If you are planning a trip to Peru or Bolivia, one thing you ought to prepare yourself for is the issue of altitude sickness. The Andean region of Peru and the central to eastern area of Bolivia is surprisingly high up and may come as a shock to the system for travelers who have never experienced this phenomena. This part of South America, running from Cusco to Lake Titicaca and into Bolivia, including the capital city La Paz, is known as the Altiplano. It comprises a somewhat flattened plain high up in the Andes mountains and is located at something like 3500-4000m above sea level.
There are mountains that are considerably higher than that, but cities such as La Paz, Puno, on the banks of Lake Titicaca and Cuzco are all positioned at between 3500-4000m, so there is no doubt that altitude sickness caused by the thin air can present itself as a serious issue for many travelers. The oxygen content of the air at these heights is said to be around 40% lower than at sea level, the results of which can be quite noticeable as one might imagine.
There is a difference between suffering from the effects of thin air and actual altitude sickness. Anyone who arrives at these altitudes for the first time will certainly notice the effects, without necessarily getting sick. Walking around and engaging in normal activities is considerably more difficult and running is almost impossible, except for those who are already in well above average physical condition. You’ll notice that after a day of tourism, walking around or exploring etc, you’ll be pretty wiped out and ready to sleep early. But none of this is a major issue and something most people are able to adjust to within a few days.
The best way to go about this is, of course, to acclimatize in stages, rather going straight from sea level to high altitudes. Ideally you would spend a few days at an intermediate level, but this is not always possible and many travelers step straight off the plane in Cusco or La Paz for example, and are often in for a bit of shock.
The good thing is, that there always remedies on hand such as the famous Coca leaf. These leaves are an integral part of life on the Altiplano and are available everywhere. They look similar to dry bay leaves and are usually sold in small bags. Locals tend to chew the leaves with a type of sweetener or the other alternative is to make a delicious infusion, which you’ll also find is available all over the place in small cafes and restaurants and so on. The effect of the leaves is to take the edge off some of the altitude symptoms, such as dizziness and shortness of breath leaves one feeling much more relaxed.
The worst case scenario is actual altitude sickness which fortunately only a very small number suffer from. This can involve inability to sleep, diarrhea, vomiting, dizziness and headaches and can last several days to possibly a week. In this case the options are to simply tough it out and wait for the body to adjust or if this is not an option, it may be necessary to take oxygen, which is often available in hotels or in local medical clinics. If the situation becomes intolerable or dangerous, there is no other option but to drop back down to a more manageable altitude as soon as possible. Everyone reacts differently, but it can happen that those arriving at these altitudes for the first time, simply can’t handle it and literally get on the next plane or bus back to where they came from!