How to Prevent Altitude Sickness
Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist
“Popping out of clouds to clean, pristine air and blue skies
my head begins to throb and my stomach soon cries.
Can’t walk another step it feels like I’ve gotten a punch.
Hoping to feel right again before I eat my lunch.”
– Heather Markel, June 2019.
One of the things you’re guaranteed to experience in South America is high altitude. Bolivia and Peru may top the list but the north of Chile and Argentina have places over 5,000 meters (over 16,000 feet).
You gotta go up a few mountains to see some of the world.
Photograph by Heather Markel. Copyright 2019
I had a bad altitude experience in Vail, Colorado as a teenager. That was, um, a few years ago, so I decided to find out if I grew out of it. That meant I didn’t take the US drugs (Diamox) I have with me. I just went cold turkey. I certainly learned my limits. At about 4,300 meters (14,100 feet) my head suddenly ached. Not a headache but like pressure from the inside trying to get out. Worse yet a short while later my stomach felt like it literally flipped. A friend showed me her empty plastic water bottle which, in high altitude, had flattened. So you can begin to understand the impact of low oxygen on your body. Your organs feel squeezed and if you move too quickly you’ll realize it’s harder to breathe.
“It’s a choice – see something unique or avoid feeling awful.”
I’m a big fan of natural remedies over medecine so looked forward to drinking coca leaf tea. First, it’s what everyone uses in Peru which is higher than where I am. Second, I can claim I had cocaine! (Without actually doing drugs…) I was on a tour when the altitude got me, and, unfortunately, it was right before lunch. I actually thought something was wrong with my stomach because it really did feel like it moved. I asked the waiter for Coca tea but my bus driver, who was sitting next to me, told me that’s not for altitude sickness, it’s for stomach problems. This was the first I heard and it confused me because everyone in South America seems to talk about Coca leaves for altitude sickness.
The Altiplanacas, Atacama Desert, Chile.
Photograph by Heather Markel. Copyright 2019
“You need chachacoma,” he told me.
“Cha cha what now? And where do I find it?” was my reply. (Actually something like, “Cha cha que?” in Spanish….
I was directed to the artesenal shops and bought several packets of chachacoma. One person told me to put a spoonful of the herb into hot water at night and drink it cold in the morning. Another person told me I could let it infuse like tea and drink it right away. On my bus ride from San Pedro de Atacama to Purmamarca I had no idea, till I was there, that we’d ascend to almost 5,000 meters (16,400 feet.). My throbbing head knew. I ran to the hot water dispenser (yup busses here are equipped with the ability to cater to your caffeine needs) with my Styrofoam cup. I put some chachacoma in, waited a few minutes and drank the whole cup. My headache felt like it broke apart, then disappeared. It was like nature’s Excedrin except it worked faster and better. I had found a miracle cure for altitude sickness!! Except, apparently, I hadn’t.
In Purmamarca my hotel owner directed me to the pharmacy for what, apparently, is the real way to prevent altitude sickness; garlic lozenges. I asked the pharmacist for “pastillos por problemas de altura” and he got me a nice pack of the garlic lozenges. Then he informed me, with passion, “This is the only product that’s made for altitude sickness. People will tell you it’s coca leaves or chachacoma but they are all misinformed. Garlic lozenges are the only thing that works.” Well, we all stand corrected!
Though I keep getting different information I can only tell you that coca leaves and chachacoma both helped in the moment and using the garlic lozenges I ascended to about 4,300 meters two more times and had no problems. So, perhaps the garlic lozenges are good to prevent altitude sickness, and coca leaf and chachacoma can help remove symptoms if you get them, is my takeaway. That being said, I will probably try that Diamox drug if I go up really high. One thing none of these remedies will help you with is the unfortunate bloody nose you are likely to suffer, so be ready!
Have You Seen the Inspired Nomads Video Series?
I’m talking to people who, mid-career, gave up stability for a life of travel. Listen in for their stories. You might be inspired!