Inca Trail llama

Trekking the Inca Trail? Visit a doctor first!

Mar 22, 2024
Reading time: 6 minutes

You need to be fit and healthy to trek the Inca Trail safely. We strongly encourage anyone keen to do this adventure in the Andes to visit a doctor beforehand to discuss their health as well as the inherent dangers of high-altitude trekking.

We really want to highlight two things.

Firstly, the Inca Trail is no Sunday stroll in the park.

The path itself follows a tough up-and-down route with plenty of big steps, so it demands good hiking fitness. That doesn't mean it isn't entirely doable, because it is. But you do need to be reasonably fit or put in the necessary physical training for it.

Secondly, altitude sickness can be dangerous, even fatal.

While the Inca Trail doesn't take you as high as some of the world's other famous high-altitude treks, you do most certainly reach a potentially dangerous elevation. Specifically, you ascend as high as 4,215 m (13,829 ft) on Day 2 of the trek when you cross Dead Woman's Pass.

If you're not properly acclimatised before starting the trek, it's very possible to develop serious altitude sickness on the Inca Trail. Depending where you are on the route, this might mean turning back, as the only way to remedy the condition is to descend promptly to a lower elevation.

Trekkers hiking in the Andes in Inca Trail en route to Machu Picchu in Peru

Trekkers on the Inca Trail

With these two things in mind, please make the effort to visit your GP before your Inca Trail trek to discuss your suitability for the trek, as well as to get some general advice concerning altitude sickness.

It's a really good idea to have your doctor weigh in on your health and overall viability to tackle a high-altitude trek.

Discuss these 3 things with your doctor

Doctors know all about altitude sickness, of course, from how to avoid it to how to treat it. So your GP will likely lead the conversation, but be sure that the two of you discuss the following during your consultation:

1. The dangers posed by high altitude

The main thing to tell your doctor at your medical appointment is that you wish to do a multiday high-altitude trek that will take you to roughly 4,200 m (13,800 ft) above sea level.

Most people unused to high altitude can start to feel the ill side effects of elevation gain from around 3,000 m (9,800 ft) above sea level (asl). The Inca Trail takes you more than a kilometre higher than this, so it's easy to appreciate that you're heading into properly rarified air on the trek.

Mild altitude sickness isn't a serious health concern, and you can keep hiking provided you personally feel able to push through the shortness of breath and other unpleasant symptoms (which can include headaches, nausea and poor sleep).

Should your altitude sickness become serious, however, then you must descend rapidly or you could develop high-altitude cerebral oedema (HACE), which can be fatal.

Discuss altitude sickness with your doctor to ensure you properly understand the different degrees of the illness and the symptoms each presents.


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2. How to prevent or mitigate altitude sickness

The single best way to avoid developing serious altitude sickness is to only ascend in altitude in a very gradual manner. Your doctor will undoubtedly explain this to you.

Most people heading to Peru to do the trek fly from the seaside capital of Lima to Cusco, a high city in the Andes known as the gateway to the Inca Trail. This flight means you make a single hop from sea level to 3,399 m (11,152 ft) asl. That's a far faster leap in elevation than is ever desirable!

With this in mind, the very best thing you can do for yourself upon landing in Cusco is to give your body 48 hours to just rest and adjust. In other words, do not plan to trek the Inca Trail the day after landing in Cusco, as physical exertion will only put a body already under strain under even further strain, thereby increasing your chances of developing full-blown altitude sickness.

Please discuss your proposed Peru itinerary with your GP. It'll help if you go to the meeting prepared with a printout in hand that shows the elevation profile of the trek. You can use the map shared below, if you like.

Follow Alice Inca-trail-elevation-map

Elevation map of the Inca Trail

Armed with all of this info, the two of you can discuss how many days you should spend in Cusco before starting the trek. You can also discuss if you should do the Inca Trail itself over four or five days, as both options are available.

Whatever you decide, your doctor will most likely want to prescribe you an altitude medication (such as Diamox) to help prevent and reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness. You'll start taking this medication 24 hours before actually arriving in Cusco.

Your doctor might also like to prescribe you these other medications:

  • Painkillers for headaches (a common symptom of mild altitude sickness).
  • Strong anti-nausea tablets (another common symptom of mild altitude sickness).
  • Cortisone (should your altitude sickness worsen and you start coughing and spluttering).

Note that it's also vitally important to trek with a reputable tour operator as their trek guides will be trained wilderness first responders who know how to to monitor your health and will also carry spare oxygen to administer to you if necessary. (You can learn more on this important topic in 7 important safety tips for anyone hiking the Inca Trail.)



3. Any potential concerns based on your personal medical history

This is, of course, an invaluable part of the consult. Does your doctor believe you are in good enough health to tackle this challenge? Do you have any preexisting conditions that need to be factored in here?

Be sure to know enough of the climb before the meeting to be able to describe the various challenges of the trek; if you read The Classic Inca Trail โ€“ what the route looks like, you'll know enough.

Further to this, if you have a particular serious health concern, perhaps you should also schedule an appointment with the relevant specialist? High altitude has been known, for instance, to occasionally trigger seizures.

A view from Dead Woman's Pass on the Inca Trail, Peru

A cloudy view from Dead Woman's Pass

No matter which Inca Trail tour operator you choose, you're going to be asked to sign a health and safety form vouching that you're healthy enough to tackle the trek.

Have the appointment before booking your trek

Please book your doctor's appointment before paying anything towards your Inca Trail adventure. We say this so that you're better positioned to be as objective as possible if given disappointing advice about the advisability of you undertaking such a trek.

Chatting with a doctor early on also means that if you're given a qualified thumbs up for the trek, you're then in a position to take the time necessary to get your health in line before heading to Peru.

Please take your doctor's advice seriously and do everything possible to ensure you're fit and healthy enough before embarking on the Inca Trail. You want to feel confident that it's going to be a truly memorable trip for all of the right reasons!