high-altitude destinations like Cusco, allowing your body time to acclimate is crucial for minimizing the effects of altitude sickness and reducing breathing difficulties. The acclimatization process involves several physiological adjustments that help your body adapt to the reduced oxygen levels at higher elevations.


Here are some key points to understand about the acclimatization process:


1. Gradual ascent: One of the most effective strategies for acclimatization is to ascend to high altitudes gradually. This allows your body to adjust to the changes in oxygen levels more effectively. If possible, spend a day or two at a lower altitude to allow your body to begin adapting before reaching Cusco.


2. Hydration: Staying hydrated is essential for acclimatizing to high altitudes. Proper hydration helps optimize blood flow, allowing your body to distribute oxygen more efficiently. Drink plenty of water throughout the day and avoid excessive alcohol and caffeine consumption, as these can lead to dehydration.


3. Rest and relaxation: Allow yourself time to rest and relax during the first few days in Cusco. Overexertion can strain your body and worsen breathing difficulties. Take breaks as needed, and listen to your body’s signals to avoid pushing yourself too hard.


4. Avoid alcohol and smoking: Both alcohol and smoking can hinder the acclimatization process and increase your risk of experiencing shortness of breath. Alcohol can further dehydrate your body, while smoking compromises lung function, making it more difficult to breathe in high-altitude environments.


5. Medication: Some individuals may benefit from medications that can aid in the acclimatization process. Consult with your healthcare provider before traveling to discuss potential options, such as acetazolamide, which can help prevent altitude sickness and alleviate breathing difficulties.


Remember that everyone’s acclimatization process is unique, and it takes time for the body to fully adjust to high altitudes. It’s important to listen to your body, pay attention to any symptoms, and adjust your activities accordingly. If you experience severe or prolonged breathing difficulties, it’s advisable to seek medical attention.


In the next section, we will discuss potential medical conditions that can cause shortness of breath in Cusco.


Medical conditions that can cause shortness of breath

While the primary cause of shortness of breath in Cusco is the high altitude and reduced oxygen levels, it’s important to consider that certain pre-existing medical conditions can also contribute to breathing difficulties. Here are some medical conditions that may cause or worsen shortness of breath:


1. Asthma: Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition characterized by inflammation and narrowing of the airways. The high altitude in Cusco can trigger asthma symptoms and make breathing more challenging for individuals with this condition. It’s crucial for asthma patients to have a well-managed treatment plan before visiting high-altitude destinations.


2. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): COPD is a progressive lung disease that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The reduced oxygen levels at high altitudes can worsen COPD symptoms, leading to increased breathlessness. COPD patients should consult with their healthcare provider before traveling to determine appropriate precautions.


3. Cardiovascular diseases: Certain heart conditions, such as congestive heart failure or coronary artery disease, can cause shortness of breath. The decreased oxygen levels in Cusco can put additional strain on the heart, making breathing difficulties more pronounced for individuals with cardiovascular diseases.


4. Pulmonary hypertension: Pulmonary hypertension is characterized by high blood pressure in the arteries that supply the lungs. The higher altitudes in Cusco can exacerbate the symptoms of pulmonary hypertension, including shortness of breath, fatigue, and chest pain.


5. Anemia: Anemia is a condition that occurs when there is a decrease in the number of red blood cells or hemoglobin in the blood. The reduced oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood in individuals with anemia can result in feelings of breathlessness, particularly in high-altitude environments.


If you have any pre-existing medical conditions or concerns about your health, it is important to consult with your healthcare provider before traveling to high-altitude destinations like Cusco. They can provide personalized advice, recommend appropriate precautions, and ensure that you have necessary medications and treatments on hand.


Now that we have discussed potential medical conditions, the next section will provide recommendations for dealing with shortness of breath in Cusco.


