Falling ill on vacation is a real downer. Therefore, a little bit of pre-travel health preparation might be wise to stay well and fit during your travels. To help you to prepare for your Peru trip and provide an overview of the medical situation in the country, we compiled some general health information and medical advice.
But please note, we from Peru Telegraph aren’t medical professionals. As in each individual case numerous medical aspects such as patient’s medical history, intake of medication, exact travel destination, etc., must be considered, we strongly recommend to consult your family physician or a doctor specialized in travel medicine before your trip. Please view the following information as a guide only!
Necessary and recommended vaccinations for Peru
According to information of the Peruvian immigration and health authorities the country currently doesn’t request any vaccinations upon entry.
Nevertheless, all visitors should have their routine immunizations such as tetanus, diphtheria, polio, pertussis, measles, mumps and rubella, up to date. Additionally, immunization against Hepatitis A, a viral disease of the liver transmitted by contaminated water and food, is highly recommended. For off the beaten track travelers and those with close contact to the local population a vaccination against Hepatitis B, as well a viral disease affecting the liver transmitted by contaminated blood and bodily fluids, against typhoid fever, a bacterial infection caused by the consumption of contaminated water or food, and rabies, transmitted when being bitten by infected stray dogs or bats) is advisable.
At this moment proof of a vaccination against yellow fever, an acute viral disease transmitted by mosquitoes, is not obligatory when entering Peru. Nevertheless, it is highly recommended to have a yellow fever vaccination when travelling to the Peruvian Amazon region under 2300 m (7500 ft.) and to designated yellow fever areas in Peru. Please be also aware that some tour operators ask for an immunization against yellow fever when booking a trip to the Manu National Park or other destinations in the Peruvian Amazon, so might your home country on your return or a third country you are traveling after your Peru trip. So please have a talk with your physician explaining your exact itinerary.
Medical care in Peru
Health care in Lima's private clinics is very good and can withstand the comparison with hospitals in the US or Europe. Most private clinics are well-resourced with state of the art equipment and necessary medications. In case of an emergency you find qualified doctors and nurses treating you according to international standards and methods; some even speak English.
Although there have been improvements in the medical sector in Peru over the past few years, most public hospitals however in Lima and especially in the provinces by no means reach international standards. In rural areas the situation is even worse. Patients with a grave illness or serious injury should be transported to a private clinic in Lima as soon as possible.
Please note that charges for doctors, hospitalization, treatments and surgeries vary heavily. But even those at the high end mostly only charge a fraction of the price you would have to pay for an equivalent private treatment in your home country. Anyhow, even if it is unusual for you, ask for exact fees and charges before you start your treatment! It is also common practice in Peru to pay any medical treatment or examination in advance! Don't be surprised even in an emergency that you have to proceed to the cashier first to pay and then get examined or treated.
It is strongly recommended to take out an extensive travel health insurance that covers necessary medical treatments and prescribed medications, (air) rescue, hospitalization, transfer and repatriation.
Gastro-intestinal diseases while traveling in Peru
One of the most common diseases among travelers, not only when visiting Peru, surely is diarrhea. Even though numerous gastro-intestinal diseases are caused by bacteria or viruses, unusual cooking methods, unknown ingredients, herbs and spices as well as travel stress, changes in the climate and altitude might provoke the same problems.
So below some basic rules helping to minimize the risk of getting a stomach-intestine infection:
- Do not drink tap water! Only drink bottled water or possibly as well filtered, disinfected and / or boiled water.
- Avoid ice cubes; only in better restaurants, cafés and bars they are made using drinking water.
- Wash your hands thoroughly several times a day with water and soap.
- Wash fruits and vegetables before consumption with drinking water, if necessary peel them.
- Travelers with sensitive stomachs should avoid leaf salads; in better restaurants they are washed with drinking water.
- Be careful with sauces and dips prepared with mayonnaise that might have spent the whole day on the table of a restaurant; better do without.
- Eat Ceviche, Peru’s delicious national dish, only until noon or in better restaurants and make sure that the lime marinade cooked the fish through.
