Tag Archives: altitude

Lakes, llamas and flamin’ flamingos

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Exploring the lakes on the Uyuni tour in Bolivia

Imagine days chock-full of reds and greens and some of the highest lakes in the world. Throw in a few llama sightings to keep the cute factor high and some pale pink flamingos for the bird spotters. Drive between places through desolate desert landscapes. And there you have it. A tour for those who want to see loads of spectacular nature with minimum personal input required. Food and accommodation sorted. Pay your money, off you go. Enjoy the ride.

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Curious roadside llamas

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Anyone fancy a llama cuddle? Although, on second thoughts, she looks a little stern

No wonder my guide Gonzalo sometimes wished he could take a longer tour, say maybe ten days, to really allow time to soak up some of the beauty. But who would want to spend out on such a long tour when you can do the lot, get your pictures and move on for half the price? Ah, the pity and absurdity of our busy, self-inflicted schedules.

So on Day 2 of the tour south west of Uyuni in Bolivia we started off with a teaser of lesser lakes before we drove onwards towards the two most significant ones: Laguna Colorada and Laguna Verde.

Laguna Colorada sits at 4,500m and even on this slightly dull day, she greeted us with a spectacular show of red tinted waters and shores freckled with flamingos and white borax deposits.

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Laguna Colorada quite convincingly showing us her colours

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Flamingos

No other humans were present. It was just us, thin air and some hungry birds chomping on colour altering algae. And a dusty surround with makeshift roads along which two other tour jeeps sped off into the distance, their bellies full of tourists in a rush.

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Dust trails

‘Time to go!’ shouted Gonzalo. Quick, quick. Everyone back in the cars. Off we went.

Give me another lake!

Okay. Laguna Verde. Laguna Verde sits ‘at the base of the Lincancabor volcano’ at an estimated altitude of between 4,300 and 6,390m. I had no idea we were heading that high. No wonder the altitude got me. Overcast skies didn’t give us the copper green waters that one can expect to see on a sunny day so those hoping for a winning photo were a little disappointed. We did a group photo instead. One, two, three, jump.

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Group shot at Laguna Verde (me third from the left)

I like to spend a few moments by myself to take in the stillness of lakes. Unlike my first love, the sea which feels alive with movement and constant change and turmoil, lakes instil that sense of deep calm that can occasionally spill over into eeriness. Not here though. Nothing to fear, no weird vibes, no danger alerts. Just lonesome lakes, visited every now and then by groups of creatures sporting compact cameras.

But on the morning of Day 3, I can’t say that I was overly excited about getting up early to visit yet MORE lakes. My preference would have been to go slower and enjoy the views of the early ones, stop for a picnic, that kind of thing.

The weather turned cold. Icy blasts whipped us as we jumped out of the jeeps to gather around the various lakesides. Lauguna Kata, Laguna Kachi, Laguna Churungkani. Pretty lakes. Lakes surrounded by grey, brown landscapes and snow-capped mountains and piles of rockiness. It’s difficult to know what else to say. I became a bit lake-blinded, lake-spoilt.

It started to snow and with hats and scarves we enjoyed the falling flakes before retreating to the warmth of the vehicles. The short stops soon became a blessing.

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Grass tufts and cloud covered snow caps

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Moodiness as the weather closes in

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The crew just before the snow came down

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A bit of cloud cover

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Alright, geyser

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Am I still on Earth?

The smell hits me, slaps me around the face. I’m in any case feeling queasy from high altitudes and now I’m back out of the jeep, wandering around gurgling mud pools at over 5,000m.

I’m in Bolivia and it’s Day 2 of my Uyuni tour where I’ve been cruising around in a jeep with five guys, a guide and a driver. There’s a second car in the group containing a far politer and better behaved bunch. Two blonde German girls and a minx of a Brit brunette are part of that mix and the boys in my car lightly tease each other about who has taken a fancy to whom.

On this tour we’ve already visited the train graveyard, we’ve let our imaginations run wild on the salt flats and we’ve spent our first night in a primitive and cold (yet mostly comfortable) hostel in Villa Mar.

And now, here, we’re drifting dreamily in a pitted landscape of strangeness and smells, sulphery smells that compete with my early impressions of Rotorua in New Zealand. Maybe they’re even stronger. I feel a bit dizzy and sick.

It’s a matter of timing my run along ledges between geysers spurting boiling sludge. They don’t shoot as high as I expect, but I’ll take my guide’s advice on the temperature. Third degree burns? Nah, it’s not something I want to add to my ailment list.

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Beautifully bizarre and alien

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Geysers and geezers

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Gurgling, popping, cooking

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Hubble bubble and wait for the spurt

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How do you know that you’re altitude sick?

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.

The rest of my crew hang out in the hot pool whilst I curl up across the backseat of the jeep

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’re meant to care for me, not kill me! (in all seriousness, thanks so much Nathalie and Carl)

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.

Luxury accommodation in the guise of a simple stone building

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.

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*It could be you is the UK National Lottery’s tagline

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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.

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