Altitude effects: Sad about the Santa Cruz

After some bad times dealing with the altitude around and about Huaraz, I realised that doing the five day Santa Cruz trek wasn’t going to be the best option and that what I needed was to get back down to lower ground. Others had managed to do it propped up on altitude medication but I didn’t fancy filling up with a load of drugs at this point. Churup and Pastoruri had been amazing, some good experiences and memories to take away from the area.

When chatting to others about how the altitude had affected them, the most common symptoms included:

  • A thick head with a lot of pressure around the frontal section. For me, going over bumps in the road was incredibly painful as my whole head bounced and hurt. One guy had a throbbing pain down one side of his face, particularly around the forehead, eye and jawline. A bit scary, particularly when you read up on what can happen when your body can’t cope.
  • Many people experience dizziness, particularly when standing up too quickly. Our guide suggested never taking a rest sitting or lying down, but rather to stay standing.
  • Shortness of breath. Going uphill is a real challenge as breathing in enough oxygen in the thin air is difficult (I was told that at 5000m there is only 1/5 of the oxygen here compared to the coast)
  • Feeling nauseous and actually being sick were common complaints. One Israeli woman I talked to couldn’t stop being sick on the way back from Pastoruri. It seems that coming back down from high altitudes can trigger altitude effects rather than just being at the highest point.
  • Accelerated muscle fatigue. Climbs in particular can seem like a real effort, even if you’re a fit person. Strangely, muscle aches (and shortness of breath) seem to quickly alleviate once you take even a short break.
  • This is a funny one but for some reason you can get a runny nose and a good case of the sniffles when reaching higher altitudes. Bring tissues!
  • Dehydration. You need to pack more water than you would usually think necessary and ensure you drink regularly, although I have also read about the risks of overdoing it and damaging your kidneys. (In terms of food, it is recommended to only eat light meals to help with the acclimatisation process).
  • The need to wee is an effect that many people experience when going to high altitudes. And I mean needing to go very, very often. It’s a weird one.

Some of the solutions to dealing with the effects of altitude, as offered by guides and sufferers, include taking a deep breath in to full lung capacity and trying to breath in a little bit more before holding it, and then releasing the air as slowly as possible.

Drinking coca tea, chewing on coca leaves or sucking coca sweets is also recommended.

Sorachi is a local medicine sold in capsule form to help alleviate negative effects of altitude (approximately S/.3 per capsule) but there is some scepticism about its usage, suggesting that it actually relies on caffeine and aspirin to perk you up. People who go for the full on treatment usually take two doses (either 125mg of 250mg) of Diamox per day, but again some of the side effects are really questionable including serious dizziness and strange tastes in one’s mouth.

Finally, many shops in places of high altitude sell oxygen in a canister. In Peru the most common is OxiShot, available in two sizes and costing upwards from S/.20. They’re a bit bulky but super light (of course!) and can be helpful whilst on a high altitude trek.

Some people are absolutely fine with the altitude, some people only feel light effects and others are just no good with heights at all. Like me. Another thing I’m figuring out about myself.

A useful site for information on altitude, its effects and possible treatments is The Travel Doctor (also great for any other medical travel questions). If you want something more in-depth then take a look at the Institute for Altitude Medicine’s website.


Filed under activity & sport, health, hikes, peru, south america

5 responses to “Altitude effects: Sad about the Santa Cruz

  1. Have you tried chewing the coca leaf? Very informative blog, I love info, and South America. Keep up the good work.

    • Yep, been chewing the coca leaf rather than the sweets… not so bad really… although I´ve only just learnt how to do it properly! Thanks for your comment.

  2. Pingback: Chao for now, South America « travelola

  3. I have heard of a drug called Diamox that helps alleviate altitude sickness. Maybe useful for the future.

    • Yep, I’ve heard of Diamox but also heard some mixed reviews about side effects and the like… it’s something I’ll consider in the future. Thanks.

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