Recommended actions for dealing with shortness of breath in Cusco

If you’re experiencing shortness of breath in Cusco, there are several actions you can take to manage and alleviate this symptom. By following these recommendations, you can improve your breathing and enjoy your time in the high-altitude city:


1. Allow for proper acclimatization: Give your body time to adapt to the altitude by gradually ascending and resting in Cusco. Trying to do too much too soon can worsen shortness of breath. Take it easy during the first few days and gradually increase your activity level as you acclimate.


2. Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration, which can worsen breathing difficulties. Aim to consume at least 2-3 liters of water per day and avoid excessive alcohol and caffeine, as these can contribute to dehydration.


3. Avoid overexertion: Pace yourself and listen to your body. Engaging in strenuous activities may put unnecessary strain on your breathing. Take regular breaks and rest when needed to avoid exacerbating shortness of breath.


4. Practice deep breathing exercises: Deep breathing exercises can help improve lung function and increase oxygen intake. Take slow, deep breaths and focus on fully expanding your lungs. Breathing exercises can also help reduce anxiety and promote relaxation.


5. Consider medication options: If you’re at a higher risk of altitude sickness or have a pre-existing condition that may worsen shortness of breath, consult with your healthcare provider. They may prescribe medications, such as acetazolamide, to help prevent altitude sickness and alleviate breathing difficulties.


6. Use supplemental oxygen if necessary: In severe cases of altitude sickness or for individuals with certain medical conditions, supplemental oxygen may be required. If you’re experiencing prolonged or severe shortness of breath, seek medical attention, as supplemental oxygen can provide relief and improve your breathing.


7. Avoid smoking and secondhand smoke: Smoking further compromises lung function and can make breathing more difficult, especially in high-altitude environments. Steer clear of smoking and areas with secondhand smoke to protect your respiratory health.


8. Seek medical attention if needed: If your symptoms persist or worsen despite taking these measures, it’s important to seek medical advice. Healthcare professionals in Cusco are experienced in dealing with altitude-related conditions and can provide appropriate treatment and guidance.


Remember, everyone reacts differently to high altitudes, and it’s essential to listen to your body. Pay attention to any warning signs or severe symptoms and take the necessary steps to ensure your well-being. By following these recommendations, you can better manage shortness of breath and fully embrace the wonders of Cusco.



Visiting the beautiful city of Cusco, Peru, with its high altitude, can be a remarkable experience. However, the thin air and reduced oxygen levels can pose challenges, particularly with regards to breathing difficulties and shortness of breath. Understanding the factors that contribute to these symptoms can help you navigate your time in Cusco more effectively and ensure a more enjoyable visit.


High altitudes can impact breathing by reducing oxygen levels, triggering physiological responses in your body. Factors such as altitude sickness, physical exertion, poor air quality, and pre-existing medical conditions can exacerbate shortness of breath. However, by following recommended actions, you can manage and alleviate this symptom.


Allowing your body time to acclimate and hydrating properly are essential steps in reducing breathing difficulties. Taking breaks, avoiding overexertion, and practicing deep breathing exercises can also help improve lung function and oxygen intake. Considering medication options or supplemental oxygen, if needed, can provide further relief.


Furthermore, being aware of any pre-existing medical conditions and seeking medical advice prior to travel is crucial. It’s important to consult with your healthcare provider and have a well-managed treatment plan in place to address any potential exacerbation of symptoms in high-altitude environments.


In conclusion, visiting Cusco offers a unique opportunity to explore a city rich in history, culture, and breathtaking landscapes. While shortness of breath can be a common challenge in this high-altitude destination, with proper precautionary measures and understanding of the underlying factors, you can better manage and alleviate breathing difficulties.


By allowing your body to acclimate, staying hydrated, avoiding overexertion, practicing deep breathing, considering necessary medications, and seeking medical attention when needed, you can fully immerse yourself in the wonders of Cusco without the hindrance of shortness of breath.


Embrace the beauty of this historical capital, explore its ancient ruins, and create memories that will last a lifetime, all while taking care of your respiratory well-being in high-altitude environments like Cusco.