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Altitude sickness: effective remedies

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

It's hard to imagine what altitude sickness looks like when you've never experienced it, I'll tell you about my experience in South and Central America and some tips to make your stay a little more pleasant.

Rainbow mountain, Pérou : jusqu'à 6000 m d'altitude
Rainbow mountain, Peru: up to 6000 m altitude

Having visited Peru twice, as well as Bolivia, Colombia and Argentina, I can tell you a bit about it. I have felt altitude sickness in Ecuador at Cotopaxi, and on many bus trips in South America and Central America; as well as in Guatemala during the ascent of Acatenango. People often ask me if altitude sickness is that much worse? I would tell you that it depends on each person, your physiognomy, if you are tired, if you have just arrived by plane, if you decided to take a shot the day before! ;) I remember that on my first visit to South America in 2014, I didn't feel much when I arrived in Cusco, except for the fact that I felt terribly heavy and out of breath. On the other hand, my traveling companions had heartache during the 12 hour bus ride between Lima and Cusco. It's a far from pleasant feeling, but you get used to it over time. You will be amazed to see the locals running up the mountains and the stairs, when you, on your side, simply have difficulty walking on the sidewalk! In 2019, in Peru, I had terrible headaches, enduring the pain all day and wanted to go to bed very early for 5 days. Afterwards, my body was finally used to it, and I was able to take full advantage of the activities. Please do not buy the drugs that the travel clinic nurse will try to sell you… I offer you a natural remedy (and really cheaper too) that has been proven since the beginning of civilization in the Andes mountain range: coca leaf! It could simply be mistaken for a bay leaf, or a tree leaf… Yes, indeed, it comes from the same plant as cocaine, but it is completely legal.

La feuille de coca dans une tienda en Bolivie, vendue au poid
The coca leaf in a tienda in Bolivia, sold by weight

It is sold in markets, tiendas (convenience stores), grocery stores… in original format, herbal tea, sweets, lozenges, chocolates… for having tried several formats, it is the pure leaf that has proven the best. You can consume it as an herbal tea, or, for a quick effect: take about 5 to 10 leaves and chew them like a gum. In the long run, you will get the little juice from the leaves. You will probably have a numb tongue, this is completely normal. You will see that the taste is not very good… but isn't it the remedies that taste the worst that are the most effective? :) I guarantee you will see your headache go away. The coca leaf is considered a superfood. Not only is it the best remedy for altitude, but it also helps with digestion. The only drawback is that it can be easily found in Peru, Bolivia and near the Bolivia-Argentina border, but a little less accessible in other parts of South or Central America.

Always a little more accessible only in Peru: add to the coca leaves another ''grandmother'' remedy that the locals use called ''Agua de Florida'', it is a yellowish liquid and used from a little more spiritual way sold in a small bottle. I remember our guide made us try it during our expedition on the Inca Trail in 2014, and we friendly nicknamed it the “condor piss” for fun! The reality is that it had helped us greatly, and it smells very good, no kidding! Spread a small amount in your palms and rub in, then breathe into your hands. The ancients used this essence to cleanse the energies. Agua de Florida should work…if you believe it!

Agua de Florida, Pérou
Agua de Florida, Peru

A third and last natural remedy that the locals offer and which is accessible everywhere is, you may have guessed it, dark chocolate. Also, simple aspirin or advil can help a lot! The goal of all of these remedies is to speed up your blood rhythm and "clear" it to renew your blood cells more quickly. Being higher in altitude you have less oxygen in your blood and therefore it is harder for your body to get rid of carbon dioxide, which is why you feel dizzy. The last piece of advice I would like to give you is to take your time. Breathe! Tour guides are used to this phenomenon, no one will ever push you to hurry. In fact, it can be extremely dangerous. Think scuba diving, but the other way around! The strain on your body and brain could hurt you beyond repair. Enjoy the scenery a little longer, and relax!

Cotopaxi, Équateur, à environ 4500 m d'altitude
Cotopaxi, Ecuador, at about 4500 m altitude

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