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5 Tips on Handling Altitude Sickness

If you are anything like me your body is a fragile vessel that must be taken care of. It has taken me years, almost two decades to admit that I have a fragile body because there is this misconception that fragile means weak and I do not like to feel weak or inferior. I was that kid growing up with the allergies and snot-bubbles, cold sores, anxiety-induced stomach aches, regular nose bleeds, motion sickness and later glasses. This might be shocking to some of you considering how cool I am now ;P but yes, it’s all true, I was basically a bubble-girl. I didn’t find out until much much later in life that altitude sickness takes a heavy toll on me as well and while I had heard about others struggling with it, I had also heard how given time they adapted to it and were able to climb mountains and basically just live at higher altitudes.

 La Paz, Bolivia - Elevation approx 12,000 ft, 3,650 m.

La Paz, Bolivia – Elevation approx 12,000 ft, 3,650 m.

Well I was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico but moved away at a pretty young age so it never occurred to me when I had moved back that I would struggle with the altitude of 5,312 ft (1,619 m). I always felt ill in some way or another in Albuquerque and after traveling for extended periods of time as an adult and always returning and feeling physically ill the entirety of my time in Albuquerque I deduced it was the altitude and climate. So when I started planning my trip to South America this was not simply a slight worry, this was a serious health concern that definitely stressed me out.

 Death Road, Bolivia starts at 15,260 ft (4,650 m)

Death Road, Bolivia starts at 15,260 ft (4,650 m)

 Cotopaxi Refuge, Ecuador 15,744 ft (4,800 m)

Cotopaxi Refuge, Ecuador 15,744 ft (4,800 m)

I figured I couldn’t possibly be the only one who get seriously ill in high altitudes so I thought I would put this together in case someone else out there had the same concerns especially when considering traveling to and around South America. Ecuador, for instance was much much higher than I had thought and it didn’t even occur to me to check on the altitude in some of the main cities there. I mistakenly tried to climb Cotopaxi near Quito without properly preparing myself and got really really ill.

1. Drink Coca Tea/Eat Coca Candies

One of the first things I heard about South America long before I started planning my trip was, drink lots of Coca tea to help with altitude sickness. I had no idea what that would look like in the long run but I knew it would be information that applied to me. So I tucked this little nugget away for a rainy day. Coca tea is exactly what it sounds like. You can get it in a tea-bag or you can get the whole little green leaves at almost any market or store. Simply drop some in hot water and Viola! (Add a little sugar to your tea, it will help!) Now, what no one told me about Coca tea was that it can also affect you like green tea. If you drink too much green tea you will get diarrhea. It essentially cleans out your system, which in the long run is not good because it dehydrates you. So while I was dedicated to drinking this tea everyday, I didn’t realize that was what was causing my emergency bathrooms runs EVERY WHERE, Including having to stop on the side of the road and hold up a whole bus of people after a long day of adventuring down the death road in Bolivia. Talk about embarrassing… thank God we are all human! (For an alternative I started eating some Coca candies)

 Street Snacks in Cusco, Peru

Street Snacks in Cusco, Peru

2. Drink lots of water, Eat lighter Meals

Now this one seems like an obvious but it is and was for me, so vital to drink so much water. I basically had to treat my altitude sickness like a prolonged hangover. Not a pretty comparison but basically if I wanted to stay hydrated and keep moving, this was necessary. Set alarms or reminders on your phone if you have to. I had also heard about eating lighter meals previously but again when you get to the higher altitude, you my even feel fine but your body is adapting and it may take time for some or it may not adapt at all, like mine. I found myself eating scrambled eggs every morning and that was perfect and light but still filling enough. I ate snacks and drank tons of water and avoided the larger, heavier meals. I did have one heavy meal and later regretted it after throwing it up. My body just couldn’t handle it.

3. Avoid Alcohol

Listen, I now this can be a hard one but I cannot emphasize enough how difficult alcohol is on your body in normal altitudes but when you elevate to over 2000 meters processing alcohol can become dangerous. Now again, I am speaking from my personal experience but the first night I reached Cusco, it sounds absurd but I could literally feel my limbs struggling to get oxygen and my lips would turn a bit purple for a few days after that. This isn’t something to play with or something to take lightly. I know people who have had to go to the hospital and who have had to simply leave because they kinda forgot and decided to get a few drinks. So please, keep that in mind. Just take it slow, go easy.

 Taking the train to Machu Picchu, Peru

Taking the train to Machu Picchu, Peru

4. Get Some Rest

When I reach a new city or town, the first thing I want to do is walk around and explore but I had to seriously limit my mobility in the high altitudes. When I first got there, walking down the street became an almost impossible task. Don’t push yourself too hard, take it easy. Rest when you need to and go at your own pace. If you know you might struggle with the altitude, give yourself a few extra days so you aren’t trying to cram everything into a short time period. Also don’t feel like you absolutely have to do the walk or trekking to the locations. I took the train to Machu Picchu and rode in the van going down Death Road

 At the top of Death Road in Bolivia, sitting comfortably in my front seat.

At the top of Death Road in Bolivia, sitting comfortably in my front seat.

5. Speak to a doctor for additional options (medication)

Now, I am obviously not a medical professional and I am not offering any medical advice, I am just sharing my personal experiences. I do, however recommend that you visit a doctor before visiting any high altitudes locations. Speak with your doctor about some medication options. Yes, I think most of us would like to take a more holistic approach but sometimes that isn’t enough and you need something stronger. There is nothing wrong with that. I got some altitude sickness prescription medication before I went to South America and honestly it saved my ass and my trip. Now don’t get me wrong, it didn’t relieve all my symptoms or make me feel 100% by any means but it allowed me to visit those places regardless. I was taking pills everyday but I still struggled with breathing, headaches, nausea, general numbness, back pain and physical exertion was slow going but I was able to visit Cusco, Machu Picchu and the Bolivian Salt Flats. (I was prepared to completely miss the Salt Flats if I couldn’t find a bit of regulation in my body while visiting La Paz, luckily with the medication I pushed through so I could experience it but I did make sure that there were oxygen tanks on the tour I was on just in case.)

 Salar de Uyuni, Salt Flats Bolivia approx 12,000 ft (3,650 m)

Salar de Uyuni, Salt Flats Bolivia approx 12,000 ft (3,650 m)

If you don’t struggle with altitude sickness, then God bless you, lol but if you do, try to be easy on yourself. I was really hard on myself the first few weeks and I felt frustrated that I wasn’t able to do things or keep up like I wanted and that didn’t help my condition at all. We all have limitations and while it may not be at the pace you like and you may not feel 100% great while doing it, just remember, you are already there. You are in these amazingly mind-blowing places. You may not be able to make it to the top of the mountain or the volcano but the view looking up is incredible and you have already done an amazing thing just by being there. So go easy on yourself.

Coco Betty Travels About Me

Hi Friends!

My full name is Courtney Elizabeth and growing up some of my nicknames were Coco & Betty, thus the name Coco Betty. Feel free to call me Coco, I still answer to it. I empower women to love themselves through travel, one trip at a time.

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Coco Betty Travels About Me

Hi Friends!

My full name is Courtney Elizabeth and growing up some of my nicknames were Coco & Betty, thus the name Coco Betty. Feel free to call me Coco, I still answer to it. I empower women to love themselves through travel, one trip at a time.

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