How I Dealt With Altitude Sickness in Peru and Bolivia

How I Dealt With Altitude Sickness 

in Peru and Bolivia

Yes, the dreaded altitude sickness hit me while I was traveling through parts of South America. 

I knew about altitude sickness because my sister had gotten it when she went to Peru, so I had a feeling I would get it too. 

It started slowly in Peru after I left Arequipa. While on the bus I started to feel weird and by the time we reached Puno I was not OK. I felt pressure on my head and I had a hard time breathing.

What is altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), is a condition that can occur when a person ascends to high altitudes too quickly, typically above 8,000 feet (2,400 meters). At these high altitudes, the air pressure and oxygen levels are lower, which can cause a range of symptoms that affect the body's ability to function properly.

Altitude sickness symptoms can vary in severity and may include headache, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and difficulty sleeping. In severe cases, altitude sickness can lead to fluid buildup in the lungs or brain, which can be life-threatening if left untreated.

To prevent altitude sickness, it is recommended to acclimate to high altitudes slowly by gradually ascending to higher elevations and allowing time for the body to adjust. Drinking plenty of fluids, avoiding alcohol and caffeine, and taking medication such as acetazolamide can also help prevent altitude sickness. If symptoms do occur, descending to a lower altitude is the most effective treatment.

The beginnings of altitude sickness 

The thing is, one of the reasons I decided to take a bus on my Peru trip is so that it would lessen the chance of altitude sickness. At least, that's what I hoped would happen!

While in Puno, I decided to take a day tour to Lake Titicaca and visit Uros. Uros is a group of 70 or so small artificial islands located in Lake Titicaca, which is situated on the border between Peru and Bolivia. The islands are made entirely of reeds, and the Uros people, who have lived in the area for hundreds of years, have constructed their homes, boats, and even their islands out of the same material.

The Uros islands are considered to be one of Peru's top tourist attractions due to their unique construction and the traditional way of life of the Uros people who live on them. We took a boat ride to explore the islands to learn about the Uros culture and traditions. 

The tour distracted me but by the time I got into bed, the headache started to intensify. I had bought sorochi pills and took a couple before going to sleep. In the morning, I drank some coca leaf tea which a tour guide had recommended. And then we were off to Copacabana.

How I was able to still travel with altitude sickness

Unfortunately, there are a lot of hills in Bolivia! It was so hard walking up a short hill to the immigration at the border. I had a large rolling luggage that was impossible for me to drag. There were some officers standing by the entrance and I asked them for some help with my bags and they were kind enough to bring them up for me!!

I definitely felt overwhelmed when I got to Copacabana, which is on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. The way to the hotel was up several hills and I definitely couldn't do the uphill walk. Luckily, some tour guides were around and I asked for help getting a car. 

I was so glad to get a car and a driver! I booked it for a couple of hours to see the beautiful town square, buy some groceries, and get up to my hotel. Oh, and I got some more sorochi pills and painkillers too.

But, the headache intensity increased even more and I barely had any dinner before falling asleep. When breakfast came along, I was so nauseous when the plate of fried eggs was placed in front of me. Needless to say, I hired another car to get back down to the meeting area for the bus to La Paz, Bolivia. 

During my one-day layover in La Paz, I had to walk super slowly to go anywhere. I decided to take a cable car tour so that I could see the city surrounded by mountains and that was a good decision. It was nice to see the city and the different neighborhoods. The headache was still there, but I didn't feel nauseous anymore, so it felt like that was the worst of my altitude symptoms.

I continued onto Uyuni to see the Salt Flats and the nature reserve with a tour group. The Salar de Uyuni is a bucket list destination and it is fantastic to see the vast salt flats. There is a lot to do at the Salt Flats and nature reserve. You can easily spend a couple of hours taking pictures and hanging out at the salt flats. The rest of the nature reserve is full of llamas, flamingoes, and unique landscapes. 

But it is Bolivia! We went even higher up into the mountains and I was popping painkillers every couple of hours. The tour guide gave me some coca leaves and ash to chew on. I'm not sure if it was effective, but it kept my breath fresh smelling! The sights were so beautiful and going there was the highlight of my trip. 

Seeing Peru with moderate altitude sickness

The good thing was that I went through the acclimatization process and my body adjusted to the high elevation. Peru has a lower elevation than Bolivia, so the rest of my trip back to Peru was better. I immediately knew that because I had to trace my way back through Copacabana and Puno. Walking up and down the hills was doable, but I still had to take it slow!

Though Cusco has a higher altitude, so I was a little scared about what would happen. Luckily, I only had mild altitude sickness the rest of the trip. I still got headaches so I continued to take sorochi pills and painkillers. There were some herbal remedies too, like coca candy and Agua de Florida to smell; it's a bit minty and refreshing. 

I'm not into hiking so I wasn't booked on an Inca Trail tour. Instead, I booked a day trip to Aguas Calientes in the Sacred Valley to see Machu Picchu. For the Machu Picchu tour I opted to take the bus up to the site because there was no way I could walk up there. 

Rainbow Mountain was on my to-do list and a fellow traveler mentioned taking an ATV tour to see the colorful site. That was a magical day and even though I was feeling better, I still had mild symptoms. The half day trek from Checaupe would have been super hard for me, so I'm glad there was another option. By the end of the ATV ride, one of the people in the group was having a hard time breathing and needed oxygen. And when we got back to Cusco, she also threw up. That was one of the worst reactions to altitude sickness that I saw.

Is it worth it to travel with altitude sickness?

You will never know if you will get altitude sickness or how hard it will hit you. In my case, it wasn't bad enough for me to cancel my whole trip. I ended up spending a bit more on transportation but I think it was worth it! The Salt Flats in Bolivia and Cusco and Machu Picchu in Peru were amazing and seeing those places were the best memories I have.