Altitude sickness in Ecuador
Having altitude sickness in Ecuador

The safety in Ecuador is currently a hot topic for travellers who want to visit this beautiful country. So naturally one of the first questions people ask us when they want to book a tour in Ecuador is: “How safe is it to travel in Ecuador?”. They are worried about getting involved in gang violence, getting robbed, or getting stuck in a protest with indigenous people. Although these risks exist, it is not common that tourists in Ecuador get involved in any of them. However, there is another risk, which can affect your holiday in a negative way if you don’t prepare well. This risk is called altitude sickness in Ecuador and start for some travellers already when they arrive at Quito Airport at an altitude of 2813 meter (9229 feet) above sea level.

Climbing mountains and volcanoes in Ecuador

Cotopaxi and altitude sickness in EcuadorEcuador is a very popular country for travellers who like hiking, trekking and mountain climbing. Popular activities in Ecuador are hiking the Quilotoa Loop (3,914 meters/ 12,841 feet above sea level) and climbing the Cotopaxi Volcano (5,897 meters/ 19347 feet). Both of these activities can cause you altitude sickness in Ecuador. Before you undertake these activities, we recommend that you inform yourself about the effects of altitude sickness and that you acclimatize properly. A popular short trek for people who want to acclimatize starts at the top of the Teleferico/ cable cars, from Quito and finishes at the top of the Rucu Pichincha mountain at 4696 m/ 15407 feet above sea level. The following short video gives a good impression of this Rucu Pichincha trek.

What is altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness is caused by there being less oxygen in the air at higher altitudes. Our body needs to make more red blood cells to compensate the lesser amount of oxygen. Usually the air at an higher altitude is also less humid. For most people the process of acclimatizing to a higher altitude only takes a few days, for others it takes longer and sometimes people are not able to acclimatize at all.
The most common symptoms of altitude sickness include:
* Being short of breath
* Feeling dizzy after doing only a bit of exercise;
* Feeling more tired and unusually weak;
* Having a light headache (which can become a heavy one);
* Having nausea, feeling sick;
* Having sleeping-problems.
* Dehydration.
The symptoms written above are for the 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 at; altitude sickness while travelling.

Can you prevent altitude sickness?

No, it is not possible to prevent altitude sickness and 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. If you’re ascending to an higher altitude during the day, but descend again before you’re going to sleep, this usually gives less problems then when you’re trying to sleep at an higher altitude.

How to deal with altitude sickness in Ecuador

Altitude sickness while in Quito's steep streetsMost people who arrive in Ecuador will arrive at Quito Airport and stay at least one night in Quito (2850 m/ 9350 feet altitude). So how to behave when you arrive and stay at an higher altitude and want to reduce the effect of altitude sickness in Ecuador? 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, especially when walking the steep streets in Quito. 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. Do not drink only water, especially when you go often to the toilet, because 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, Gatorade, or any 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 at Lake Quilotoa) the ultra violet light is much stronger. This strong sunlight in combination with drier air increases the risk to get dehydrated.

How to prepare for altitude sickness?

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 Ecuador:
– 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).

Medicines to lower the effects of altitude sickness in Ecuador

Not a medicine, but Dextrose tablets can help you by providing just a little more energy when you need it. When you have a light headache you can use Paracetamol (aspirin often has 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.
There is also 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.

Important: While traveling in Ecuador, 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…