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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.