Symptoms can affect even very athletic visitors



julia dimon for metro toronto


Overlooking Lake Titicaca, journalist Julia Dimon takes a moment to catch her breath. Altitude sickness can effect even the healthiest, most athletic and well-travelled of visitors.


Pounding headaches, shortness of breath, nausea and fatigue — altitude sickness sucks. At some 3,600 metres, the Bolivian capital city of La Paz can pose a real challenge to travellers who are prone to altitude sickness.

I never thought a visit to the world’s highest capital city would affect me. Bah, I thought to myself. I’ve hiked the Machu Picchu trail, I’m in pretty good shape, I’ll be just fine.

Well, flash forward to me climbing through the streets of La Paz. A few minutes’ walk up a mild incline and my chest is heaving, my heart is pounding. I feel like I might collapse in the middle of a busy downtown intersection. Between huffing, puffing and fears of cardiac arrest, I manage to whisper, “Damn altitude.”

Altitude sickness is something that can effect even the healthiest, most athletic and well-travelled of visitors. It happens when the body goes too high, too quickly. As altitude increases and oxygen decreases, your body has to work harder to adjust. It’s an issue in high-altitude destinations like Peru, Bolivia and parts of Nepal.

When trying to sightsee, altitude sickness isn’t debilitating but it can be a real inconvenience. I feel weak, I’m constantly thirsty and have lost my appetite. When I do eat, my stomach reacts angrily. My fingertips are tingly, my head is throbbing and all I want to do is lie in bed, curl up and watch TV.

But duty calls: I have stories to research, people to interview and articles to write. Can’t come all the way to Bolivia and stay in bed, right?

I head out on the town, slowly making my way through cobblestone streets. Drained and exhausted, I miss the ease of sea level; those days when I could walk a block and not collapse. Elevation has never been a consideration before but, up here, it dominates my world.

When dealing with altitude sickness, experts say to take it easy for the first few days. It’s a good idea to schedule in gradual acclimatization (i.e. spending a few days at altitude) to let your body adjust slowly. No booze, no cigarettes, no extreme physical activity. Lots of water, small meals and cups of coca leaf tea. Coca leaf tea is my drink of choice here in Bolivia. Made from the notorious and misunderstood coca leaf, a cup of steaming coca tea is one of the best ways to prevent and treat the symptoms of altitude sickness.

Though coca leaves are the raw material used to make cocaine (the leaves go through a lot of processing), the leaf itself isn’t addictive or dangerous. Used throughout history, this mild stimulant has a long list of medicinal properties. Chewing the leaves or steaming them in water, are two tried-and-true natural alternatives to combat altitude sickness. So I pour another cup. Sip slowly and let the coca soothe my weakened body. Fingers crossed that I’ll acclimatize quickly, so I can hit the streets of La Paz without the pounding headaches.

Julia Dimon is editor of The Travel Junkie, an online magazine for independent travellers. She can be reached at

julia’s tips

  • If you experience the symptoms of altitude sickness, treat them the natural way: Sip coca leaf tea, drink lots of water and rest. I like to avoid taking medication whenever possible.

  • Though legal throughout the Andes, coca leaf products (such as tea, cream or loose leaves) aren’t well-received by Canadian customs officials. Look for coca leaf products that are packaged and have an “importing safe” sticker.