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Bolivia Travel – Dealing with Altitude Sickness

Bolivia Travel

Bolivia Travel – Altitude Sickness in Uyuni

By far the most incredible place I have every been – Southwestern Bolivia. I know, I know… that’s a pretty big statement, but it is true. This Mars like desert landscape is simply unbelievable. My boyfriend and I did a 4-day tour of the area and had literally almost a thousand pictures by the end of it. It will blow your mind and if you are backpacking South America you have to put this on your to-do list.

That being said, if you do head to Bolivia, particularly Uyuni or the capitol La Paz, I have a little bit of bad news too – Altitude Sickness.

Bolivia Travel

Bolivia Travel – Uyuni 4×4 Tour

Traveling in Bolivia Highlands

Altitude sickness is well known by the mountaineering community, but for the average traveler/backpacker, it can hit you a little bit more off guard. The stereotypical image of a backpacker laying on a beach somewhere isn’t always too far off, but if you’re in South America and planning on heading up into the Andes (Bolivia, Peru, Chile, or Argentina) you need to be prepared.

Not everyone gets sick in high altitudes and as far as scientists are concerned, it’s almost impossible to predict who will get sick and who wont. In our case it was me who got sick while my boyfriend, who grew up in the high capital of Bogota, Colombia and smokes, was fine. Then again, we had people on our tour who had never been anywhere much higher than sea level their whole life and were also fine the whole trip. Body size, age, health… nothing seems to increase or decrease your chances of getting altitude sickness.

Bolivia Travel -  Uyuni 4x4 Tour

Highest Point on the Uyuni Tour – Geysers at over 5,000 meters

So what’s it like? Imagine you have a slight case of the flu and you’re a bit hung over and your stomach feels like you drank the local water from the tap… mix it all together and that’s about what altitude sickness feels like. Sounds fun, huh?

Now don’t let me scare your away from visiting Bolivia and don’t you dare miss an Uyuni tour because you’re worried about getting a bit sick. Altitude sickness sucks but being in the incredible scenery of Southwestern Bolivia will make up for it; I promise.

If you want to limit your chances of getting sick though, there are a few things you can do.

Bolivia Travel

Bolivia Travel – Uyuni Peaks over 6,000 meters above sea level

Slow Down

Try slowing your trip down around the time you start climbing into the Andes. Whether you are coming from Peru, Argentina, or Chile, take your time traveling up into the high central mountains and plateaus of South America. By traveling slow and spending a night or two sleeping at lower elevations, your body can slowly adapt to the higher altitudes. Too many people rush from the coast to the mountains without a break in between.

Buy Oxygen

If you’re coming from Cusco, consider bringing along an oxygen bottle. These small bottles of oxygen are sold to travelers visiting Machu Picchu, which is almost 2,000 meters lower than the highest point in the Uyuni tours, but are harder to find in Bolivia. They wont last you the whole trip but most people who get altitude sickness start adjusting to the altitude and feeling better within a day or two.

Bolivia Travel

Jumping on the Salar of Uyuni

Take it Easy

The best advice is to take it easy and drink lots of water. Your body is suffering because you don’t have enough oxygen so avoiding any extraneous activity is a good idea. The oh-so-popular jumping pictures might seem like a good idea but at 3-5,000 meters you’re going to want to put a bit more effort into getting the picture perfect on the first jump. Drinking water will also help since you loose more water due to heavy breathing in the thin air and the dry high altitude climate.

Take Altitude Sickness Meds

If you flying straight into Bolivia, without spending any time at a intermediate elevation and you’re worried about getting sick, you can ask your doctor for a altitude sickness medication. These medications have some lousy side effects and are usually reserved for people on mountaineering expeditions but they can be a nice backup, just in case your really do get a serious case of altitude sickness.

Try Some Coca Leaves

Bolivia Travel

Bolivia Travel – Coca Leaves – Photo by macield

If all else fails, stop by the local market and pick up some coca leaves. The native people of South America have been chewing coca for centuries thanks to its ability to alleviate mild altitude sickness symptoms. If you take the Uyuni Salt Tour, there is a very good chance your local Bolivian guide will be chewing coca and if you’re nice most Bolivians are more than happy to how you how it’s done.

