My Embarrassing Struggle with Altitude Sickness in La Paz, and 7 Ways to Avoid It
La Paz is close to 4000m above sea level, the highest capital city in the world and most certainly the highest place I have ever visited. I was so excited to see it and hadn’t even given the possibility of altitude sickness a thought. You see, I’m one of those lucky people who doesn’t suffer from anything – no allergies, medical problems, nothing. But man alive, high altitude is my Achilles heel!
Firstly, never have I ever (I feel I should be shouting DRINK here, but anyways) got out of breath just from getting out of bed and walking to the loo. And if I was having to go up a ladder to the top bunk, well I thought I was gonna pass out. The air is so much thinner here and I was seriously feeling it. Secondly, my stomach was in pieces. It felt like it had been pumped up like a balloon, and well, I’m sure you can guess what that meant (I still feel bad for the nice American guys stuck in a dorm with me, sorry). And thirdly, I spent 90% of my time feeling like my head wasn’t attached to my body – it was just so fuzzy all the time that I didn’t know whether I was coming or going.
So instead of taking it easy for a couple of days to give my body time to adjust, I decided to just crack on and explore La Paz just as I would have in any other city – on foot for about 10 hours a day. Here’s a tip if you’re struggling with the altitude in La Paz; don’t try and push through it as the hard nose method of shut-up-and-get-on-with-it ain’t gonna work here. And as a result of me being an ignorant and stubborn idiot, I ended up having to stay in the hostel room for a couple of days, barely eating or doing anything.
What’s worse is that the minute I felt slightly better, I was straight back out there and decided to book onto the death valley bike ride. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a terrifyingly amazing experience but when I was throwing up out the side of the minibus on the way home and then on the streets of La Paz, maybe I should have thought about it a bit more. Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?
So to avoid all the mistakes I made while I was in La Paz, I’ve done some research on different methods for easing altitude sickness so you’re not vomiting in public like me. Don’t let my rather rough sounding story put you off visiting though- La Paz is an amazing city to explore and you really can’t miss it!
Give yourself time to acclimatise
Don’t think you’ll be fine like I did. Plan your visit to allow for a few does of not doing too much and don’t exert yourself. The air is thinner, there’s less oxygen and your body needs time to produce more red blood cells to counteract this.
Altitude anti sickness pills
I’m a bit of a medicine fanatic, although I never take anything unless I absolutely need to. However, if you can get your hands on Soroche/Diamox pills at least 24 hours before you head to La Paz, then it might be worth a go.
Coca leaves/coca tea
So this one sounds like it’s pretty hit or miss, but many people use coca to help relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness. You can either chew on the leaves and store them in your cheek (attractive) or make it into a tea. They’re easily available in Bolivia and Peru and the locals seem to swear by them, so why not!
So this may not exactly ease altitude sickness, but keeping hydrated when the body is under stress is important. It can be especially important if (like me) it causes you to get an upset stomach.
stay off the booze
Yes, I know, how boring, but it obviously completely counteracts the rule of keeping hydrated, and remember it stays in your system for 24 hours afterwards too.
Again, not the best thing to imagine if this is your thing, but you’re already going to struggle to breathe so smoking is going to make things that bit harder and take your body longer to adjust to the altitude.
Use an oxygen tank
Now, I never saw this in the hostel I was staying in, but some accommodations do have oxygen tanks for guests to use to help ease their altitude sickness. I think I would have definitely given this a go if it had been available to me, even if I would have looked a bit dramatic using it!