Altitude sickness was something I was really nervous about before South America. I knew we would be venturing high in Peru and even higher in Bolivia, and I had some not pretty visions going through my head.
I once met a girl at a dinner in Los Angeles who told me a very detailed story about her experience of altitude sickness while hiking Machu Picchu, and it has haunted me ever since. Let’s just say, she threw out a pair of pants.
They say that you can never predict who will suffer from the altitude. Young, fit guys can keel over at just above 3,000m, while 65-year-old women can merrily hike the Inca trail with no issues. I’ve always been that girl who catches whatever bug is doing the rounds, so I was a little terrified.
It can manifest in many ways – headaches, disorientation, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, fainting, and worse.
When we stepped off the plane in La Paz, I definitely felt a swift change… but couldn’t quite articulate what I was feeling. My legs were a little jelly-like, and it almost felt like I had to concentrate on breathing, as if it wasn’t going to happen naturally. Very odd.
La Paz, at 3,660m, wasn’t too bad. We woke up a couple of times in the night gasping, like someone was sitting on our chests, and walking up those steep La Paz hills wasn’t fun, but it was very manageable, and not too bothersome.
When it truly hit me was the overnight coach from La Paz to Uyuni, the town where our salt flats tour would depart from. I experienced the worst headache I have ever had in my life. It felt like someone was pushing their thumbs into my temples, through my skull, into my brain, and twisting. Argh. It did not tickle.
The altitude symptoms came and passed over the course of the tour, with some mild nausea, a few more headaches, loss of appetite, and a nosebleed or two. I combatted it with over-the-counter altitude sickness tablets, paracetamol, and a ton of coca tea.
I knew that travellers are advised to leave a few days to acclimatise before ascending higher, and I thought two days would be sufficient. For some it may be, and for others it might not be near enough.
We were on a time limit, but if I were to do it over, I would give myself at least five days in La Paz (and stop on the way in another city at an even lower altitude if possible) before embarking on the salt flats tour, where you reach heights of 5,000m above sea level. Five days is enough time to chill out, relax and acclimatise at the pace your body needs (and you never know until you’re there what that will be), and also take in the sights.
Here are a few common tips for dealing with altitude sickness:
Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and medication that causes drowsiness, such as sleeping pills
Stay hydrated – coca tea (mate de coca) is a popular drink that is widely available and is said to help with symptoms
Avoid strenuous activities for the first few days – don’t step off the plan and onto a hiking trail!
Start taking altitude sickness medication two days before arriving at altitude and continue to take it while ascending
If there is oxygen available, take a hit! It helps loads, and gives a bit of a buzz, which is a nice little side effect. I was so embarrassed about taking the oxygen when it was offered to me during our tour (it seemed very diva-ish), but after a couple of inhales I didn’t care, it was awesome
The most effective action is to take plenty of time to acclimatise. If you find yourself struggling, don’t ascend any higher until your body has adapted to the altitude
Any discomfort I had in Bolivia always passed after a short time and was 100% worth it to witness some of the most breathtaking, awe-inspiring landscapes I have ever encountered. Bolivia is an incredible country, where the scenery is otherworldly in its magnificent beauty. Any illness was immediately forgotten and I would do it again in a heartbeat.