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Colleen says:

I never would have thought of buying oxygen, but it makes perfect sense. That first photo is just stunning!

Isaac says:

Nice tips i didn’t know that you could buy the oxygen bottles, will keep that in mind

Dale says:

Hi;
I’ve enjoyed your site, well done!

I’m form Northern Canada and 50 years of age. I’m just starting to get “back into” backpacking from a 20 year lay-off. I backpacked solo around the world in my late 20’s mostly in Asia and some in Europe. Somehow along the way I “meet a girl” and took a break for the last 20 years to have a family. I have missed my travels ever since and would like to try my hand at getting back into things. However I must admit a bit older and out of shape. Getting back into things may not be that easy, but I want to try. I recently started things off in March of this year when I took my 16 year old son on a month long trip to Nicaragua. We rented a car and stayed at a few different places along the way (although that is not truly backpacking). I’ve also been to Mexico a couple times with my wife and 2 kids, but not the backpacking style. My plan this year is sometime in March-April to head to a central-south American country by myself for a few weeks (maybe a month or so) to take some Spanish lessons. In a few years (when the kids are on their own) I hope to be ready to continue my travels. I figure a good start is to learn Spanish, as Latin America interests me.

Do you have any suggestions for old “has been” backpacker like me that wants to get back into things?

Thanks, Dale

Dale, I don’t think your plans will vary much from a young backpacker these days. I see travelers of all ages in hostels in Central and South America. My advice is to search for hostels using hostelworld.com and hostelbookers.com. Read up on the reviews and avoid hostels that seem like party hostels. Party hostels will be filled with gap year students partying and that might not interest you. But, other hostels / guest houses will be perfect. Consider booking private rooms for more privacy. Hostels offer a lot services these days. They can inform you of tours and things to see and do. It makes it very convenient. Spanish helps tremendously, but isn’t absolutely necessary.

Great post and spectacular photos. It is good to know that you can buy oxygen bottles now. I went to Ecuador a few year ago and got altitude sickness climbing Cotopaxi. Was not a pretty feeling, but as soon as I descended I got better. I wish I had coco leaves or oxygen bottles at the time. I’ll bear that in mind when going to Bolivia.

I never saw the oxygen bottles in Bolivia… just around Machu Picchu and in Cusco. I think they are pretty expensive so they just sell them to the tourists coming from the big travel companies. The coca leaves work wonders but are really hard to use if you’re new to the taste. I found coca tea to be the best (and cheap) solution.

Victoria says:

Exvellent tips! Thanks for this. We’re in Salta at the moment but heading to Bolivia next so this will be really useful for us. excellent photos too!

Great tips, will take into consideration when I will be around there. So many people say that Bolivia is a great place to see and visit. There definitely is a pin on my map for Bolivia, I should be there by next spring.

Mike says:

What a great post. We just did the same 4*4 trip to the Salt Flats, we used Mistic Aticama out of Chile. What a blast right?

Totally agree it was one of our favorite parts of our 120 days in SA!!!!!! If you have a moment check out the post we just put live on our trip, and leave a comment if you like it :)
Rock on,
Mike & Anne

So many backpackers do the Salt Flats tour out of Uyuni which I think is a shame considering how much better the tours from Chile or Tupiza in Bolivia seem to be. Our Tupiza tour was amazing and I heard rave reviews about the tours coming from Chile. Oh, and your article has incredible pictures! You make me wanna head back right now!

Arianwen says:

Thanks for this info. I’m heading to S America in 2 weeks and will be spending a lot of time at high altitude. The Salar de Uyuni is definitely on my list, as is climbing Cotopaxi in Ecuador, at 5900 m, and Machu Picchu of course! I’ve got a few emergency tablets to treat the sickness if it strikes, but here’s hoping I’m one of the fortunate ones!

I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you. The majority of people I met in Bolivia and Peru didn’t have any symptoms so I think your chances are good. That being said, smart move to bring along the meds… just in case.

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