Peru is the world’s best culinary destination with amazing and delicious local dishes; fruits and veggies are extremely tasteful. You shouldn’t miss out on this important part of Peruvian culture while visiting out of fear. Obviously consider general food and drinking water hygiene when eating out.
Altitude sickness / Soroche
Altitude sickness can occur when the body can’t adapt to an unfamiliar altitude. Often climbers are affected that ascend to quickly up to higher altitudes. But quite often visitors as well get sick after flying from Lima with an elevation of 160m / 520 ft. in the city center to for example Cusco on 3300m / 10800 ft. or Puno / Lake Titicaca on 3860 m / 12420 ft. Soroche, as altitude sickness is called in Peru, most probably is caused by the fact that the pressure and oxygen concentration in the air decrease with an increasing altitude. This results in an oxygen deficiency in the body, which affects especially the brain and lungs.
Altitude sickness can get to anyone; well-trained athlete as well as couch potato, young and old, with infants being affected particularly often. Why one gets sick, the other not, could not yet been explained adequately; but the risk increases with alcohol consumption, insufficient hydration, exhaustion, infections and lack of sleep. Giving the body time to gradually get used to higher altitudes is the only way to prevent suffering from altitude sickness.
The first signs of getting sick with Soroche appear at heights of about 2500m / 8000 ft. Symptoms usually occur within 6 to 24 hours after arriving at high altitude and include headache, nausea and vomiting, difficulty in breathing, sleeplessness, dizziness and loss of appetite. These symptoms should be taken seriously; the body needs time to rest and adapt.
Hotels in and around Cusco are usually well prepared for visitors with a mild form of altitude sickness. So, if you feel sick, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Often inhaling some oxygen, drinking lots of water and resting brings patients back to their feet. Although not scientifically proven Coca Tea (Mate de Coca) might help preventing and treating mild forms of altitude sickness, either due to the ingredients or just due to an increased hydration.
If you don’t feel better after an extensive break or overnight, seek medical treatment; in some cases, it might be advisable to leave for lower grounds. If the first light symptoms of altitude sickness are ignored, they can worsen quickly and even though rarely become life threatening.
Anyone having problems with the altitude in Cusco, can for example leave the city for Ollantaytambo, a good 500m / 1600 ft. lower, and acclimatize there. Machu Picchu is another 400m / 1300 ft. lower, so usually no problems with altitude sickness.
In Peru, there is only a slight risk of a malaria infection in areas under 2000m / 6500 ft., and here mostly only in tropical regions of Iquitos, Loreto, Madre de Dios, San Martin and Puerto Maldonado. Lima, the desert-like coastal areas north and south of the capital, Ica, Nazca, Cusco, Machu Picchu and the Andean highlands are completely malaria-free. There is no vaccination against malaria. Depending on the itinerary and way of travel it might be wise to take malaria prophylaxis pills in particular cases.
Malaria is transmitted by some Anopheles mosquito species that are active at twilight and night. Preventing a malaria infection means protection from mosquito bites. As other diseases in parts of Peru such as dengue fever, oropouche fever and leishmaniasis are as well transmitted by mosquito species active at day, it is recommended to protect yourself in these areas by regularly applying insect repellent, wearing long trousers and long-sleeved shirts / blouses and sleeping under mosquito nets.
Shamanism, healing rituals and Ayahuasca
Peru’s Amazon region is a popular destination for travelers choosing to participate in a shamanic ceremony or healing ritual often based on the consumption of Ayahuasca or other powerful plants and herbs. Unfortunately, in the last few years the number of unqualified "healers" performing these ceremonies increased immensely.
As consuming Ayahuasca and other traditional medicine not only can be a life changing and mind opening experience or heal your mind, body and soul, but in some cases result in serious illness and even death, we strongly advise to only choose established, recommended healing retreats where an experienced shaman accompanies the participants from the beginning to the end. Please have a medical check-up before participating in Ayahuasca rituals, as the vine not only increases the heart rate and blood pressure but as well causes significant psychological stress.