My Embarrassing Struggle with Altitude Sickness in La Paz, and 7 Ways to Avoid It

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La Paz is close to 4000m above sea level, the highest capital city in the world and most certainly the highest place I have ever visited. I was so excited to see it and hadn’t even given the possibility of altitude sickness a thought. You see, I’m one of those lucky people who doesn’t suffer from anything – no allergies, medical problems, nothing. But man alive, high altitude is my Achilles heel!

Firstly, never have I ever (I feel I should be shouting DRINK here, but anyways) got out of breath just from getting out of bed and walking to the loo. And if I was having to go up a ladder to the top bunk, well I thought I was gonna pass out. The air is so much thinner here and I was seriously feeling it. Secondly, my stomach was in pieces. It felt like it had been pumped up like a balloon, and well, I’m sure you can guess what that meant (I still feel bad for the nice American guys stuck in a dorm with me, sorry). And thirdly, I spent 90% of my time feeling like my head wasn’t attached to my body – it was just so fuzzy all the time that I didn’t know whether I was coming or going.

So instead of taking it easy for a couple of days to give my body time to adjust, I decided to just crack on and explore La Paz just as I would have in any other city – on foot for about 10 hours a day. Here’s a tip if you’re struggling with the altitude in La Paz; don’t try and push through it as the hard nose method of shut-up-and-get-on-with-it ain’t gonna work here. And as a result of me being an ignorant and stubborn idiot, I ended up having to stay in the hostel room for a couple of days, barely eating or doing anything.

What’s worse is that the minute I felt slightly better, I was straight back out there and decided to book onto the death valley bike ride. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a terrifyingly amazing experience but when I was throwing up out the side of the minibus on the way home and then on the streets of La Paz, maybe I should have thought about it a bit more. Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?

So to avoid all the mistakes I made while I was in La Paz, I’ve done some research on different methods for easing altitude sickness so you’re not vomiting in public like me. Don’t let my rather rough sounding story put you off visiting though- La Paz is an amazing city to explore and you really can’t miss it!

La Paz is the world's highest capital city, sitting 4000m above sea level. The altitude here is something I, and many others, are definitely not used to and boy didn't I find out the hard way! Click to learn about my embarrassing story and how you can avoid it

Give yourself time to acclimatise

Don’t think you’ll be fine like I did. Plan your visit to allow for a few does of not doing too much and don’t exert yourself. The air is thinner, there’s less oxygen and your body needs time to produce more red blood cells to counteract this.

Altitude anti sickness pills

I’m a bit of a medicine fanatic, although I never take anything unless I absolutely need to. However, if you can get your hands on Soroche/Diamox pills at least 24 hours before you head to La Paz, then it might be worth a go.

Coca leaves/coca tea

So this one sounds like it’s pretty hit or miss, but many people use coca to help relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness. You can either chew on the leaves and store them in your cheek (attractive) or make it into a tea. They’re easily available in Bolivia and Peru and the locals seem to swear by them, so why not!

keep hydrated

So this may not exactly ease altitude sickness, but keeping hydrated when the body is under stress is important. It can be especially important if (like me) it causes you to get an upset stomach.

La Paz is the world's highest capital city, sitting 4000m above sea level. The altitude here is something I, and many others, are definitely not used to and boy didn't I find out the hard way! Click to learn about my embarrassing story and how you can avoid it

stay off the booze

Yes, I know, how boring, but it obviously completely counteracts the rule of keeping hydrated, and remember it stays in your system for 24 hours afterwards too.

Don’t smoke

Again, not the best thing to imagine if this is your thing, but you’re already going to struggle to breathe so smoking is going to make things that bit harder and take your body longer to adjust to the altitude.

Use an oxygen tank

Now, I never saw this in the hostel I was staying in, but some accommodations do have oxygen tanks for guests to use to help ease their altitude sickness. I think I would have definitely given this a go if it had been available to me, even if I would have looked a bit dramatic using it!

How did you cope when visiting a place at high altitude? Tell me below!

La Paz is the world's highest capital city, sitting 4000m above sea level. The altitude here is something I, and many others, are definitely not used to and boy didn't I find out the hard way! Click to learn about my embarrassing story and how you can avoid it

23 Comments

  1. Hi Laura!

    The highest place I`ve been was when I was in Sicily and did a hiking trail all the way up to the Etna vulcano – 3.350 meters above the sea. I`m just fascinated about vulcanos (this is my second one, the other one I went was the Vesuvius, the one that destroyed Pompei – I have a post about it on my blog).

    I didn`t get any altitude sickness over there but damn – I`m a pretty fit person, I have a part time job as a tour guide which sometimes means walking non stop for over 7 hours a day and I bike a lot – and still, was it hard to climb up there! It wasn`t even a very steep climb, but the air was so rarefied that I felt like an obese grandmother trying to climb the Everest. I was starting to think that maybe I had eaten two many Cannoli but then my Sicilian friend explained that it was because of the altitude.

    Anyway, I made it to the top and have the most beautiful photos of that lunar atmosphere, but girl, it wasn`t easy! Still definitely worth it! (I celebrated it with a glass of Nero D`Avola wine and yes, another Cannoli!) 😉

  2. Wonderful tips. I have been wanting to travel to Laddakh, India with my little girl. But I am afraid of altitude sickness so have been avoiding the place. Your tips are really helpful,will keep them in mind when I plan my trip

    • Laura - No Shoes Today on

      Thank to Neha. Altitude sickness isn’t fun, but remember, I did myself no favours! Just give yourself time and hopefully you will be fine. Have a wonderful time when you do go!

