Machu PicchuPERU: After living near sea level for years it shouldn’t have been a surprise to encounter altitude sickness on a trip to Peru. Of all the exciting planning, I never imagined that my entire trip would be impacted by lingering weakness and headaches – Altitude sickness.  For more than a week I suffered from clear symptoms of AMS (acute mountain sickness).

If you’ve had similar experiences please let me know how you handled them in comments below and know that the following stories are based on my personal experiences. Altitude sickness can be avoided and this post is an effort to help you enjoy the journey more than this writer did.

Before leaving San Diego, I’d visited a travel physician for his recommendations but decided to use an herbal remedy instead of his prescription for altitude sickness. The drug’s side effects were troubling especially, I thought, with my sensitive system. While there are different natural formulas, I took Gingko Bilboa to counteract the altitude. Perhaps it works well for others, but it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t be one of them.

On the first night of a ten day trip exploring Peru my group stayed in Lima. We were at sea level and the night was steamy. The hotel was modest but comfortable and after a few excited hours trying to sleep we headed out for a dawn flight to Cuzco.

The mountain city was gorgeous the morning that we landed, with an unfamiliar luminousity. Perhaps it was being at about 11,000 feet quite suddenly but everything seemed magical. We stayed for two days, exploring the main square, doing a bit of shopping and venturing out into the hillsides for ceremonies with our Quechua guide.

On the second day I started feeling weak, had trouble keeping food down and took to chewing Coca leaves along with the locals. My herbs never helped and for the rest of the trip I was the last to walk up many ancient stairs, the last to climb out of the jungle trails near Machu Picchu. It was a challenging time but I remain grateful that I was able to see and climb and experience so many sacred sites. My symptoms subsided quickly once we returned to sea level. To recover from altitude sickness, the most common suggestion, the surest cure is to return to a lower altitude.

One caveat: Our Quechua guide had another explanation for my lingering queasiness. He suggested after the first few days of the trip that I was sensitive to some of the lingering effects of violence that had happened at some of the sites! If there had only been some perks to that scenario!Denver Hotel Lobby

Distress in Denver: 

My next alpine adventure was a business trip. After a short presentation in Chicago, I flew to Denver. We landed at the picturesque DIA with its white peaked roof on the plains outside of town. Steep mountains rose in the distance and soon I was rolling along in a van on the way to Keystone and the TBEX conference.

This time I took my physician’s advice and the altitude medicine I had been prescribed seemed to be working (Acetazolamide – Diamox). The dosing began the day before I left for Chicago and continued for the next five days. It’s not often I take drugs and I was sure the rumored symptoms would be manageable. They were.

First, I noticed that when I paused and closed my eyes for a few moments, an odd vibrating light-headedness rose up from my chest. I got up and moved more, drank more water and waited it out. I’d been warned that sleep could be compromised but as I took the medication early in the afternoon and had no trouble getting to sleep. The next symptom was a tingling in my finger tips and toes when I moved suddenly. It was a strange sensation but didn’t dent my days.

Unhappily that wasn’t the case for many of the speakers and other conference attendees.  There were horror stories about the first after-party. Everyone had to ride the gondola up to a mountain peak and many had a hard time keeping food down or suffered from splitting headaches. I also heard that headaches dogged others for the next two days, disrupting sleep and worse.

My conference was a relative breeze and I stopped taking the medication on the my last day at Keystone. By the time I was exploring downtown Denver the tingling fingers were gone.

How have you dealt with altitude sickness?