“The doctor in La Paz also told us how a group of Spanish tourists had to be hospitalized for two weeks after trying to climb some high mountains. They had water in their lungs. The German embassy has a room in La Paz to cool down the dead bodies of people who died from altitude sickness.”
On the last night of our Salar de Uyuni trip, I fell asleep to the sound of rain battering the roof of our hotel room. We were almost 4,300 meters in elevation in Avaroa National Park near the border of Bolivia and Chile. It had snowed in the evening, and I had a few glasses of wine. I was dead to the world for the whole night. When we woke up for breakfast at 4.30 am, the first conversation that reached my ears was how the Brazilian girl in our tour group had to sit up all night because she couldn’t breathe at all.
In the 3 months that I traveled in Bolivia, this was a perpetual piece of conversation topic for me and my then girlfriend, Ane. Like a ticked-off, weird ex that never really leaves you alone, the breathlessness would come back to haunt her time and again. Often, it would follow with headache, nausea and lethargy. It happened in Cochabamba, in Sucre, in the Salt desert, in La Paz: practically everywhere. For some reason, I was never affected, so I can’t really explain the feeling. Still, whenever this would happen, I would imagine someone shoving my head in a plastic wrap for a few seconds every minute. I would see her grimaced face while huffing and puffing, often awake at night. It would send a shudder in my whole body, as if soon, a piece of important memory would slip out of grasp forever. It would scare the hell out of me.
Ane would often ask me if I lived in the high mountains before and how come it never happened to me. I had no clue. The highest city I had ever lived in was Salt Lake City, Utah, at around 1200 meters. I would just sigh and try to find the “right” explanation to give her. Since I didn’t have the same problem, I had no real answer.
The whole time we traveled in Bolivia, the altitude issue would come up every now and then, especially whenever we met someone new. Some people had lived through similar situations, but others, like me, did not. When we finally saw a doctor in La Paz (where it was the worst), he told us that it was in our best interest to rest for a few days and start touring the city. He further explained that when you get sick during travel, resting will help the most. Lastly, the doctor clarified that this breathlessness had nothing to do with age, sex or ethnicity. Of course, health factors aside.
I wrote this article from Cuzco, sitting in a quaint little coffee shop, as I listen to A Nightingale sang in Berkley square: the Twiggy version. Interestingly, even though this city is about 3400 meters above sea level, Ane didn’t feel short of breath. No more attacks like before. After Cusco, we left for Lima and her altitude sickness was a thing of past after that.
The doctor in La Paz also told us how a group of Spanish tourists had to be hospitalized for two weeks after trying to climb some high mountains. They had water in their lungs.
The German embassy has a room in La Paz to cool down the dead bodies of people who died from altitude sickness.
That’s how bad altitude sickness or soroche (as it’s known here) is. No one wants a washout of a trip due to altitude sickness. There is something you can always do about it, which is why I am writing this article.
I had a fair idea what sea sickness was. But, altitude sickness? Now that was new.
What is altitude sickness?
As your altitude level climbs, the air pressure increases. Oxygen levels stay the same, but due to the atmospheric pressure, the amount of oxygen peters out. Your lungs work way harder than they are used to, and your body has to acclimate to breathe longer and deeper. You sometimes see kids and dogs in higher elevations, functioning as if they are made of steel or something. And, at the same, time you can’t push away the feeling that maybe you just got older by years in a matter of a few days.
What happens? What are your Symptoms?
As always, symptoms can vary from person to person. The common symptoms for Acute Mountain Sickness are nausea, headache, breathlessness, tiredness and loss of appetite. Oh, how can I forget about not getting any sleep?
However, Acute Mountain Sickness is not the worst, as you must know by now. The worst is when you get High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), when your lungs build up with fluid and lead to heart failure; or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), which causes your brain to swell up with fluid and ceases to function.
HAPE and HACE are uncommon, scary as hell, and the worst thing is that no one in Bolivia tells you about them. There are many tour companies that take you to the Illimani Mountain, Huyana Potosi Mountain and volcanos (in Salar de Uyuni trip), without whispering a word about the medications you might need.
What can you do about it?
If you fly from a place that lies at the sea level (eg: New Orleans, LA – a city that’s actually 2 meters below sea level) to La Paz (3640 meters above sea level), there are so many scientific and logical reasons why the flight could put a crimp in your health and your plans. Your body would naturally be under a lot of stress.
Even though I rarely had any breathing problems in Bolivia, I thank myself for flying from Mumbai to Santa Cruz, not La Paz.
COCHABAMBA SUCRE LA PAZ ORURO POTOSÍ EL ALTO
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But if you find yourself in a situation like my ex, one thing you could do is rest for a couple days before you start your trip. The best way is to start is from a place that’s relatively lower in elevation, and gradually ascend while taking your time. I went to Cochabamba, to Sucre, and then to La Paz.
2.Coca leaves/ pills/ tea/ candies… and the list goes on
The whole Andean community is gung-ho about coca leaves and all the products that are made from it. Not cocaine, of course. You often come across people carrying a plastic bag full of dry coca leaves. The problem? Like a lot other remedies, coca chooses what kind of role it will play in your life. You might feel good, or sometimes worse. Maybe it will do some good to you. You will only know when you actually try the coca leaves. And if you don’t like the smell or flavor of the leaves, buy some candies. Personally, when inside Potosi mines, I chewed on a lot of candies and it helped with taking the edge off and abolished my fatigue. That was the only time I remember when I actually felt the altitude’s effect.
The one medication that worked really well for Ane was Sorojchi pills. She took these regularly, almost once every day when we stayed in La Paz for 3 weeks.
You can also try other medications like Diamox, although it’s said to have side effects like tingling of toes, fingers and blurred vision.
And, if nothing works and you are miserable, go to a doctor. You don’t need insurance to see a doctor and they don’t cost you an arm and a leg.
4. Oxygen treatment
Although, not common, some hotels in Bolivia have oxygen tanks to help tourists facing breathing difficulties. I came across some hotels in Puno and Cuzco (in Peru) that had oxygen tanks. Of course, this is only a temporary fix.
In the end, plan your ascent carefully and listen to your body and rest a bit. You just might make your life a little easier.
I wanted to share this experience so that you could make the best decision for yourself.
Have you had any similar experiences when traveling in Peru or Bolivia or any other countries? Would you mind sharing your experience in the comments?