  3. So sorry you had to learn the lesson the hard way! I lived in Peru at high altitude for over a year and I STILL got altitude sickness sometimes if I went on a particularly high hike. The horrible thing about it is that it can get anyone at any time. It has nothing to do with your fitness levels.

  4. carrieemann on

    Wow, that’s really scary, especially if you’re flying in and can’t really acclimatize gradually or do a whole lot to avoid it. I struggled a bit when I landed in Quito, Ecuador (over 1,000 meters lower) — having trouble going up stairs, etc. Glad you recovered and still got to see some of La Paz!

  5. I’m sorry to hear that you had a tough time in La Paz ! I’d never consider altitude sickness as I’m pretty healthy… so I probably wouldn’t have taken warnings seriously. Feeling out of breath when you walk a few steps is common when it comes to altitude changes. I got it only once at the altiplano in Bolivia. For sure, the altitude sickness is a whole other thing !

  6. inlocamotion on

    Wow, thanks for sharing this information, and I’m sorry to hear that you had a tough time in La Paz! I’ve never made it quiiite that high before – probably Bogota has been the highest-altitude city that I’ve visited, and I only had issues when I went up to Monserrate (which was only for a few hours one day). Thanks for the tips, and hopefully the next time you’re in a high-altitude city you’ll adjust easier (and know how to take care of yourself if you don’t!). Safe travels 🙂

  7. GIRL! This isn’t just an embarrassing story, it’s REALLY dangerous! You were so lucky. If you have altitude sickness and move around too much, you risk High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) which is when your brain swells with fluid and you DIE. It’s not something to play with! We traveled around South America for 6 months last year and more often than not found ourselves hit with acclimatization challenges in high-altitude places like Quito, Bogota, Cusco, etc which are all lower than La Paz (about 10k feet versus La Paz’s 13k). Feeling out of breath when you walk a few steps is common when it comes to altitude changes – actual altitude sickness is a whole other thing. I got it only once, when we ascended from the beach to a town at 12k feet called Huaraz in Peru on an overnight bus. I couldn’t walk, I could barely move. The world wouldn’t stop spinning for 2 days. And we were on Diamox the entire time – that’s not something that should be suggested/optional! You MUST take altitude sickness prevention pills if you’re going to be heading into high altitude areas. You were insanely lucky. But if you’ve ever had altitude sickness, you’re now more common to get it in the future. Please get yourself a Diamox prescription and stay safe next time!

    • Laura - No Shoes Today on

      Oh wow I had no idea! Literally no one I met there was on altitude sickness tablets and most of them were fine. It was only me who was finding it tough for what ever reason! I’ll definitely get myself some tablets if I knew I was going somewhere like that again though. Thank you for the warning! No one ever mentioned that to me back the !

  8. I feel you, although iI haven’t experience it at that scale… I got sick from the altitude in Bogotá but my symptoms were different. I was simply feeling as I was drunk almost all the time, as my head was spinning. Lol But people were also selling coca tea and I bought a box to bring home, didn’t knew it was to help heal the sickness. I was so scary when passing the security on the airports because of it hahaha

  9. I’ve heard about altitude sickness and have always been hesitant to visit places where I might be a victim to it. But you’re tips are great!! Especially the anti sickness pills, didn’t even know these existed. Great tips!

  10. These tips are lifesaving! I’ve been avoiding going to Bolivia and other parts of South-America because I’m afraid of altitude sickness… I even got lightheaded in Bryce Canyon USA so I avoided it 🙂

  11. WhenTwoWander on

    We’re going to La Paz in October and kinda freaking out about altitude sickness. Like you, I don’t suffer from anything and am generally a healthy person… I’m dreading feeling too exhausted to explore the city!

  12. I feel you! Altitude symptoms cost me Mt Kilimanjaro… I could feel it from 4.000m but gave up at 5.000m – i just felt too terrible to push on… Never been to La Paz, but I’ll keep it in mind! I’d love to go hiking in South America!

    • Laura - No Shoes Today on

      Well done for making it that far! How was climbing Kilimanjaro? I would love to do that one day but yeah, I would definitely have to train looooaaads for it.

  13. I just returned from South America myself and honestly I underestimated altitude sickness too! I was a wreck for the first week when I was there 🙁 Wish I knew about the tips beforehand though, but great write up!

    • Laura - No Shoes Today on

      Oh no! It’s just the worst feeling isn’t it? Hope you were able to still explore though

  14. Thanks for these useful tips! I always wanted to go in South America and I heard about altitude sickness for some higher cities. I thought the only solution was to take meds, but I’m glad to see there are other alternatives. Great post by the way, I love the personnal and honnest details you wrote about your experience!

    • Laura - No Shoes Today on

      Thank you for your kind words! South America is amazing to visit if you can! Just watch out for the altitude haha

  15. Wow, I’d never consider altitude sickness either! I’m pretty healthy, so I probably wouldn’t have taken warnings seriously. I’m usually pretty bad at remembering to hydrate until I am thirsty. These are great tips!

    • Laura - No Shoes Today on

      I know it hit me so hard! La Paz is still an amazing place though, but it’s tougher than I thought haha

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