In 2016 I travelled to South America to enjoy visits to Lima and Cusco in Peru before travelling on to La Paz and Uyuni in Bolivia. The trip involved preparation to travel at altitude as Cusco in Peru is more than 3,300m above sea level, whilst La Paz in Bolivia sits at more than 3,600m above sea level.
Altitude sickness can affect anybody no matter how healthy you may be. It’s important to take precautions where possible and to stay alert to the danger signs, seeking medical advice if necessary.
Symptoms of altitude sickness can vary greatly. Whether you suffer headaches, vomiting, shortness of breath or feeling particularly weak and drained, recognising the difference in your body and knowing how to react or seek help can be invaluable.
1. Stay hydrated
I cannot stress this enough. Before flying from Lima to Cusco and then on to Bolivia, I began to physically prepare by consuming litres of water at a time. I also drank mate de coca pre-flight which tastes (in my opinion) a little bit like peppermint tea. Locals claim that it can literally save your life. When I arrived in Cusco, I bought more water before leaving the airport and continued to sip throughout the day as I adjusted to the altitude.
At one point we both felt light headed before the feeling passed on. Don’t allow your body to lose hydration.
2. Drink mate de coca
In addition to this, buy the alternatives for when you won’t have access to the drink itself. It’s available in tablet form as sweets and toffee and the coca leaves are available to chew, a bit like chewing tobacco. I bought the toffee and sweet variations at markets in Cusco but they can be picked up from most places. The drink of mate de coca is available in many locations throughout Cusco and La Paz. If it’s not on the menu then ask, local people will know what you’re asking for.
3. Eat meals high in carbs
Food portions in Peru and Bolivia are pretty big and there’s a high amount of carbs in each meal. It wasn’t unusual to order a meal (I enjoyed Lomo Saltado on several occasions) which consisted of a meat dish served with rice and chips to literally fill the plate.
Several local people explained that this is largely because the locals living at altitude want high energy food that’s also relatively cheap to prepare. This isn’t the time to be selective about your carb choices – load up your plate and enjoy.
4. Take your time
As a city girl I’m used to rushing around and walking at a fast pace, especially amongst the bustle of the London streets. The best advice that a friend gave to me was to slow.right.down. She was right. As an asthma sufferer I didn’t want to aggravate my symptoms at high altitude. Plan enough time into the itinerary for you to take a slow pace and stroll along to see the sights.
5. Listen to your body
This should be a rule in any situation but especially when you’re at risk of illness. If you’re feeling any symptoms of altitude sickness then rest. I had an early night on our first day in Cusco and was so thankful for allowing the time to do this. I hadn’t suffered many symptoms at this point, but I did feel drained of energy, more than the usual tiredness that I feel after a day of travelling.
Most importantly, if your symptoms get worse then seek urgent medical attention or make plans to descend if you’re able to. In serious cases, travellers have reported the need to be hooked up to oxygen to help relieve the symptoms before they continue with the trip. If you do suffer any ill effects then be sure to inform your hotel/hostel. I did exactly this in La Paz when altitude sickness started to affect me in my room on the top floor. I was soon relocated to a room on a lower floor (my sensitivity to altitude sickness was so that just a few floors made a significant difference to how I felt) and provided with mate de coca and advice to relieve the symptoms.
By taking the preventative steps above, you’ll hopefully be in a good place to travel confidently. Everybody reacts differently to the altitude but it’s essential that you know what’s normal for you and take steps to eliminate the symptoms where necessary.
Have you travelled at altitude before or do you have any further tips for dealing with the side effects of altitude sickness?