Since my last post about stepping into the unknown of altitude in Bolivia, I have explored the Salar de Uyuni, spent 24 hours in Bolivia’s capital city La Paz and travelled to the former Incan capital of Cuzco – all of which are 3,400m or above. In this post, I have broken down my experience with altitude and myasthenia gravis into a daily diary covering the first seven days.
Landing at 4,100m in the La Paz airport, the highest international airport in the world, was a shock to the system. We had a day to spend there before our evening flight to Uyuni and considered getting a taxi to the lower city centre (3,660m) to make life a little bit easier. But on arrival, we found a hotel in the airport where you could pay by the hour… at this height, to conserve energy.
Observing my symptoms closely, I noticed that first came a flush to my cheeks and my skin stared tingling. This was followed by a slight tremor of the heart as if it was shaking with uncertainty and then a burst blood vessel in my eye. Next, the delight of an upset stomach. While all this was happening, we were having a Netflix binge while lying sprawled in the hotel room.
After 8 hours at that height, I was feeling rather spaced but nothing else more serious than the symptoms above. I could feel my circulation working a bit slower than normal as my hands and toes were cold and my lips had turned a strange purple shade.
My appetite had disappeared but we had read that you should make yourself eat as your body works harder than normal at altitude. After some chicken salad, I felt a sudden energy boost – a pattern of eating and feeling better that continued for the next few days.
The flight to Uyuni gave us a break due to the normal oxygen levels on planes. Once back on steady land, we were at the slightly lower altitude of 3,600m.
During a broken but not terrible night’s sleep, I felt my heart working harder than it normally would so I had to lie on my right side. I woke to find my face puffy and my pupils huge. My body was tired but not weak -I was hungry and I woke up with a thirst as if I had been smoking and drinking all night.
We allowed ourselves to have a day of rest to acclimitatise. This meant barely leaving the hotel and walking everywhere very slowly. After breakfast I felt better although my lips were still purple tinged.
While we lounged about the hotel reading, the fires were roaring but I couldn’t get warm. Putting on all the extra layers I had didn’t really help as it felt like it was coldness coming from the inside out. The hotel had a sauna and jacuzzi but I didn’t want to risk the extra pressure of heat on my body, so I had regular hot chocolates (caffeine and alcohol were advised against).
By 9pm I couldn’t keep my eyes open and passed into a coma-like sleep.
I slept like a log and woke up feeling nearly normal although my face was still a bit puffy and my lips still had a purple tinge.
After another relaxed morning and a FaceTime with some friends (which would have tired us out the day before), we went for a tour into the Salar De Uyuni.
Walking very slowly between the stalls in Colchani, between the Dakar monument to the salt hotel and then posing for lots of silly photos (see below) tired me out, but it was totally worth it. I found myself slightly breathless after doing a yoga pose, but thankfully I was able to catch my breath quickly.
We spent the last hour and a half having a picnic watching the sunset and taking our first taste of alcohol since arriving in altitude. My body told me clearly ‘don’t overdo it’ so I kept it to a small glass simply to enjoy with the best sunset I have ever witnessed.
After another good night’s sleep – deep and restful but with some crazy dreams in the morning – we flew back to La Paz.
Instantly on arriving back at 4,100m I felt the thinner air and the pollution speed up my breathing and heart rate. As we slowly descended with the taxi into the incredible city, which is in a valley surrounded by the huge mountains of the Andes, I felt myself relax.
For the first time since arriving in altitude, we did lots of walking (close to 14,000 steps) and because of how the city is laid out, we had to walk up a lot of hills. However we took our time and didn’t have any problems.
Saying that, I got a headache and my ears were popping like crazy when we took the teleferico back up over 4,000m but we didn’t hang about long at the top. That sudden headache reminded me how much difference 500m can make.
We flew to Cuzco, Peru, which is at the slightly lower altitude of 3,300m. I expected to find it easier to breathe right away after being back at 4,100m in La Paz airport. My breathing felt smoother inside the airport although the pollution of the city was quite bad. After a rubbish night sleep in La Paz due to a dusty, creaky room and probably eating too much too late, I felt a bit ropey and after eating my first meal in Cuzco felt thoroughly poisoned.
That meant being unable to do anything after 6.30pm so the first night in Peru was wasted and I was up with an upset stomach through the night.
After another rubbish sleep, I was awake early and did what I probably shouldn’t have – caffeinated the problem away. This gave me a false sense of energy and the tiredness at altitude felt like a distant memory.
We spent the morning and early afternoon organising activities for the rest of our time and then visiting some of the city’s attractions. Unlike anywhere else we’ve been in South America, except Ipanema Beach in Rio, the people of Cuzco relentlessly try to sell tourists stuff. Once we politely said no to our 14th massage, 20th restaurant, 37th hat and 42nd selfie stick, we were drained and found a quiet bar for respite. The peace of the bar was so nice that we couldn’t resist a second drink and then having tapas for dinner would have been a crime without a glass of wine.
So basically Cuzco was where my caffeine and alcohol consumption went back to normal. You’re really encouraged not to drink at altitude – because it’s a depressant and because you’re already dehydrated. So after initially passing out, I woke up with a racing heart in the middle of the night.
When the alarm went off at 6am for our first trip out of Cuzco I had slept on and off but didn’t feel rested. Thanks alcohol!
As a result, by the time we got to our first stop – a lake in the town of Chincerro at 3,700m I was out of breath and felt very weak. The stairs to the first Incan settlement in the same town were a real struggle. Each one feeling like a mountain – similar to how I feel on really bad fatigue days.
As we moved down into the Sacred Valley, things got easier – although climbing the stairs at Ollantaytambo was still a challenge that required a pause halfway. By the end of a full day in Pisaq, a settlement around 3,500m, I felt thoroughly exhausted and was not looking forward to the 4am alarm clock for Machu Picchu the next morning.
In reality, the wake up was tough but our eighth day was much easier as Machu Picchu is around 2,500m above sea level. As a result, I was able to bound around the mysterious ruins, while other people were walking around grey-faced, looking as if they could be sick at any time.
This feeling of having all the energy in the world is common when you come down from altitude and so I’m looking forward to how amazing I will feel when we reach Lima, the final stop of our trip.
We have now managed to spend 10 days at altitude without any real problems and without having to take any special medications.
I have managed a tough yoga class, a lot of walking and have climbed thousands of Incan-built stairs.
I think the following made my first extended period at altitude easier:
- taking the time to acclimatise properly by having two full days of relaxation
- not drinking alcohol or caffeine for the first three days
- eating light meals
- allowing ourselves to go to bed early and not overdoing it
Now that I have seen how my body reacts to altitude, I would be less nervous about going above 3,000m again. Saying that, I won’t take it for granted and will definitely take the same precautions and have a back-up plan in case I react differently next time as altitude, like myasthenia gravis, is unpredictable.