Much of the Andes are very high in altitude, and if you’ve not acclimatized, it’s likely that you will be affected by altitude sickness. Here follows some tips on how to avoid high altitude sickness, as well as advice on treatment and remedies.
Places in South America that you are most likely to be affected by altitude sickness include Quito in Ecuador (2800 metres), Cuzco in Peru (3500 metres), La Paz in Bolivia (3600 metres), Lake Titicaca (3800 metres) or anywhere else of a similar height in those countries. Typical symptoms include dizziness, headaches, sleepiness, nausea, loss in appetite and a shortness of breath. Altitude sickness affects people indiscriminately - your level of physical fitness is not an indicator of whether you are likely to feel the effects. A remarkably high percentage of tourists get some form of altitude sickness when visiting the Andean region, but by reading the following advice, you can either avoid or treat this illness that could potentially ruin your holiday.
1. When possible, go up in altitude in steps. If you are travelling to some point that is 3500 metres or more in altitude, you’d be wise to spend a night at about 2500 metres beforehand (eg. travel to Lake Titicaca in Peru via the Colca Canyon - any easy way to ease yourself into the high altitude). If this isn’t possible, and you catch a flight from sea level to a high altitude place, give yourself at least one full day to acclimatize and do very little. If you’re travelling to places of over 4000 metres in altitude, you’ll need to have spent at least few days acclimatizing at a lower level beforehand.
2. Go easy on the alcohol and cigarettes - they’ll go straight to your head at high altitudes.
3. An effective local remedy is coca tea, alternatively you could chew coca leaves as many of the local people do. This is perfectly legal, and is neither addictive nor damaging to your health (it is not the same as cocaine, which is processed from these leaves).
4. Take it easy - if you feel the effects, try not to do very much and just relax. Going hiking or participating in any other strenous activity the day after you arrive at 3500 metres is not sensible - Inca Trailers take note.
5. Acetazolamide (Diamox) is a medicine that effects the acidity of the blood, and increases the availability of oxygen in the lungs - this will help you to acclimatize faster. You should be able to purchase acetazolamide tablets in a pharmacy. You could also try herbal remedies such as allspice, carrot seed, bayleaf, marjoram and cinnamon, all of which can be used to treat high altitude sickness.