We felt the lack of oxygen. It was like not being able to breathe and fill our lungs, no matter how much we inhaled. It brought us dizziness and some headache too. And then, after a bit of physical effort (like going to get a cup of water), nausea – sometimes with vomiting.
But fear not: to most people, it’s mild and goes away quickly.
How to avoid it
The first thing to bear in mind is to acclimatize, which means go slowly and let your body adjust to the lack of oxygen gradually.
Instead of going straight to La Paz, we should’ve gone to Santa Cruz de la Sierra (416m or 1,365′), then to Sucre (2810m or 9,219’) and, for last, La Paz (3656m or 12,000 ft).
Spending a couple of days in each place before moving on is the best thing you can do, and the best chance for you not to feel it.
If you don’t do it, then… you may be one of the few lucky ones who actually doesn’t feel it or you may one of the majority who will be sick, at least for a few days.
How to treat it
Rest is your best medicine. Avoid any unnecessary physical activity. Take taxis. And rest as much as you can. Take a few days to rest, that’s the best thing, although I can’t tell you how many days you’ll need.
Drink lots of water, because you dehydrate a lot as you breathe faster and your body fights for oxygen. Water, juice, coca tea. Drink lots of liquids! Lots!
Then avoid alcohol – it dehydrates.
There’s a medicine called Sorojchi Pills too. It’s basically aspirin and caffeine (and not recommended for under 13) but they say it helps. We didn’t really try it. It’s sold by the unit and they’re quite cheap.
Coca leaves are pretty good, they give you a momentary boost of energy. Chew it, drink in teas, in chewing gum, in candies, there’s a wide variety for you to choose from.
Most hotels and hostels have a cylinder of oxygen for poor sick tourists, although I believe it’d take away the chance your body has to acclimatize, so think carefully. You can also buy a cylinder of oxygen, oxygen sprays or liquid oxygen (it’s a thing, apparently) before reaching La Paz (it’s pretty difficult to find it in Bolivia).
But, yes, rest and fluids all the time.
If your symptoms get worse after 1~2 days, seek medical attention because it is a problem that can cause death.
How to survive it
It took most of my family 3 days to feel well, which doesn’t mean they could just go trekking. It only means they were able to walk for 20 minutes without feeling death’s breath.
I, on the other hand, didn’t recover at all. I felt sick almost the whole time (with the exception of the time we were in Uyuni – don’t know how, since it’s actually higher). I could walk for 10 minutes, but then I needed to rest for 20 to be able to continue. And it lasted forever.
I felt it in La Paz, then in Cusco (for a day), and in Bogotá. I really don’t do well in high altitude.
But it’s not that bad, you just need to manage it. First of all, seek medical attention if your symptoms don’t improve after a couple of days or if you start feeling worse. But other than that, give your body the rest it needs. It may not be fun to stay confined, so take taxis, take breaks often, eat light healthy meals and always take water with you.
I needed to sit and wait until my dizziness subdued very often, so we knew we wouldn’t cover a lot of ground. We walked a bit, sat, had a drink, chatted, walked a bit more. And if we felt worse, we just had to head home.
I’ve also noticed that if I’m anxious or nervous, it gets worse. If I’m feeling relaxed and calm, I have good days. Try to breathe deeply (even though not much oxygen will get into your system) and relax. Listen to your body and you should be alright.
Have you ever had altitude sickness? Let us know how it was in the comments!