Mural in Ibarra, Ecuador
Altitude sickness hit me in Cusco’s Plaza Grande. My head felt oddly heavy and stepping up a short flight of stairs turned into an endurance test. I live at sea level and should’ve expected the repercussions of jumping from Lima to over 11 thousand feet. Although I’d taken an herbal altitude sickness concoction, even though I chewed Coca leaves, and drank the tea, for over ten days I was plagued with symptoms. They weren’t unusual – a fluctuating pain in my head, a weakness in my legs, every step a grasp for breath, trouble sleeping, and even vomiting a few times! Fighting altitude sickness is not fun.
Determined to avoid all that the next time I ventured over six thousand feet, I took a prescription altitude sickness pill before a conference in the mountains outside of Denver. Landing was easy. Getting out of the airport and onto a shuttle went smoothly (one of my favorites for the cool architecture that mimics snow-covered mountains.) The Diamox prescription worked, however, out of a range of possible side effects, my fingers started tingling and that didn’t stop for the three days I was at the conference. My fingers stopped tingling quickly after I returned to downtown Denver and stopped taking the medication.
On my latest trip, I flew into Quito, Ecuador, with an altitude of over nine thousand feet. Again, landing went smoothly enough but once out of the terminal I needed water. The shuttle driver directed me to a Fybeca Pharmacy, outside the terminal, saying, “It will be much cheaper there.” I trust local advice and followed him across to the shop. Two large bottles of water and $1.60 later, we were gliding along the freeway into downtown Quito.
The Angel in Quito
Extra water daily can help to fight altitude sickness
I had been told by many that chugging water, as much as I am able, would ease altitude sickness. However, the Institute for Altitude Medicine suggests that an additional liter and a half of water is safest. Otherwise, they suggest that reducing normal sodium levels may cause weakness, etc. I wonder if you eat salted foods – hard to avoid when traveling – if your sodium levels would be at real risk.
My altitude sickness test began in earnest over the next three days as I explored the Quito. Chugging soda wasn’t an option for me. Likewise with juice or sweet tea. They contain too much sugar and I discovered that only water seemed to relieve the headaches and weakness.
Quito is a city built on hills between a mountain and a deep river gorge. It’s spread out long and thin due to the geography – about four miles wide East to West and thirty miles long. I was staying in Old Town with its rolling hills and narrow streets. While the headaches lessened over my days, the weakness came and went. I kept drinking water whenever I thought about it and took a few Ibuprofen tablets to help with minor aches. It worked. By the second day, I was comfortable and able to keep up with companions.
Cruce – Crosswalk sign in Quito, Ecuador
Downsides to drinking much more water:
Drinking a lot of water, or any diuretic means finding bathrooms often. Luckily, in Quito that was not a problem. Stop in for a coffee? “Donde es banos?” Where is the bathroom? I slipped into a hotel lobby more than once. Every church visit or meal meant I asked about the toilet. It wasn’t a problem. All were free and very clean. That area of the city is ancient so toilet paper goes into receptacles in each stall. Actually, it’s a trend across Ecuador and throughout Mexico. Quito takes pains to collect garbage out of public areas and I encountered the smell of bleach more than once.
Recycling bins are all over Ecuador
About drinking water in South America
Don’t drink the tap water in Quito. Ask if water is filtered when you eat at restaurants. The same follows for Mexico. Plastic bottles are an unfortunate necessity but throughout Ecuador, there are recycling bins. If I were to return, I’d travel with a refillable bottle and a purifying system. There are several on the market. Fortunately, Quito is serious about recycling and most trash receptacles are split into sections to make plastic disposal easy.
Don’t let altitude sickness affect your adventures or keep you from seeing the beautiful, high places on the planet!
Perhaps you’ve experienced this? I’d love to hear your recommendations and stories. Tell me in the comments below about how you managed altitude sickness.
More Altitude Sickness tips:
- Altitude sickness can be related to a number of physical challenges. Generally, there’s a higher rate of water vapor lost from the lungs at higher altitudes.
- The Institute for Altitude Medicine suggests that avoiding caffeine might provoke headaches. Those of us addicted to our morning coffee could experience headaches if we stop drinking it quickly. There may be a likelihood of dehydration due to the diuretic effects.
- Get emergency treatment if you have life-threatening symptoms!