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18 ways to deal with high altitude

The effects of high altitude sickness, known locally in South America as soroche (literally Mountain Sickness), can start to be felt from around 2,000 metres above sea level. As you ascend, the atmospheric pressure reduces and causes the air to become less dense. This means that each breath you take draws in less oxygen than it normally would. The body relies on oxygen to create energy and maintain normal bodily functions and so a reduction in this can cause symptoms which can vary from person to person, irrespective of age, gender or fitness levels, whilst your body adjusts to its new surroundings. Over the course of a couple of days your body will adapt, learning to breathe deeper and faster and creating more red blood cells to carry the oxygen around your body.

In the vast majority of cases, soroche manifests itself in only mild symptoms such as shortness of breath and slight fatigue and should not act as a deterrent to travelling to high altitude areas. In some cases it can produce headaches, loss of appetite, pins and needles and nausea to varying degrees, as well as some sleep disruption. In more extreme cases, often related to rapid ascent and extreme altitude, the effects can include confusion and clumsiness, mood swings and problems with speech and sight.

Travelling in the mountains or to the Altiplano, especially in Peru and Bolivia, will bring you to many places considered to be at high or very high altitude. Here is a list of some of the more popular destinations and their approximate altitudes:

Very high altitude places in Latin America (3,500 to 5,500 metres above sea level)

El Tatio Geysers in Atacama, Chile - 4,320 metres
Inca Trail (Dead Woman's Pass), Peru - 4,215 metres
La Paz, Bolivia - 3,600 to 4,000 metres
Lake Titicaca, Peru & Bolivia - 3,800 metres
Chivay (for Colca Canyon), Peru - 3,700 metres
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia - 3,656 metres

High altitude places in Latin America (2,400 to 3,500 metres above sea level)

Cusco, Peru - 3,400 metres
Sacred Valley of the Incas, Peru - 2,900 metres
Quito, Ecuador - 2,850 metres
Sucre, Bolivia - 2,810 metres
Bogotá, Colombia - 2,644 metres
Machu Picchu, Peru - 2,430 metres
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile - 2,400 metres

Travelling at altitude need not put you off travelling to these breathtaking destinations. If you follow these simple procedures you will give your body the best chance to minimise the effects of soroche, letting you concentrate on enjoying your travels.

Before departure

1. Wherever possible travel to lower altitudes first and then build up gradually, taking time to acclimatise bit-by-bit. Speak to a Veloso Tours consultant for more information on planning your itinerary.

2. Factor some rest periods into your itinerary to give your body time to recover, allowing you to better enjoy your travel.

3. Ensure you have packed regular painkillers to help soothe any headaches which may occur on your travels.

4. At high altitude, UV light can be harmful to your eyes and skin. Pack a good pair of sunglasses, a good hat and high factor sunscreen that blocks UVA, UVB and UVC rays.

5. Speak to your doctor, preferably at least six months before departure, if you have any specific concerns or pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy or any heart or lung conditions.

6. If you wear contact lenses, ensure you have packed enough cleaning fluid and that you follow a strict daily hygiene routine with them whilst travelling. Lenses can get dried out quicker at altitude so take eye drops and spare lenses as well as a pair of glasses and prescription sunglasses as a precaution.

7. Places at high altitude can get cold at night, so ensure you have packed sufficient layers to keep warm.

8. Diamox could be prescribed by your doctor before travelling. This speeds up the acclimatisation process, though won't negate the symptoms of altitude sickness in the first instance. Some people are allergic to it and it can cause mild and ultimately harmless side effects such as tingling in hands, feet and the face. These will dissipate once you stop taking the drug. It can also produce laxative effects.

Whilst travelling

9. When arriving at high altitude for the first time, take things at a slower pace to help your body to acclimatise to its new surroundings.

10. Avoid alcohol consumption, especially at night, when acclimatising and drink only moderately after. Alcohol and coffee dehydrate the body, something to be avoided in the already dry high altitude air, and can further disrupt your sleep.

11. Eat lightly upon initial arrival to help you sleep better and let your body adjust to the altitude, rather than digesting your food.

12. If travelling within a group, communicate with each other regularly about how you are feeling. Others may be suffering more than you and the pace at which you are going may need to be adjusted or more breaks scheduled.

13. Stay hydrated throughout as the air is drier at altitude, but stick to bottled water.

14. Try to breathe deeper and quicker than normal to increase the amount of oxygen you are taking in - just as your body does automatically when undertaking exercise.

15. Coca leaves, coca tea (mate de coca) and coca sweets are all readily available. They are a mild stimulant and have proven to be effective at providing some relief to the symptoms.

16. Descending rapidly is proven to dramatically reduce altitude sickness, though this is not possible in certain locations.

17. Oxygen tanks are available on some trains and in many hotels in high altitude places: ask at the reception if feeling unwell.

18. Do not ignore this advice! Altitude sickness is not linked to age, gender or general fitness and can affect different people in different ways. Whilst it should never put you off travelling or stop you looking forward to your trip, it should not be ignored or underestimated. Good preparation before travelling and taking simple precautions upon and after arrival can help minimise the effects and let you get on with enjoying your travels in some of the most special places in Latin America.

Veloso Tours would be delighted to work with you to craft your perfect trip to Latin America. We have travelled extensively throughout these regions and can discuss the potential implications of high altitude travel with you and work to produce an itinerary that allows you to best enjoy life on the Altiplano. Get in touch today to discuss your dream trip with our friendly team of Latin American specialists.


Sources: altitude.org; medex.org.uk