When planning a trip to Bolivia you are bound to read a lot about altitude and meters. Virtually every destination description for the country mentions how many meters high the area is located. When coming from areas closer to sea level, the meters don’t really matter. From zero to even 2000 or so meters from sea level, one hardly notices the change in altitude. In Bolivia where the elevation can reach over 6,000 meters high, the effects of altitude on the body can be dramatic.
What is Altitude Sickness?
While there is a lot of talk about meters, there is little information on what the altitudes actually mean. Since at the high altitude that many of Bolivia’s popular are located visitors bodies can have a number of reactions, we thought it best we provide with relevant information so that you can effectively plan your trip.
There are three altitude regions that reflect how the body will act. High altitude is considered to be heights of 1500-3500 meters, very high altitude is between 3500-5500 and extreme altitude, anything above that. At 8000 and above it is considered impossible to survive. However, once the body enters an altitude of 2100 meters, the level of available oxygen in our blood begins to drop dramatically and the effects of the cloud gripping geographies are felt. The symptoms of altitude sickness, as the effects of altitude on the body are dubbed, are anything from a mild low-grade headache to pulmonary or cerebral edemas. Logically, the higher one ventures, the greater the risks.
How High is Bolivia, Really?
The seat of government and Bolivia’s largest city, La Paz has varying elevations that fall between 3200 in Zona Sur to 4100 meters closer to El Alto. Falling between the ranges of high altitude and very high altitude, the most common side effects felt in and around La Paz are shortness of breath when climbing uphill, increased heartbeat, nausea and lack of appetite. The presence of a mild headache is also common for the first few days in the city. Other popular Bolivian destinations that are high in elevation include Lake Titicaca which hovers around 3800 meters, the Salar de Uyuni at 3650 and the famed “City of Silver” Potosi at just over 4000 meters.
There are a number of popular hikes surrounding the city. Treks to Takesi and the Choro Trail bring outdoor enthusiasts to heights of 4650 meters. For those looking to do something a little more extreme, a climb up Illimani, which serves as the backdrop to the city, will have you facing an elevation of over 6000 meters.
Likewise, the glaciated Cordillera Real mountain range measures 125 kilometers at fairly constant heights of 6000 meters and more. Once acclimatized it is possible to spend several weeks at this elevation, though acclimatization can take roughly the same amount of time. If at heights of very high or extreme altitude, it is important to pay attention to symptoms that reflect possibly greater threats. Symptoms of HighAltitude Pulmonary and Cerebral Edemas include confusion, fatigue, congestion and unusual behavior. Additional, gait ataxia, or the inability to walk in a straight line, is a warning sign of the above and one in need of immediate attention.
Who Gets Altitude Sickness?
There is no predicting the effects of altitude sickness for any one individual.
For reasons that are not entirely understood, the effects of altitude sickness are common in men than they are in women, especially those at the prime backpacking age of 16-25 years old. To be safe, both men and women with existing respiratory problems are advised to stay in destinations a little closer to sea level.
How one will react to altitude has nothing to do with physical health. It is impossible to know how you will react until you get to high elevation, whether or not you have experienced the effects of altitude sickness before.
The good news is it is easy for the body to acclimatize to altitude; all you need is a little time and to follow a few easy guidelines.
Drink Lots of Water
Drinking a lot of water and staying hydrated is a must; people at higher altitude need much more water to function than they do at lower elevation. Drinking more water than usual can also help combat the common altitude headache.
Acclimatizing gradually has been proven to help reduce the side effects of altitude. This can be done simply be increasing your sleep elevation slowly, spending the days in between at higher altitude. By avoiding rapid ascents you body had the chance to adapt to the effects of decreased oxygen available in your system. This is especially true for those planning on venturing out on one of Bolivia’s many hikes. It is recommended to spend as much time in La Paz before your trek as you will on the climb.
Ask a Doctor About Medication
Additionally, visitors planning a trip to areas high in elevation can take prescription Diamox to help subdue symptoms. Coca de mate, or coca tea, is a popular local treatment. The tea is popular across Bolivia and is offered at most restaurants and hotels, especially those serving a foreign clientele.
Though altitude sickness can be overcome with a little time and a few travel tips, it is a sickness to be taken seriously. If you do not overcome symptoms of increased altitude within a few days or experience the indicators for extremely serious edemas, it is essential you get to lower altitude immediately.