How to Deal with Altitude Sickness in Peru and Bolivia
But in hindsight I was not really prepared for one thing: altitude sickness. Call me ignorant, but I had never even heard of it before.
What is altitude sickness
Well, now I know it because I experienced it. Altitude Illness or Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is a condition caused by a rapid change in elevation without the necessary time for acclimatization.
At high elevations, the air is “thinner”. Meaning there is less pressure, so while the oxygen percentage remains the same, the air is less dense, so each breath you take contains less oxygen than what you’re used to. The higher you go, the thinner the air.
To deal with this situation, your body will need to breathe faster and pump blood more rapidly in order to take in the same amount of oxygen it is accustomed to receiving.
For many people, this comes as a shock to the body, causing various symptoms. Symptoms start 12 to 24 hours after arrival.
Altitude sickness can be a real and uncomfortable (sometimes dangerous) condition.
The thing is that you can never predict altitude sickness; you may not even get it. Physical fitness, age, and gender have no bearing on whether you will get altitude sickness.
As I just said, common altitude sickness symptoms can hit anyone, regardless of their fitness level or age.
The symptoms include:
- Loss of appetite
- Fatigue/loss of energy
More serious effects include fever, dry cough, brain swelling, and other complications.
Now we know what altitude sickness is and what is does to our body. But how can we prevent it?
First of all….I am NOT a doctor. But here is what I can say:
The good news is that even though you can’t 100% prevent altitude sickness, you can limit some of the effects of high altitude. The bad news is that you may need to rethink the beginning of your trip.
What do I mean by that? The best way to avoid getting sick is to ascend gradually. If anyway possible don’t head to 5000 meters altitude straight away. Do it slowly. Pick some other destinations along the way that lay at lower heights and then go higher step by step.
Most travelers have little to no problems in Arequipa (7,661 ft or 2,335 m), a good midpoint between sea level (Lima) and high altitude (Cusco). This makes Arequipa an ideal destination to gradually acclimatize prior to further ascent.
I know, this piece of advice is sometimes hard to follow because it means changing your trip plans.
Take it easy
Climbing the stairs to your hotel room can sometimes feel like the last mile in a marathon in the first few days of your trip!
Don’t go for your first hike as soon as you arrive. Adjusting to higher altitude can take a few days. Surrender to the fact that you might be feeling tired, short of breath, headachy.
Rest and hydrate. Plan calmer activities the first 24-48 hours of your trip.
When I arrived in Cusco, I didn’t do anything on the first day. Just resting. On day two and three I did some walking to explore the city.
Another option is to head to the Sacred Valley first, which is located significantly lower than Cusco.
Also, a general rule of thumb is “walk high, sleep low” so if you are at over 3,000m (9,842ft) sleep at no more than 300m (984ft) higher at the end of each day.
Drink coca tea
In South America a natural way of reducing the symptoms of altitude sickness is by taking coca leaves.
You can chew the leaves, make tea of out them or even buy coca candy. In this part of the world it is quite acceptable and offered everywhere.
It has been used by indigenous cultures of the South American Andes mountain range for centuries as a way of treating altitude sickness.
Well, I didn’t like the taste of it, but apparently it helps if you consume it consistently.
Take deep breaths
Your body is trying to get oxygen, but there is less of it available, meaning you have to take deep breaths to try to get more air in. As simple as that.
Exercise and train for hikes
Even though altitude sickness can hit anyone, regardless of their fitness level, training your body can make trekking the mountains easier.
Before your trip, participate in interval training. Interval training is a method of training the cardiovascular system by elevating the heart rate significantly and then allowing it to recover for a period before elevating it again.
Each week, increase the intensity by running a faster sprint or a steeper hill.
Drugs to prevent altitude sickness often only hide the warning symptoms as opposed to curing the problem, so in general it is much safer to rely on good planning and gradual ascent rather than medication.
But if you really feel that you need medication, Acetazolomide (Diamox) might be a good choice. Also, you will notice that most pharmacies in Peru and Bolivia carry capsules called pastillas para soroche.
These capsules contain aspirin, an aspirin substitute, and caffeine.
Watch your food
Follow a carb rich diet. Sounds perfect, right? Carbs are great for stabilizing your blood sugar and maintaining energy.
Eat plenty of whole grains, pasta, fruits, and vegetables. Some good staples to eat include broccoli, bananas, avocado, cantaloupe, celery, greens, bran, chocolate, granola, dates, dried fruit, potatoes and tomatoes.
Do your body a favor and decrease salt intake and fatty food.
One of my biggest problem was appetite loss. I didn’t feel like eating anything. There is no other solution that forcing the food to you. After all, you need the energy for the hikes and for getting rid of altitude sickness.
Get an oxishot
Oxishot is a small dis-chargeable can that contains 8 liters of oxygen that you can take when you arrive in Peru or Bolivia and anytime you need a boost. It can help reduce headaches and fatigue associated with altitude sickness.
Get into the habit of drinking plenty of water even before you arrive. Start ideally 2 weeks before.
This is the best way to help your body adjust to high altitude. Generally the low humidity at altitude keeps the air dry, so you should drink twice as much water as you would at home. You may need as much as 4-6 liters per day.
Also keep in mind that you want to add water to your body, not deplete it. At least initially, avoid caffeine and alcohol.
I just mentioned it, but can’t stress this enough. While it is very tempting to have a few Picso Sour here and there, it’s one of the worst things you can do to our body. Alcohol may exacerbate the effects of altitude sickness.
I had two glasses of wine in my first days in Peru and a Pisco Sour. Oh my, I felt so bad after and couldn’t sleep all night. So, don’t!
Listen to your body
Altitude sickness can be serious. If you suspect that you are experiencing altitude sickness, don’t go any higher until your symptoms improve and move to lower ground if your symptoms get worse.
My fitness level was absolutely crap and, because I didn’t know about altitude sickness, I didn’t follow many of those tips. Yet, I made it and I would go back again.
Happy travels x