Whilst doing the Uyuni tour, Dan, 18 from Scotland puked every day of the four day trip. His head pounded, he struggled to see straight and he missed some pretty special moments on the journey from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile over to Uyuni in Bolivia whilst he lay in the dark wishing that his breathing was less panicky so that he could sleep.
‘It is pretty much the worst I’ve ever felt’, he said, ‘back home I’m never unwell really, but this was killer’.
Of course it wasn’t a killer, although altitude and its effects shouldn’t be taken too lightly. People can and do die from acute mountain sickness but for most of us who get a good shooing by high altitudes, we just feel nauseous and may actually vomit, the pressure in our heads builds to unbearable levels, our breathing gets shallow and we can struggle to focus.
On Day 2 of my Uyuni tour I started to feel rough. The visit to the Train Graveyard and the salar on Day 1 had been fine, but today we were visiting some geysers and gurgling mud pools. And it wasn’t the smell that sent me into a spin, it was the 5,200m altitude that did it.
We drove over to a little place for food and I just about managed to force some down my gullet. The rest of my group lounged around in hot pools, laughing, flirting, toasting the landscape with a bit of beer or wine or whatever they had. I, quite frankly, couldn’t muster up the energy to care what they were drinking or doing. I wished that I was well enough to be with them but instead I was curled up in the back of our jeep. Any movement was a bad idea. My head pounded and my lunch threatened to throw up.
By the evening I was even less sociable and in quite a mess. Sick and tears and what felt like a fever were confining me to my bed or the bathroom. Every last bit of goodness exited my body, leaving me a miserable, retching wreck. A friend held my hair whilst I chucked. Oh, the small blessings in life.
‘You must tell me if you have chest pain’, said my guide Gonzalo after he’d brought a bucket and a mug of hot, sugary chacuma and coca leaf tea to my bedside. He wasn’t worried about my perpetual puking, and he didn’t seem particularly sympathetic to the cold concrete toilet floor that had become a close up familiarity as I paid my dues to the altitude demons. But chest pains? Different story.
‘Drink this. All of it’, he instructed. I sipped at it. It was sickly sweet. My stomach cramped. I wondered what if I’ve just been trying to ignore the signs and I’m actually one of the few people that gets seriously ill and dies from high altitude? I wonder if my travel insurance covers me to this altitude? I hope my family and friends know how much I love them.
Okay, I’m overdramatising somewhat, but I was zoning out into a world of temperature and delirium. Gonzalo seemed pretty unfazed by what felt like my bodies last attempt to demonstrate to me how crap it could be. He’d seen this so many times before, I guess. But why me? Why Dan?
I’d spent three weeks in Sucre at 2,750m, and then one night in Uyuni, which sits at 3,669m. Surely it was time enough to acclimatise? I even passed through Potosi – the highest city in the world at 4,070m – and felt nothing other than a slight daze. But because I was finishing yet another dose of antibiotics and codeine and whatever else, there is a small chance the medication enhanced my natural sensitivity to the altitude. Or maybe, altitude and me just aren’t a good partnership.
And Dan? I’ve heard from guides and other travellers that the route from San Pedro to Uyuni is tougher on the body, accelerating in altitude much quicker meaning there is little chance to adjust and higher chance of suffering the negative effects. In Dan’s group of ten people, three people felt terrible and went down the puking route. On my tour, I was the only one out of twelve of us that really had a bad time. Another girl struggled on and off with a bad head but seemed able to shake it off in between.
Statistics show that its highly unlikely you’ll actually die from altitude sickness but many backpackers I’ve talked to in Bolivia at least feel the effect of the lack of oxygen. Climbing stairs in Bolivia’s capital of La Paz, for example, leaves even the young fitties huffing and wheezing like ex-smoker OAPs.
But there is something undeniably cruel about being in such a beautiful place in the world and not being able to feel alive enough to run around and kiss the earth and shout at the sky. Or get in the hot springs with new friends.
That second night where we stayed at 4,200m, Gonzalo let me get on with emptying my stomach whilst being nursed by two wonderful beings. I finally fell into a drug induced sleep and awoke the following day to a calmer response; less intense symptoms. I could continue. No dramas.
‘The stuff I gave you works’, said Gonzalo, ‘every time’. Local knowledge and local herbs rule. Who knows what I really took. I’ve stopped asking when travelling. Take it and shut up and hope you get better. When you’re feverish and shaking and hurt to hell, you just want out. Quickly.
‘So you’re pretty used to dealing with this stuff then?’ I asked Gonzalo as I hungrily ate a pancake breakfast. ‘Yep. I knew you’d be okay. People are often ill.’ ‘Every trip?’ I asked him. ‘Pretty much’, he said.
So enjoy Uyuni, enjoy Bolivia but beware the altitude demons are waiting for someone. And maybe, for the first time in your life, you probably don’t want it could be you* to ring true.
*It could be you is the UK National Lottery’s tagline
- NOLS: High Altitude Tips – How to Stay Safe and Feel Good (adventureblog.nationalgeographic.com)
- Yak genome provides new insights into high altitude adaptation (esciencenews.com)
- Altitude Sickness Treatment Essentials (everydayhealth.com)