Tag Archives: sickness

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.


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


Filed under activity & sport, bolivia, health, south america, tours

Doctor! Doctor! I think I swallowed a parasite

I debated whether to include this post, whether to blog about more private, gross moments of travelling. The Guardian’s advice on travel blogging is to ‘avoid tales of personal mishaps – missed buses, diarrhoea, rain – unless pertinent to the story’. I read it too late.  I have already written about my stomach grumbles on a couple of occasions. Why stop now? Realistically, not everything about travelling is to do with sunsets and social times; some parts are about being ill and weak and by yourself. This is real life, real travelling.

Roberto (yet another Roberto!), one of the guys running the show at Hostal Transilvania, Baños had said to me: ‘Go to the doctor. No drink beer. No good for stomach.’ He was concerned. ‘Tal vez proxima semana’, I told him. I could wait a week, I thought. Everyone gets tummy bugs. They pass.

I had another really rough night and was woken at 6:00 am by yet another marching band and startling fireworks. I felt weak and tired and bored of the gurgling and bloating and peeing out of my arse. I cancelled my morning meet-up and decided: it was time.

Roberto ordered a taxi and came with me to the doctors, a big, empty building with a wide view of the snowcapped Tungurahua volcano and friendly staff with a good grasp of English. Initial consultations over with nurse then doctor, I then had to…ahem… produce a sample to assess whether it was parasitical, bacterial or fungal. And, after days and days of explosive activity, it just wouldn’t happen. The irony. I gulped down water, walked around the bathroom, massaged my bloated belly, visualised. Nothing. I could hear the doctor and nurse and Roberto outside and I wanted to scream at my body ‘just work with me’.

Eventually, they were able to run some tests, and sure enough, I had picked up two loads of waterborne parasites (Quistes de Ameba histolitica and Quistes de Giardia Lamblia) and they were having a party in my gut. The doctor suggested I could have caught them when swimming in the jungle or from eating contaminated food. Unlucky.


Loaded up with pills and prescriptions (and drawings of the ‘funny’ parasites, thank you nurse), I paid my $23 and taxied back. ‘Tomorrow you will start to feel better’, the doctor said. I couldn’t wait.

The medicine (Metronidazole 500g) made me seriously sleepy. My mouth peeled inside and to start with I felt nauseous. But it made me better. By day three I was starting to feel back on form. Adios giardiasis. Chao amebas.


Filed under culture, ecuador, food & drink, health

Montezuma’s revenge, strike 2

On the bus, my belly started to grumble. It wasn’t a good sign. Maybe I needed food? At a roadside stop I didn’t fancy all the usual snacks and picked up a banana from a fruit stall. The woman wouldn’t sell it to me. Said it wasn’t meant for eating, needed to be cooked first. In the end she gave it to me, refused to take any money. My guess is it was plantain. It was a little… different… but it gave me some energy to keep me going a little while longer.

Arriving back into Quito and it all started to go wrong. The next day came, and I was in a mess. So much for my stronger stomach following the last bug. The old Emperor Montezuma was laughing at me, getting his revenge on my gringo ways, tarring me with the same brush as the Spanish invaders all those many, many years ago. It was my Spanish teacher who told me to look up Montezuma II:

Montezuma II (also spelled Moctezuma II) was Emperor of Mexico from 1502 to 1520 and was in power when the Spanish began their conquest of the Aztec Empire. The sickness, colloquially known as the ‘squits/runs/trots’ and more formally as ‘Traveller’s Diarrhoea’, is usually caused by drinking the local water or eating food that visitors aren’t accustomed to. It is a bacterial illness, always uncomfortable, and occasionally serious. Most cases are caused by the E. coli bacterium.

The revenge element of the phrase alludes to the supposed hostile attitude of countries that were previously colonized by stronger countries, which are now, in this small but effective way, getting their own back.

It wasn’t the banana, it wasn’t necessarily the milkshake that I had before leaving Mompiche, but it most certainly wasn’t fun.

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Filed under culture, ecuador, health, south america, travel

Super sick, super quick

Well, it got me. The best thing about this? At least it’s happened early on in the trip. Surely now my gut must be ready for anything!

But what’s the etiquette if you’re sharing a dorm room when you’re constantly running to worship the toilet? I contemplated moving into my own room with it’s own bathroom but then realised that, by staying put, if I got really bad then at least people would be around to see me go down…! As it turns out, they were really sweet and offered to help me out.

People tell me that it normally lasts three days, so I got lucky with a short severe bout. I puked, I cried with pain and all the rest, but this is travelling, right?!

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Filed under ecuador, health, south america