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Dealing with Altitude

kiliI'm frantically researching about altitude sickness and wanted to share what I'm discovering.  I'm not sure many people who book a trip to climb a mountain or reach a high altitude city realise what they are getting into until its too late.  I have experienced it before while trekking in Nepal and when climbing Mount Kilimanjiro in Tanzania and it can be totally disorientating, dangerous and at best like a hangover.  It can be more difficult to breath and sleep, you walk like an old person, often have a persistent headache and feel nausous or may be violently sick.  If you are flying in to see Machu Picchu for a couple of days, for example, it can ruin the whole experience.  It's good to take precautions.

There is no clear signal as to who will be affected by altitude sickness.  It can grip young and old, strong and weak alike.  In fact from my mountain climbing experiences often the young and fit were more affected as they raced ahead.  It is wise not to exert yourself, take things easy and not climb too quickly.  It is recommended that you drink plenty of water - perhaps twice your normal intake. Avoid alcohol - who wants a double hangover?

There are medicines that are recommended too - consult a doctor before your trip.  Diamox is the most popular and should be taken a day before you reach altitude. Ibuprofen can be effective in relieving an altitude induced headache. Cocoa tea or leaf are helpful too - do as the locals do.

The height that altitude can affect our bodies is from around 2400 metres.  Generally speaking, once over 3000m you should not sleep higher than 500m (some organisations recommend 300m) than the previous night and rest for one night at the same altitude every third night. You need time to acclimatise.  The mountaineer's rule is 'climb high, sleep low'. If your symptoms worsen you need to descend, or at the very least not ascent further.  This is no joke, if left untreated extreme high altitude sickness (HAPE or HACE) can be fatal.

salarUnfortunately the trip I am determined to do is to visit the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia starting from San Pedro de Atacama on the Chilean side.  I will stay in the Chilean desert for 4 days at 2400 meters before starting the tour.  This moon scape of salt and red and green lakes with pink flamingos is like no where on earth, but unfortunately it is all high.  Our first night on the Salar will be at 4500 metres - going against all the safety rules.  But tours run here and so many people rave about their experiences - despite the cold and basic facilities - that I can't bear the thought of being a stones throw away and missing it.  Maybe I will be one of the lucky ones who escapes problems.  It is a lottery afterall. 

Some tour operators avoid the issue of altitude altogether, irresponsibly giving travellers no warning at all. You need to ask lots of questions to get any real answers.  I had a great communication experience with Ruta Verde, a more expensive but respected option, who advised that I do the trip the other way around.  We want to also travel to La Paz and Machu Picchu.  Unfortunately with our ticket we can't reverse the route.

We have found a solution, although by no means an ideal one. My husband and children will do a more reasonable jump to La Paz at 3800 metres and meet me there.  We daren't take drastic risks with the kids.  And my other half very reasonably said that if it wasn't for me he wouldn't know these salt flats (the largest in the world) even existed.  He could see my pained expression at having to do the responsible thing and is allowing me to go alone.

Whilst travelling around Bolivia its impossible not to deal with some form of altitude issues. I'm surprised to see that there are flights from Santiago or Lima, for example, at around 500 metres above sea level that fly directly into La Paz at 3800 metres.  Surely every passenger is putting themselves at risk of altitude sickness?  Its hard to gauge the stupidity of making big altitude jumps when airlines are offering you the opportunity to do it.  Mind you, people smoke while knowing the dangers too. If you have the luxury of being a long-term traveller and can take your time, stopping at staggered positions of elevation en route you can largely avoid any problems.