A long time ago I moved from sea level to Denver, Colorado. People said I would suffer from altitude sickness. I never did. So when I was preparing for my trip to Bolivia, I basically decided that I was immune to altitude sickness. Not only will I say that this was and is patently untrue, I will say that everyone else I traveled with suffered from the same symptoms. You see, Denver is about 5,200 feet above sea level. Bolivia is about 12,000 feet above sea level. That is a serious double altitude sickness punch right in your abdomen.
To say the terrible effects of altitude sickness are understated is an understatement. I look back on the time I spent in the Bolivian Uyuni Salt Flats. It is on my list of top travel experiences. But I spent an entire day of that trip feeling like I would die because I was suffering from altitude sickness.
Here is the thing, altitude sickness boils down to “emergency get me to a bathroom now diarrhea” cramps combined with “I need-to-vomit immediately” cramps, plus a full body ache and a lot of wishing for the relief of sweet, sweet death. It’s that bad. The cramps are not solved via evacuation, either. No way, you won’t be able to “go” in order to make yourself feel better.
When altitude sickness was being explained to me I was told I might have a headaches and maybe some shortness of breath. It didn’t sound too serious. Actually, it sounds pretty mild, lame and stupid. I wasn’t afraid to travel Bolivia alone… so a possible headache didn’t even begin to register my concern.
Headache and shortness of breath? That was a lie. If I actually did suffer from those symptoms I didn’t know it because I was doubled over in pain just hoping to vomit.
Should I use Diamox for Altitude Sickness?
The awesome cure for altitude sickness offered by travel experts and books is to just “take it easy”. In Bolivia the solution is to drink coca tea- but in Bolivia coca tea is used to treat or prevent everything from cancer to tooth decay. (Also, I did drink it and it didn’t cure my altitude sickness.) I would have taken arsenic if someone told me it might help with the altitude sickness. But those were the only solutions being offered.
The problem is that I had an itinerary and “taking it easy” just wasn’t on it.
I described these altitude sickness problems to a medical professional before I went to Back to Latin America to visit Peru. And bingo! I scored a prescription for Diamox! Now, when you are on your way to Coca Leaf Country that does not sound too exciting… unless you’ve ever begged a tour guide to leave you for dead in a Bolivian salt desert. Then it makes sense.
No one offered me Diamox even while I was being prescribed malaria pills and getting inoculated for yellow fever. You will probably have to ask your doctor for it and he may be reluctant to prescribe it for off label use.
On my trip to Per I sympathized as several people fell ill. One person in my group even missed going to Machu Picchu because of altitude sickness. You do not want to go to Peru and miss Machu Picchu, that would be so embarrassing. Forget Malaria pills and iodine tablets, get your hands on some Diamox!