Altitude sickness in Bolivia
Huayna Potosi altitude sickness in Bolivia

When people plan their tour into Bolivia they frequently ask us about the current safety conditions in Bolivia They are worried about getting robbed, or getting stuck behind road blocks. To be honest, traveling in Bolivia is more adventures than in many other countries and yes, there are realistic risks of getting stuck behind a road block. Although the last few years it is happening less than in the past, the Bolivians still like their protest and road blocks. It is almost part of your cultural experience while traveling in Bolivia. And as for robbery, the risks are just as big, or small as in many countries around the world. However, there is another risk, which is much more likely to affect your holiday in a negative way if you don’t prepare well. It is called altitude sickness in Bolivia and affects many people who land at La Paz airport in El Alto at an altitude of 4062 meter (13327 feet) above sea level!

About altitude sickness

Altitude sickness is caused by there being less oxygen in the air at higher altitudes. And usually the air is also less humid, especially on the Altiplano and in the deserts in Bolivia. At this higher altitude our body needs to make more red blood cells to compensate the lesser amount of oxygen. For most people the process of acclimatizing to a higher altitude only takes a few days, but for some it takes longer and sometimes it doesn´t work out at all.La Paz altitude sickness in Bolivia
The first symptoms of altitude sickness that you have to look out for are:
– Being short of breath
– Having a light headache (which can become a heavy one);
– Feeling dizzy after doing only a bit of exercise;
– Feeling more tired and unusually weak;
– Having nausea, feeling sick;
– Having sleeping-problems.
– Dehydration.
The symptoms written above are for the first and most common form of altitude sickness called: Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). More information about more severe, but less common forms of altitude sickness you can find in our detailed article about altitude sickness while traveling.

Can altitude sickness be prevented?

No, it is not possible to prevent altitude sickness. It is a strange kind of disease that everyone can get; no matter your age or even physical condition. To complicate matters, even the effects of high altitude sickness aren’t always the same. Some people already feel weak at an altitude of 1000 meter above sea level, others only above 3000 meter altitude. In general most people feel the first symptoms of altitude sickness when they are higher than 2500 meter above sea level and/or ascending more than 300 meter a day and sleep at this higher altitude. If you ascend to an higher altitude during the day, but descend again before you’re going to sleep, you’re usually going to have less problems.

How to prepare for altitude sickness in Bolivia?

Below we will give some tips on how you can prepare your body before traveling to an higher altitude. These tips can lower the effects of getting altitude sickness in Bolivia:
– Avoid eating meat (or even dining heavily) just before you go to higher altitude, especially when you don´t know how you will react on this. It takes your stomach more energy to digest meat at higher altitude, which leaves your body with less energy for getting used to the higher altitude.
– Be more careful with alcohol, the effect is stronger on higher altitude, it also dehydrates and has influences on your capability in making decisions.
– If you smoke, try to smoke less. Smoking will cost you oxygen.
– Try to eat more iron rich food, like spinach and other green vegetables (only worth it if you are really going to do some exercises).

Coca leaves and altitude sickness

Selling coca leaves in La Paz BoliviaSome people think that altitude sickness in Bolivia can be prevented with chewing coca leaves and drinking coca tea. Although this assumption isn’t correct, it isn’t completely wrong either. When chewing coca leaves at the correct way it gives your body extra energy. This energy can be used to help your body to deal with the lack of oxygen and/ or to stay awake. It is popular among mine workers, so they can work they whole day in the mine without having to stop for lunch. Chewing coca leaves is also a common custom among truck and bus drivers who drive long distances. But no worries, chewing the coca leaves keeps them awake, but has no other mental side effects. To turn coca leaves into cocaine is still a whole chemical process away and you will need at least 1000 kg of coca leaves to produce 1 kg of cocaine. As for the positive effects of drinking coca tea; Yes, drinking coca tea might help in reducing the effect of altitude sickness in Bolivia, but this can also be said about drinking chamomile tea or green tea, because all of these teas will hydrate you, which is important at high altitude. Whichever tea you drink, it is recommendable to ad a little bit of sugar, so it is easier for your body to absorb the liquid.

While traveling at an higher altitude in Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni tour in BoliviaIdeally you start your travels in Bolivia from Santa Cruz at 400 meter altitude (instead of La Paz at 3640 m) and then travel slow to higher altitudes. So how to behave when you are traveling to/on higher altitudes in Bolivia and reduce the effects of altitude sickness in Bolivia? The most important advise is that you keep yourself calm, especially during the first days on higher altitude. Listen to your body, take your time and don´t rush things. Equally important is to drink enough and eat a bit saltier. Drink more than you usually do, because on higher altitude you don’t always notice on time that you don’t drink enough. Two things that can indicate that you don’t drink enough are; when your urine is darker than usual and your lips get dry. It is recommendable that for each 1000 meter you go up, you drink about one litre more than you drink usually. Of course this depends on the weather and the exercises you are doing. Do not drink only water, especially when you go often to the toilet, this indicates that your body doesn´t absorb the water well enough. In this case you can put a bit of salt and sugar in your water, drink some fruit juices, or Gatorade (or other sport-drinks). When you are dehydrated, either from high altitude, or diarrhoea, it is even better to not drink water yet, but first drink at least a litre of so called electrolytes. Alternatives to electrolytes can be Gatorade, ORS, fruit juices, or even soft drinks with sugar, but without gas. If it is a sunny day, keep in mind that on higher altitude (for example on the Salar de Uyuni at 3650 meter above sea level) the ultra violet light is much stronger. This strong sunlight in combination with a dry air increases the risk to get dehydrated.

How to deal with altitude sickness in Bolivia

Again, take it easy, slow down and keep drinking enough. If you need a bit more energy, you can try Dextrose tablets or Coromida, a stronger version of dextrose tablets (in Bolivia). They are no medicine but they do work a bit against headaches. If Dextrose doesn’t work, you can use Paracetamol against a small headache (aspirin has usually more side-effects, but can be used if you prefer). If the headache is too strong for Paracetamol, than it is best to descend and/or find medical attention.

Medicines to lower the effects of altitude sickness

Altitude sickness on Huayana PotosiThere is a medicine that´s called acetazolamide (brand name Diamox). This medicine can prevent the first symptoms of altitude sickness for example with lowering the sour level of your blood and it also work slightly positive on your breathing rhythm. Make sure you drink enough if you use this medications, because it will make you urinate more often. Ask your doctor about other side-effects before you use this medication. The general recommendation if you decide to use this medication is to take 2 times a day 250 mg, starting only one day before you ascend and to stop if you are one day at the highest altitude of your destination without problems.

While traveling in Bolivia, always keep in mind: If you have too much trouble with altitude sickness, the only real medicine is to go back to lower altitude and give your body rest…